Paul Revere’s Ride

views updated

Paul Revere’s Ride

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 1863

Author Biography

Poem Text

Poem Summary



Historical Context

Critical Overview



For Further Study

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.

Author Biography

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.

Poem Text

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.
And one was safe and asleep in his bed
Who at the bridge would be first to fall,
Who that day would be lying dead,
Pierced by a British musket-ball.

You know the rest. In the books you have read,
How the British Regulars fired and fled,—
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farm-yard wall,
Chasing the red-coats down the lane
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 forevermore!
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.

Poem Summary

Lines 1-2

The opening stanza (along with the last stanza) forms a narrative frame for the poem as a whole. The opening stanza, which takes place in the present, and the closing stanza, which directs our attention to the future, frame or surround the body of the poem, which takes place in the past. In these opening lines, the narrator—the landlord of the wayside inn—invites his guests to hear the story of Paul Revere. These lines, moreover, are also addressed to the reader: we, along with the guests at the inn, are being invited into the world of colonial America. The landlord’s use of the phrase “my children” suggests that he is much older than his audience. Note, too, his imperative tone: his command that we “listen” suggests that the landlord is accustomed to giving orders. He is an authority figure—and as such, we can believe the story he is about to tell.

Line 3

That is, in 1775.

Lines 4-5

“Paul Revere’s Ride” was published in 1863, 88 years after the events recounted in the poem, so indeed, very few people who could remember that time would still be alive. We are, however, encouraged to wonder if perhaps the venerable narrator himself might be able to recall the events of 1775. By emphasizing the historical distance of these events, moreover, Longfellow suggests from the outset that we are dealing with the stuff of legend.

Lines 6-10

This stanza begins the heart of the narrative. “He” is Paul Revere; “his friend” is Robert Newnam, the young man who would hang the signal lights from the Old North Church tower. (Notice, however, Longfellow never gives us Newnam’s name: throughout the poem, the only figure to be mentioned by name is Revere himself.) Longfellow immediately draws us into the story by beginning in medias res, in the middle of the action. Longfellow assumes we know the background information: earlier that April, the British forces had received secret orders to advance from Boston to Concord, a town about 20 miles northwest of Boston, in order to seize the weapons and ammunition that the rebels had stockpiled there. The British were also supposed to capture the rebel leaders, John Hancock and Samuel Adams, who were in Lexington, a town on the road to Concord. Although word had leaked out that the British would mobilize on the night of April 18, it was unclear whether they would move by land or sea. That night, then, the colonists arranged for a signal light to be shone from the Old North Church tower indicating how the British were moving.

Line 7

The town referred to in this line is Boston.

Lines 11-12

“The opposite shore” is Charleston, which was across the Charles River from Boston. The poem, then, suggests that Revere would already be outside of Boston, awaiting the signal. In fact, however, it was Revere himself who brought word to Newnam that the British were moving by water. After speaking to Newnam, Revere left Boston and began his ride. Newnam’s signal light was actually intended for Dawes, the other messenger who spread the alarm that night. Longfellow has effectively combined the roles of Revere and Dawes; by making Revere the only messenger, Longfellow emphasizes his heroic stature.

Lines 13-14

Middlesex is the county outside of Boston which contains the towns of Lexington and Concord.

Lines 15-16

Revere did row across the Charles River to Charleston, where he was provided with a horse. Here, again, Longfellow highlights Revere’s heroism by depicting him acting alone.

Lines 17-19

These lines depict the British ship, the Somerset, which lay at the mouth of the Charles. The ship, which is portrayed as massive and foreboding, symbolizes the immense power of the British forces. Longfellow takes an entire line to introduce her name: just as she stands dauntingly alone in the bay, she stands alone in line 19.

Lines 20-23

Note the images that Longfellow employs in describing the ship. By calling the Somerset a “phantom ship,” Longfellow emphasizes its ghostly, deathlike—and potentially death-bringing—presence. The silhouette of its masts against the moon is reminiscent of prison bars—another reminder of the dangers awaiting Revere. Note, however, that the term “phantom” actually describes a dream image: Longfellow is perhaps hinting here that although the British forces might have seemed massive and daunting, in the end their power was illusory or dream-like—especially in comparison to the eventual strength of the American rebels.

Lines 24-30

In these lines, Longfellow turns our attention back to Newnam, who is apparently spying on the British to determine whether they will advance by land or sea. (See the note, however, for lines 11-12: it was actually Revere who brought Newnam word that the British were moving by sea.) Longfellow’s technique here is almost cinematic, as he cuts abruptly from one scene (Revere crossing the river) to another (Newnam spying on the British). Notice the aural quality of this stanza. We, along with Newnam, must strain our ears to hear in the dark. Against this backdrop of silence, we can almost hear the sudden sound of marching feet.

