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'Paul Revere’s Ride'
By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1861


One, if by land, and two, if by sea may be the most familiar passage in American poetry. The line “The fate of a nation was riding that night” offers one of the most perfect, thrilling metaphors of any poem ever. Longfellow knew what he was doing. By reading his tribute to Paul Revere (especially reading it aloud, preferably with children present) we can connect directly, emotionally, in a spine-tingling way, to the excitement, hope, and fear that swept through the American Colonies in the spring of 1775. Not bad, that.

Longfellow (1807-82) wrote many history poems, doing as much as any figure of the 19th century to shape the way America viewed its past – “the words, images, myths, and heroes by which the nation understood its roots,” writes poet and critic Dana Gioia. His efforts are comparable, perhaps, to how Hollywood today shapes our view of the Second World War through such films as “Patton” and “Saving Private Ryan”; comparable also to how Shakespeare affects our grasp of English history in the 1400s.

As any number of commentators have noted, Longfellow's rendering of history is incomplete in this poem - Revere was not the only rider during the night of April 18-19, 1775. Dana Gioia notes that Longfellow was “not interested in scholarly precision.” (Again, the Hollywood parallel holds true - filmmakers often simplify complex historical events in pursuit of an understandable story line and economy of length. These alterations and condensations are labeled "goofs" by IMDb.com but that's not exactly the right word.)

Longfellow, writes Gioia, sought to provide his huge readership with “forceful clarity, evocative simplicity, emotional directness, and a genius for memorable (indeed often unforgettable) phrasing." He "understood the powerful appeal of the single heroic individual who fights oppression and makes a decisive impact”; he wished to convert a complicated historical incident into a “stirring patriotic myth” that would encourage the nation to embrace the ideals of the founders and gird itself to fight slavery. (Longfellow wrote the poem in 1860 and first published it in January, 1861, in The Atlantic Monthly.)

Historian Paul Johnson offers perspective on Longfellow in “A History of the American People” (1997):

Washington Irving attained success by culture-cringing and getting a condescending nod of approval from the English literary elite. Emerson played the anti-English card and went all out to reflect the basic American ethos. But the first writer who managed to appeal equally both to simple American hearts and to the sophisticated audience of the entire English-speaking world was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow....Longfellow’s poems flowed from his pen in steady and stately succession, and his unique gift for resonant lines allowed him to enter into the minds and hearts, and stay in the memories, of the middle class on both sides of the Atlantic.

A good book on the actual Paul Revere is “Paul Revere’s Ride” by historian David Hackett Fischer (1994). - B.F.

*

Listen, my children, and you shall hear

Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,

On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;

Hardly a man is now alive

Who remembers that famous day and year.

 

He said to his friend, “If the British march

By land or sea from the town tonight,

Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch

Of the North Church tower as a signallight,-

One, if by land, and two, if by sea;

And I on the opposite shore will be,

Ready to ride and spread the alarm

Through every Middlesex village and farm,

For the country folk to be up and to arm.”

 

Then he said, “Good night!” and with muffled oar

Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,

Just as the moon rose over the bay,

Where swinging wide at her moorings lay

The Somerset, British man-of-war;

A phantom ship, with each mast and spar

Across the moon like a prison bar,

And a huge black hulk, that was magnified

By its own reflection in the tide.

 

Meanwhile, his friend through alley and street

Wanders and watches, with eager ears,

Till in the silence around him he hears

The muster of men at the barrack door,

The sound of arms, and the tramp of feet,

And the measured tread of the grenadiers

Marching down to their boats on the shore.

 

Then he climbed the tower of the Old North Church,

By the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,

To the belfry-chamber overhead,

And startled the pigeons from their perch

On the sombre rafters, that round him made

Masses and moving shapes of shade,-

By the trembling ladder, steep and tall,

To the highest window in the wall,

Where he paused to listen and look down

A moment on the roofs of the town

And the moonlight flowing over all.

 

Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead,

In their night-encampment on the hill,

Wrapped in silence so deep and still

That he could hear, like a sentinel’s tread,

The watchful night-wind, as it went

Creeping along from tent to tent,

And seeming to whisper, “All is well!”

A moment only he feels the spell

Of the place and the hour, and the secret dread

Of the lonely belfry and the dead;

For suddenly all his thoughts are bent

On a shadowy something far away,

Where the river widens to meet the bay,-

A line of black that bends and floats

On the rising tide, like a bridge of boats.

 

Meanwhile, impatient to mount and ride,

Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride

On the opposite shore walked Paul Revere.

Now he patted his horse’s side,

Now gazed at the landscape far and near,

Then, impetuous, stamped the earth,

And turned and tightened his saddle girth;

But mostly he watched with eager search

The belfry’s tower of the Old North Church,

As it rose above the graves on the hill.

 

Lonely and spectral and sombre and still.

And lo! as he looks, on the belfry height

A glimmer, and then a gleam of light!

He springs to the saddle, the bridle he turns,

But lingers and gazes, till full on his sight

A second lamp in the belfry burns!

 

A hurry of hoofs in a village street,

A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,

And beneath, from the pebbles, in passing, a spark

Struck out by a steed flying fearless and fleet;

That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,

The fate of a nation was riding that night;

And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,

Kindled the land into flame with its heat.

He has left the village and mounted the steep,

And beneath him, tranquil and broad and deep,

Is the Mystic, meeting the ocean tides;

And under the alders that skirt its edge,

Now soft on the sand, now loud on the ledge,

Is heard the tramp of his steed as he rides.

 

It was twelve by the village clock,

When he crossed the bridge into Medford town.

He heard the crowing of the cock,

And the barking of the farmer’s dog,

And he felt the damp of the river fog,

That rises after the sun goes down.

 

It was one by the village clock,

When he galloped into Lexington.

He saw the gilded weathercock

Swim in the moonlight as he passed,

And the meeting-house windows, blank and bare,

Gaze at him with a spectral glare,

As if they already stood aghast

At the bloody work they would look upon.

 

It was two by the village clock,

When he came to the bridge in Concord town.

He heard the bleating of the flock,

And the twitter of birds among the trees,

And felt the breath of the morning breeze

Blowing over the meadows brown.

And one was safe and asleep in his bed

Who at the bridge would be first to fall,

Who that day would lying dead,

Pierced by a British musket-ball.

 

You know the rest. In books you have read,

How the British Regulars fired and fled,-

How the farmers gave them ball for ball,

From behind each fence and farmyard wall,

Chasing the redcoats down the lane,

Then crossing the fields to emerge again

Under the trees at the turn of the road,

And only pausing to fire and load.

So through the night rode Paul Revere;

And so through the night went his cry of alarm

To every Middlesex village and farm,-

A cry of defiance, and not of fear,

A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,

And a word that shall echo for evermore!

For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,

Through all our history, to the last,

In the hour of darkness and peril and need,

The people will waken and listen to hear

The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,

And the midnight message of Paul Revere.

-The End-

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