Paul Revere’s Ride
Paul Revere’s Ride
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 1863
First published in 1863, “Paul Revere’s Ride” recounts the events of April 18, 1775, when Revere made his famous midnight ride to warn the rebel American colonists that the British army was advancing. The poem was originally published as part of Tales of a Wayside Inn, a series of narrative poems told by the different characters staying at a New England inn. “Paul Revere’s Ride”—the first tale in the book—is narrated by the landlord. For the most part, Longfellow adheres to the historical facts surrounding Revere’s ride, although he does make some notable changes. Longfellow’s poem suggests that Revere was the only midnight messenger; but, in fact, two other men, William Dawes and Samuel Prescott, also rode that night, although they took different routes. Longfellow’s aim, however, was not merely to offer a history lesson, but to highlight the role of an American hero. Longfellow was attempting to turn Revere into a legend, a symbol of the greatness of America’s past. That Longfellow succeeded in doing so is attested by the immense popularity of this poem. More than a few schoolchildren have memorized “Paul Revere’s Ride,” and for most Americans, the historical Paul Revere is literally indistinguishable from Longfellow’s mythologized creation.
Although “Paul Revere’s Ride” is primarily about an American hero, it is also worth noting that the poem plays upon one of Longfellow’s favorite themes: the passage of time. With its fast pace, its highly compressed action (all of the events of the poem take place in one night), and its constant references
to the clock, the poem reminds us that time is indeed passing quickly.
A remarkably well-educated and well-travelled man, Longfellow was born in 1807 and raised in Portland, Maine. Stephen Longfellow, the poet’s father, was a successful Portland lawyer and politician, a member of the Eighteenth Congress of the United States, and a trustee of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, where Henry went in 1822, at the age of fifteen. Longfellow’s mother, Zilpah Wadsworth Longfellow, was highly intelligent, devoutly religious, and a lover of books and culture. Longfellow grew up learning the piano and the flute, and reading the poetry of Oliver Goldsmith, William Cowper, Thomas Gray, and Sir Walter Scott. As a student at Bowdoin, Longfellow pursued his literary ambitions with his mother’s encouragement. He published his poems and essays in such places as American Monthly Magazine and the United States Literary Gazette. Before his graduation in 1825, the college trustees offered Longfellow a professorship of modern languages, provided he first prepare himself for the post by travelling in Europe. From 1825 to 1828 he travelled and studied in France, Germany, Spain, and Italy, trying to master the languages while immersing himself in as many exotic settings as he could. This journey particularly contributed to his future life and work, evidenced in a unique blend of both American and foreign influences in his later work. Longfellow had an ear for languages and he succeeded in acquiring considerable competency in several.
Longfellow returned to Bowdoin College in 1829 to assume his teaching post. Following his marriage to Mary Storer Potter in 1831, he published a book of travel sketches titled Outre-mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea (1833-34). In 1834 Longfellow was appointed to the Smith professorship of French and Spanish at Harvard and was given the opportunity to study in Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Holland in preparation for his new post. In November of 1835 Longfellow and his wife were in Rotterdam when she suffered a miscarriage and died from resulting complications.
Longfellow made his debut as a professional poet at age thirty-two with Voices of the Night (1839), a collection that contains such poems as “A Psalm of Life” and “The Light of the Stars.” During the same year he published Hyperion, a romantic novel drawing heavily upon his European experience and his grief over Mary’s death. In 1842 Longfellow took a leave of absence from Harvard and travelled to Europe for a third time. Upon his return to Cambridge the following year, Longfellow married Frances Appleton, the daughter of a wealthy Boston merchant. The marriage lasted until her death in 1861. Despite his teaching obligations Longfellow wrote a novel, Kavanagh, and a verse drama, The Golden Legend, and raised six children. Shortly after his retirement from Harvard in 1854, Longfellow wrote the epic The Song of Hiawatha. At the time of his death in 1882, Longfellow was known as a conspicuous force in literature, using his writings and teachings to make American readers aware of the cultural traditions of the Old World in the middle of the nineteenth century.
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 signal light,—
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
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-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’s 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
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 felt the damp of the river fog
That rises after the sun goes down.
It was one by me 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. …