Lines 31-33

After seeing the British soldiers moving toward the Charles, Newnam returns to the church to place a signal in the tower. Longfellow maintains the tone of urgent silence in these lines as he depicts Newnam climbing up the stairs with “stealthy tread”—with as quiet a footstep as he can manage.

Lines 34-46

The atmosphere becomes eerie as Newnam accidentally awakens the pigeons: as they move about on the rafters in the dark, they are almost unrecognizable. The term “shade,” sometimes refers to ghosts or spirits, and there is a sense here that Newnam is perhaps moving into forbidden, deathly territory.

Lines 37-41

Having reached the top of the stairs, Newnam ascends even higher, using a ladder so that he can get to the top-most window. From this window, he can look down over the city of Boston. As Newnam pauses (line 39), the poem itself also seems to pause. The pace slows, and the atmosphere becomes less charged. Although up to this point we, along with Newnam, have been in the dark, suddenly the moonlight illumines the scene. Recall that in line 21 the moon served as the ghastly backdrop for the “prison bar” silhouette of the masts of the Somerset; here, however, the moon appears benevolent, as it gently bathes the city of Boston in light. It is almost as though the forces of nature itself are tenderly encouraging and sustaining the colonists.

Lines 42-43

In this stanza, Longfellow brings us even further into the past as he reminds us of the earliest settlers. The moonlight illuminates the graveyard adjacent to the church, and Newnam can see the headstones, beneath which are buried the colonists’ ancestors. The term “night-encampment,” however, seems odd in this context. Ordinarily, it would apply to a temporary campsight—usually for an army. Longfellow is suggesting, then, that the souls of the dead themselves constitute an army of sorts; a force that will support and sustain the rebels in the impending war.

Lines 44-48

In these lines, Longfellow develops the military imagery. He personifies the wind, comparing it to a sentinel or guard. In this simile, the headstones themselves are figured forth as the “tents” which the wind is guarding. At first, the wind’s words of comfort—“All is well”—appear to be addressed to the headstones. They might equally be directed, however, to the living army of rebel soldiers who are about to fight. Longfellow is again suggesting, then, that nature itself is protecting and encouraging the American soldiers.

Lines 49-51

We are abruptly brought back from the distant past as Longfellow reminds us that Newnam’s thoughts about the graveyard have lasted only a moment. Longfellow also reminds us that if nature is protecting the American soldiers, the threat of death, that “secret dread,” still remains.

Lines 52-56

At this point, Longfellow abandons the slow pace he had employed in describing the graveyard. As Newnam sees the British soldiers boarding the Somerset the tone of the poem once again becomes urgent. Even as the tide rises (which will enable the British to sail up the river), the tension mounts in the verse itself. Note the use of alliteration in these lines: the staccato or short, distinct repetition of the consonants “b” and “t” adds to this sense of tension. The “line of black” boats moving across the Charles is suggestive of a snake, hinting at the sinister nature of the British forces.

Lines 57-59

As you read this stanza (lines 57-72), notice how throughout it Longfellow directs our gaze. He begins the stanza with another bold “cinematic” gesture, cutting back from Newnam in the tower to the main action: Paul Revere waiting for the signal to ride. For the first time in the poem, we can look directly at Paul Revere. Although Longfellow offers us little physical description of the hero, he does tell us that Revere is “impatient”—eager to risk his life for the cause of colonial rights. His “heavy stride” also appears strong and confident.

Lines 60-63

Next, Longfellow invites us to look at the broader scene as Revere waits impatiently for the signal. Note how Longfellow’s diction heightens this sense of impatience. Each of these lines begins with either an adverb or a conjunction: “Now,” “Now,” “Then,” “And,” and (in line 64) “But.” These terse words force us to shift our attention with each new line: as we watch Revere pat his horse, look at the landscape, stamp the earth, and then fiddle with his horse’s saddle, we are as distracted as he is.

Lines 64-67

In these lines, Longfellow directs our attention back to the Old North Church. In spite of his distraction, Revere continues to look for the signal from Newnam. Interestingly, Revere views the same graveyard that Newnam had gazed upon: in fact, he is looking at the graveyard at precisely the same time as Newnam. The major difference here is that Longfellow has reversed the perspective: Newnam looks down from the tower at the graveyard; Revere, however, looks up at both the graveyard and the tower from a distance.

Lines 68-72

Finally, Longfellow directs our attention to the tower window itself. We see that Newnam shines two lanterns, indicating that the British are indeed moving by sea. By gradually narrowing the perspective throughout the stanza—so that by the end of it we are looking only at the two lights in the window—Longfellow has increased the impact of this climactic moment.

Lines 73-78

At this point Longfellow begins his portrayal of Revere’s actual ride. Curiously, however, in this important stanza Longfellow does not refer to Revere himself. Instead, he focuses on the incredible speed of Revere’s horse. The rider of this horse, Longfellow then informs us, is “the fate of a nation.” This phrase means that Revere’s ability to warn the rebels that the British were approaching would determine the outcome not only of the conflicts at Lexington and Concord, but of the entire American Revolution. Revere has become totally identified with his mission. He is no longer simply a man; he is America’s future.

Lines 79-80

On a literal level, the “spark” that is “struck” is the result of the steed’s iron horseshoe striking the cobblestones. On a deeper level, however, Longfellow is suggesting that Paul Revere’s ride effectively ignited the entire American War of Independence.

Lines 81-86

In this stanza, we see Revere leaving Charleston and moving into the Massachusetts countryside. We are suddenly made aware of natural imagery–a river, the ocean, trees, rocks, and sand. Although Revere’s mission is urgent, the natural elements around him are completely at peace.

Line 83

The Mystic is a small river north of Boston.

Lines 87-92

In the following three stanzas, Longfellow reminds us repeatedly of the time. The repetition of the same introductory phrase, in this case, “It was [blank] by the village clock,” is called anaphora. In this stanza, which takes place at midnight, Longfellow depicts Revere passing through Medford, a town just a few miles outside of Boston. These lines suggest Revere’s isolation: he is the only human being awake and about at this hour.

Lines 93-96

One hour later, Revere arrives in Lexington, about 12 miles outside of Boston. We have a sense in this stanza of Revere almost flying through the town, moving so quickly that he catches only glimpses of the scenery, such as a single weather-vane.

Lines 97-100

In these lines, Longfellow personifies the windows of the meeting-house. Ordinarily we would expect to see through windows; these windows, however, themselves possess the ability to see. They seem, moreover, to be able to see into the future—to predict the conflict that will take place in Lexington the following morning, in which the first colonists will be killed. Notice that from this point forward, Longfellow repeatedly turns our attention to future events.

Lines 101-106

The events in this stanza also diverge markedly from historical fact. In actuality, Revere was captured by the British shortly after he left Lexington. Another man, however, Samuel Prescott, was able to get to Concord. Here we again see Longfellow magnifying Revere’s role.

Lines 107-110

These lines again turn our attention to the future, as they remind us of the fate that awaits the American soldiers. Longfellow heightens the pathos of this idea by focusing on the destiny—and death—of a single man.

Line 111

This line marks the end of the narrative. Notice how Longfellow’s use of a caesura after “rest” abruptly brings the tale to a halt and brings us back to the present.

Topics for Further Study

  • This poem was written long after Revere’s ride and captures the exciting legend that most Americans remember having been taught in school. Write a poem similar to this about an event that you would like to see go down in history. Provide a clear distinction between your hero and the enemy. Use rhyming couplets.
  • What effect do you think the rhymes of this poem have on what is being said? Do you think this story would have the same impact if written in paragraph form? Do you think there were some changes made to the details of the story to make the rhyme fit? Where?

Lines 112-118

The rest of the stanza summarizes the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord. Because the American rebels had received advance notice, they were able to resist the British. Longfellow emphasizes the fact that whereas the British army was composed of “regulars,” or paid professionals, the American forces consisted of “farmers,” volunteers who were fighting because of their devotion to the cause.

Lines 125-130

Longfellow uses the final lines of the poem to link the past with the future. He suggests that Revere’s message will continue to inspire Americans to defend the cause of liberty. Note the way in which line 128 “echoes” the first line of the poem. Just as the landlord has asked his guests to “listen” to his story, Longfellow is urging his readers to “listen” to future calls to defend justice and freedom.



Time was a recurring theme in Longfellow’s works, usually expressing a sense of sadness, as in these lines from his poem “A Psalm of Life”: “Art is Long, and Time is fleeting / And our hearts, though stout and brave, / Still, like muffled drums, are beating / Funeral marches to the grave.” In “Paul Revere’s Ride,” the poet does not relate time to grief, but he still uses the concept of time in two separate ways to get his overall point across. First, he tells Revere’s story through the voice of a narrator who is speaking many years after the event. In telling us that “Hardly a man is still alive / Who remembers that famous day and year,” Longfellow accomplishes a dual purpose: first, he identifies it as something that could be remembered, and in doing this, he establishes Revere’s ride as an actual event, but by placing it on the border of memory, he also allows himself the opportunity to turn fact into legend. Actually, there would have been no one alive when Longfellow wrote this poem who would have remembered the event. The second way he uses time in this poem is by constantly reminding the reader of its passing, as the story progresses, in order to increase dramatic tension. Almost anyone who he could expect to read this poem would know in advance what the outcome was, so there was no way to keep readers anxious for the ending. However, he could, and did, make readers concerned about the success of various parts of Revere’s plan. Most stanzas begin with some sort of announcement that time is passing: “then,” “meanwhile,” and, of course, announcing the hours of midnight, one and two o’clock. Within any of these stanzas the reader knows that something might happen that will complicate Revere’s mission. By relating the events to each other in time, Longfellow heightened the reader’s concern about what would happen next.

Good and Evil

In order for this poem to have its intended impact, the British soldiers must be seen by the reader as a nonhuman, irredeemable force of evil, and Paul Revere must be an indisputable force of good. Since the world is not clearly divided along such lines, this requires a little oversimplification on Longfellow’s part. First of all, Revere’s goodness is associated with powerfulness, as if he is able to accomplish extraordinary deeds because the force of goodness is behind him: we see him devise the plan, cross the river, and ride alone from one deserted town to the next. In reality, this was a project that several people participated in, including another rider, but our culture so strongly links virtue with ability that readers are more likely to admire Revere’s goodness if we are told that he was able to achieve beyond normal human ability. Similarly, the British are faceless, dehumanized murderers and cowards. They appear in the sixth stanza as “A line of black that bends and floats,” like a column of ants, and later are referred to, not as people, but as clothes: the “red-coats.” In the same way that Revere’s virtue is proven by his success, the enemy’s failure is linked to their evilness. In the 12th stanza, for instance, we are given a quick sketch of a man who was asleep in his bed, and then, with the innocence of sleep still on him, was shot dead. The poem makes a point of mentioning that it was a British shot that killed him, a fact that was already implied, but is nonetheless pointed out for emotional impact. In the following stanza the British run away, having neither the moral power to fight well nor the moral conviction to fight to the death. The poem equates goodness with strength, which is one of the main factors in its continuing popularity.


The excitement readers feel when reading this poem is effective only for American readers. Readers from other countries, especially Britain, would have no emotional involvement with Paul Revere, and, therefore, the fact that he rode his horse through several towns would be unimpressive. Although Longfellow structured the poem effectively enough as a story, it is not an interesting enough story to travel across cultures. Also, it is not factually correct enough to function as a worthwhile history lesson about the events portrayed. Americans find this tale interesting because it represents the birth of their country, and Longfellow used that interest to get the strongest response out of his intended audience.

One problem with developing a patriotic myth is that the birth of a nation is a long, complex political process, with thousands of significant moments that could each be seen as the moment of conception. There is not much enthusiasm to be stirred up by a long political process. Realizing this, Longfellow gave the story of the night of April 18th a clear focal point: the spark that came off of the horse’s hoof is a specific, concrete image that implies the start of a passionate flame. Longfellow could reach out to the sense of identity of all Americans, across the generations, by giving us all a simplified answer to the question “Where did we come from?”


“Paul Revere’s Ride” is organized into rhymed stanzas of differing lengths. This poem is written in tetrameters, which simply means that each line has four poetic “feet”—a segment of syllables which create a regular pattern of stressesd and unstressed sounds. Most of the lines in this poem are structured using anapests. An anapest is a poetic foot consisting of three syllables, the first two unstressed and the third stressed. Look, for instance, at the third line of the poem. If we scan the line, or identify its stresses, it appears as follows:

On the eigh / teenth of A / pril in Sev / enty-five

Try reading the line aloud: you will notice that it is almost impossible to read it slowly. The triple meter helps to create a fast pace, one suitable to the excitement and tension of the poem’s subject matter. One might even argue that in this poem the anapestic meter mimics the sound of a horse cantering.

Note, however, that Longfellow frequently varies the meter. For instance, he often combines anapests with iambs, poetic feet consisting of one unstressed and one stressed syllable. Consider the seventh line:

By land / or sea / from the town / tonight .

Only the third foot is an anapest; the others are all iambs. If each line of the poem simply used anapests, it would quickly become monotonous. By varying the meter, Longfellow is able to sustain a level of tension throughout the poem.

Historical Context

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lived from 1807 to 1882 and was a poet from the time he was eighteen until the end of his life. This was the age of Romanticism, a time when American literature began to separate from England and establish its own voice and identity. Some of our best-known and most influential writers were active during Longfellow’s time, including Herman Melville, William Cullen Bryant, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne (who was Longfellow’s classmate in college), James Russell Lowell, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and, even though the world did not know of her works until later, Emily Dickinson. Of all of these, Longfellow was the most popular in his time. Times change, however. Today, Emerson and Thoreau are remembered as the key figures in Transcendentalism, an important philosophical movement of the time; Poe’s essays, poems, and stories are interesting examples of Romanticism taken to an extreme; and Dickinson and Whitman are admired for original

Compare & Contrast

  • 1863: After the Battle of Gettysburg, the Union Army of the North began winning the Civil War, which spanned from 1861 to 1865.

    1865-1877: In the aftermath of the Civil War, federal troops occupied the South during the period of Reconstruction. Racial hatred festered and corrupt politicians took control of the important state political offices.

    1976: Jimmy Carter was elected as the first U.S. President from a former Confederate state.

    Today: The South is a base for industrial development and is a controlling force in national politics.

  • 1863: Emily Dickinson is estimated to have written almost 300 poems during this year. (Only seven of her poems were published during her lifetime.)

    Today: Longfellow is remembered for a few interesting poems, but he is seldom the subject of critical analysis. Dickinson is one of the most studied and revered American writers.

  • 1873: The bicycle was invented.

    1892: The first gasoline-powered motor-car was introduced to the American public.

    Today: Automobile technology has improved so much that it has become by far the most common form of transportation, leaving the odier modes to be used primarily for recreation.

  • 1863: President Lincoln signed the Conscription Act, allowing men to be drafted into the army for the first time: previously, all forces had been volunteers. Riots against the draft in New York City cost nearly 1,000 lives, along with widespread burning and looting.

    1917: Congress approved the Selective Service Act, requiring all men between the ages of 21 and 30 to register with the draft board.

    1917-1973: American soldiers were drafted into World War I, World War II, the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam Conflict.

    Today: Americans are still required to register with the draft board, although no American has been drafted since 1973.

thought and style that seem as fresh today as they did upon first publication. Longfellow is familiar to most readers only because he is frequently assigned in schools. Even so, he is considered an important figure in American poetry, if not for what he achieved, then for the way he brought poetry from the fringes to the center of American culture.

The Romantic Period is defined differently by different literary historians. It is generally considered to be a result of the social turmoil around the globe in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Key factors were the American Revolution of 1776 as well as the French Revolution of 1794 and the Napoleonic wars that followed. Old social orders fell, opening new possibilities for individual achievement. The Romantic Period is often considered to have begun in literature in 1798, when William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge published Lyrical Ballads. The end of the era is more difficult to estimate: some say that it was replaced by the Victorian Era the instant that Queen Victoria took over the throne of England in 1837, while others mark its end as late as 1870, with the death of novelist Charles Dickens. Any number of alternative dates have been suggested.

One of the reasons it is so difficult to precisely find the end of the Romantic Period is that Romanticism is an attitude, and to some degree it has carried on without interruption to this day. Romanticism stressed the importance of the artist, holding the act of imagination more dearly than the ability to follow existing styles. As democracy grew in political systems, it also flourished in the arts, where each person was recognized as having something unique to say that was derived from his or her own experience. Harmony, balance, and idealized perfection were out; the artist as a genius, mad with inspiration, was in. One other stylistic trait—found

in this poem—was the use of stories from the history of one’s own country for inspiration (as opposed to the Enlightenment artists’ use of sources from ancient Greece and Rome). English Romantic poets include Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelly, Keats and Byron. American Romantic poets include Poe, Melville, Bryant, Lowell, Holmes, and Whittier. These last four, along with Longfellow, are collectively considered the “Schoolbook Poets” or the “Fireside Poets,” because they were all marginally talented, but popular enough to be taught in literature classes and to collect dust on the shelves of private libraries. The Schoolbook Poets were the first American poets to be read by the general public, and they paved the way for a generation of writers at the end of the century who were able to make their livings as poets.

Critical Overview

“Paul Revere’s Ride” has generally been recognized as one of Longfellow’s most popular poems, although not all critics have necessarily regarded it as a great work. One of the earliest reviews of The Wayside Inn (the larger work in which “Paul Revere’s Ride” first appeared) was at best lukewarm: “This is not a very powerful species of poetry,” The Living Age reported in 1864, “and yet it is very pleasant.” George Saintsbury, in his Prefaces and Essays, faulted the poem for its lack of narrative tension: “Paul Revere’s Ride,” he observed, has the drawback that the excellent Paul does not seem to have run the slightest danger, though, if his friend in the belfry had been observed and caught (as he ought to have been), and hanged ... it would have given some point.” Dana Gioia, however, in an essay in The Columbia History of American Poetry, praises “Paul Revere’s Ride” as one of “the best short American narrative poems ever written.” And more than one critic has observed that Longfellow’s purpose in writing this poem was to create an American legend. Norman Holmes Pearson sums this idea up in an essay published in The University of Kansas City Review: “Paul Revere is, as he was intended to be, a national hero. The poem is, as it was intended to be, a popular ballad.”


Dana Gioia

Dana Gioia is a poet and critic. His books include The Gods of Winter, 1997, and Can Poetry

What Do I Read Next?

  • One of the best and most comprehensive biographies of Revere is Esther Forbes’s 1942 Paul Revere & The World He Lived In. In Revere’s life, we see a cross-section of every aspect of what the Colonial scene was like.
  • Van Wyck Brooks was a New England literary critic from the 20th century who specialized in exploring 19th century literature. His 1958 book America’s Coming-of-Age tells the story of how American literature developed its own identity, distinguishing itself from its European roots.
  • The Complete Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was first published in 1893 by Houghton Mifflin & Co., and it has been in print continuously to this day.
  • Historian Barbara Tuchman’s 1984 book The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam examines strategic blunders by several governments throughout history, including the British government’s inability to hold on to the American colonies. This is a good source for background about the Revolution.

Matter?, 1992. He lives in Santa Rosa, California. Although the narrative poem is no longer a favored poetic form, Gioia explains how it was exactly this framework that Longfellow employed in his successful quest to create an enduring, patriotic hero when our young nation most needed a unifying myth.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the most popular poet in American history. His work commanded a readership that is almost unimaginable today even for best-selling novels. In terms of their reach and influence, Longfellow’s poems resembled studio-era Hollywood films: they were popular works of art enjoyed by huge, diverse audiences that crossed all social classes and age groups. Writing in a period before the electronic media usurped the serious literary artist’s role as society’s storyteller, Longfellow did as much as any author or politician of his time to shape the way nineteenth-century Americans saw themselves, their nation, and their past. At a crucial time in American history—just as the Revolutionary War receded from living memory and the disastrous Civil War inexorably approached—Longfellow created the national myths for which his new and still unstoried country hungered. His poems gave his contemporaries the words, images, myths, and heroes by which they explained America to one another and themselves. There is no better example of Longfellow’s genius at creating meaningful and enduring national myth than “Paul Revere’s Ride.”

The opening lines of “Paul Revere’s Ride” are so famous that even people who have not read the entire poem often know them by heart. They have become, in fact, so familiar that most readers might easily take them for granted and miss the striking and paradoxical rhetorical figures they contain. The poem’s narrator, for example, begins by saying, “Listen, my children, and you shall hear.” He addresses the tale specifically to children, and yet the work is not in any narrow sense a children’s poem. “Paul Revere’s Ride” was published in The Atlantic Monthly, hardly a juvenile journal, and was eventually collected in Longfellow’s masterful book of interwoven narrative poems, Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863), where it is spoken by the Landlord to an audience of adult men. Why then does the poem begin by addressing only one part of its intended audience?

By invoking children in the opening line of his patriotic poem, Longfellow implicitly defines his narrative as a story the older generation considers important enough to pass down to posterity. What will follow, therefore, is not merely an interesting story but a legacy—one of the traditional tales that defines both the audience and the speaker’s identity. Perhaps for this reason, Longfellow placed “Paul Revere’s Ride” as the first story told in Tales of a Wayside Inn. The characters in the book meet and tell their tales at a tavern in Sudbury, Massachusetts, not far from Boston. Revere’s historical exploits would have been a proud part of their shared local lore.

Longfellow’s inclusion of the date in the third line serves a similar rhetorical function. (Once again the familiarity of the opening lines makes us forget how odd it is to present a complete date—day, month, and year—in a poem. Longfellow never did so elsewhere in his poetry.) The implicit message of the line is clear: Paul Revere’s achievements were of such singular importance that we must learn the date by heart and teach it to posterity. Everyone in Longfellow’s original audience would have understood the significance of the date. April 18, 1775 was the day before the American Revolution began. The next morning at Lexington and Concord, the American colonists would fire their “shot heard round the world” and initiate their successful armed resistance against the British Empire. The narrator also explains the necessity of passing this piece of heritage on by reminding the listeners that “hardly a man is now alive / who remembers that famous day and year.” The original witnesses are now mostly dead. It has become the audience’s responsibility to preserve the memory of Revere’s heroic deeds.

Longfellow was an immensely versatile poet who excelled at virtually every form and genre from the epic to the sonnet. No form, however, better displayed his distinctive gifts than the short narrative poem. Nineteenth-century readers greatly esteemed the form, which combines the narrative pleasures of fiction with the verbal music of verse. Modern critics, however, have generally downgraded narrative poetry in favor of lyric verse. Longfellow’s reputation has been especially hard hit by the change in critical consensus, and once-popular poems such as “Paul Revere’s Ride” have consequently disappeared from academic anthologies. The special qualities of these poems seem antithetical to the lyric traditions of modem poetry, which prize verbal compression, intellectual complexity, elliptical style, and self-referential movement. Longfellow’s greatest gifts were best suited to more public poetry: forceful clarity, evocative simplicity, emotional directness, and a genius for memorable (indeed often unforgettable) phrasing.

William Butler Yeats once commented that Longfellow’s popularity came because “he tells his story or idea so that one needs nothing but his verses to understand it.” That observation particularly applies to “Paul Revere’s Ride,” which takes a complicated historical incident embedded in the politics of Revolutionary America and retells it with narrative clarity, emotional power, and masterful pacing. From the poem’s first publication, historians have complained that Longfellow distorted the actual incident and put far too much emphasis on Revere’s individual role. But Longfellow was not interested in scholarly precision; he wanted to create a stirring patriotic myth. In the process he took Paul Revere, a regional folk hero hardly known outside Massachusetts, and turned him into a national icon. To accomplish this feat, Longfellow mythologized both the incident and the man. The new Revere became the symbolic figure who awakened America to fight for freedom. The actual incident, a literal call to arms for the Revolution, required less mythologization. After all, revolutions are already the stuff of myth. Longfellow had only to streamline the historical narrative so that the poem could focus on a central heroic figure. The resulting story—despite the scholarly complaints—is actually not too far from fact. (Longfellow took considerably fewer liberties than Shakespeare did with British history.) The final poem does not merely recount an historical incident; it dramatizes unconquerable Yankee individuality against the old order of European despotism.

Longfellow was a master of narrative pacing. His description of Revere’s friend climbing the Old North Church tower displays the poet’s ability to make each narrative moment matter. By slowing down the plot at this crucial moment, Longfellow not only builds suspense; he also adds evocative physical details that heightens the moods. (Decades later Hollywood would discover the same procedures.) Reaching the belfry, the friend startles “the pigeons from their perch.” Fluttering around, they make “masses and moving shapes of shade.” The man now pauses to look down at the graves that surrounded an eighteenth century church—an image that, perhaps, prefigures the deadly battle to be fought the next day. This lyric moment of reflection provides a false sense of calm before the explosive action that will follow. The man now remembers the task at hand. There is a crucial deed to do.

The scene now shifts suddenly—with a decisive cinematic cut—to the opposite shore where the solitary Revere waits for the signal. The historical Revere was one of many riders, but Longfellow understood the powerful appeal of the single heroic individual who fights oppression and makes a decisive impact (another narrative lesson not lost on Hollywood). Longfellow’s Revere is not a revolutionary organizer; he is a man of action. As soon as he sees the first lantern, he springs into the saddle, though he is smart enough to wait for the second light before he rides off.

The rest of the poem is pure action—mostly one long tableau of Revere’s ride from village to village. Once again, the effect, to a modem reader, is quintissentially cinematic. Longfellow’s galloping triple meters create a thrilling sense of speed, and the rhetorical device of stating the time of night when Revere enters each village adds a cumulative feeling of the rider’s urgency. Few poets could sustain a single, linear action for nearly forty lines as Longfellow manages so compellingly in the poem’s extended climax. The last two stanzas also demonstrate Longfellow’s narrative authority. As the poet makes the sudden but clear transition from Revere’s arrival in the town of Concord to the following day’s conflict, Longfellow masterfully summarizes the Battle of Concord in only eight lines. Once again, however, he rhetorically conscripts the listener to collaborate in completing the story. “You know the rest,” says the narrator, “In the books you have read.” Ingeniously, Longfellow acknowledges the importance of the next day’s battle without accepting the artistic necessity to describe it in detail.

The final stanza returns to the image of Revere riding through the night. Now presented outside of the strictly linear chronology that has hitherto characterized the poem, the galloping Revere acquires an overtly symbolic quality. He is no longer the historical figure awakening the Middlesex villages and farms. He has become a timeless emblem of American courage and independence. Significantly, the verb tenses in the final stanza shift from the past (rode) in the opening five lines to the future tense (shall echo, will waken) in the closing lines. The relevance of Longfellow’s patriotic symbol would not have been lost on the poet’s original audience—the mostly New England Yankee readers of the Boston-based Atlantic Monthly. Although Longfellow ostensibly mythologizes the Revolutionary War, his poem addresses a more immediate crisis—the impending break-up of the Union. Published a few months before the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter initiated America’s bloodiest war, “Paul Revere’s Ride” was Longfellow’s reminder to New Englanders of the courage their ancestors demonstrated in forming the Union. Another “hour of darkness and peril and need,” the poem’s closing lines implicitly warn, now draws near. The author’s intentions—to build public resolve to fight slavery and protect the Union—were overtly political, but he embodied his message in a poem compellingly told in purely narrative terms. Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride” was so successful that modern readers no longer remember it as a poem but as a national legend. Underneath the myth, however, a fine poem waits to be rediscovered.

Source: Dana Gioia, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.

Newton Arvin

In the following excerpt, Arvin praises Longfellow’s poetry.

Convinced as he had always been... that there was perfectly good “matter” for poetry in American history and tradition, Longfellow quite naturally introduced one or two tales of that sort into each of the three parts of the Wayside Inn. On the second evening, indeed, there is a little passage-at-arms between the Student and the Theologian on this head, the Student taking the line that poets are bound to range abroad for much of their inspiration—that they are not “fowls in barnyards born”—and the Theologian maintaining that “what is native still is best.” The question has long since ceased to be interesting, and Longfellow raises it here in an only half-serious way. But it is surely not mere chance that Part First begins and ends with American tales—the Landlord’s ballad of Paul Revere and the Poet’s tale of “The Birds of Killing-worth”—or that the final series ends with another tale of the Landlord’s, the most “rooted” man of them all, “The Rhyme of Sir Christopher.” All these are New England tales of the seventeenth or eighteenth century, and so, too, is “Lady Wentworth,” one of the Poet’s tales, a story of the days of the colonial governors which Longfellow took from a book about Portsmouth in New Hampshire. Only one of the five American tales has a scene laid outside of New England: this is the Theologian’s last tale, “Elizabeth,” which Longfellow based on a story of the New Jersey Quakers that had been told in prose by Lydia Maria Child.... Of all the narratives in the Wayside Inn, only one, “The Birds of Killingworth,” was not derived from a literary source; it seems to have sprung from a local tradition in the Connecticut town, which had come to Longfellow—perhaps with what James called “the minimum of valid suggestion”—by word of mouth....

“Paul Revere’s Ride,” which might also have been a short story—superficially like “My Kinsman, Major Molineux”—is of course a tale of vigorous action and movement, a patriotic ballad; and its extreme familiarity ought not to blind us to the admirable impetus with which its galloping lines in sprung rhythm tell the tale of this celebrated ride on horseback through the sleeping Massachusetts villages, or to the characteristic touches, not obviously demanded by the tradition, of strangeness and ghostliness that give it another dimension than the strenuous: the “masses and moving shapes of shade” in the belfry chamber of the Old North Church, the “night-encampment” of the dead in the churchyard on the hill, and the belfry tower rising above the graves, “lonely and spectral and sombre and still.” Nor should we undervalue the folklore touch at the end, when Longfellow, writing just before the Civil War, predicts that, in every hour of darkness and peril to the Republic, the people will hear “the hurrying hoof-beats” of Paul Revere’s horse. “Scanderbeg,” too, is a short balladlike poem of vigorous action—more reminiscent of Byron than “Paul Revere”—with its ferocious Albanian hero who treacherously beheads the Turkish Pasha’s Scribe by a sudden stroke of his scimitar. It has a certain dash, but it is one of the less interesting of the Tales....

Source: Newton Arvin, in Longfellow: His Life and Works, Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1963, pp. 212-217.

The Living Age

An examination of the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

It is rather a remarkable fact that the most striking characteristic common to all the more eminent American authors is not one of substance but one of form, and that, too, one which we should have supposed scarcely attainable amidst the rougher society of a new world,—a certain limpid purity and fluent refinement of expression. If we number up the great American names, Hawthorne, Lowell, Longfellow, Bryant, Washington Irving, Prescott, Channing,—almost all, indeed, of any note, except, perhaps, Dr. Holmes, whose style is sufficiently clear, but not exactly refined—(with Edgar Poe the turbidness is not in the expression but the heart),—the one common characteristic is the grace and ease and simplicity of style which makes their words run like a flowing stream across the mind, rising in Hawthorne and Longfellow to the silver music of a fountain’s flow and fall. Probably this great ease and simplicity of style arises in some degree from the ease and uniformity of the conditions of life in a country where wide social extremes, and the puzzle which great social miseries bring with them, are almost unknown. No doubt a great social uniformity presents fewer obstacles to the harmonizing and refining effort of the intellect than the complexities of English society, and the comparatively unpuzzled mind runs off in comparatively easy and harmonious speech. It is always easier to give a high polish to the grain of a single substance than to a surface thickly inlaid with various distinct substances,—and we think this is more than a mere illustrative simile. But however that may be, the fact is certain, that American literature has attained at a single bound a style as graceful and polished as that of Addison.

Longfellow is certainly chiefly characterised by the crystal grace of his poem. Nor is it mere refinement of style by which he is principally distinguished; for that would tell us little of him as a poet. Even in subjects there is a greater and a less capacity for what we may call the crystal treatment; and Longfellow always selects those in which a clear, still, pale beauty may be seen by a swift, delicate vision, playing almost on the surface. Sometimes he is tempted by the imaginative purity of a subject (as was Mr. Matthew Arnold, in his poem of “Balder Dead”) to forget that he has not adequate vigor for its grasp, as in the series in this volume on the Saga of King Olaf, which is, in his hands, only classical, while by its essence it ought to be forceful. But, on the whole, every volume he has published has been filtered into purer and brighter beauty than the last, and—if we except “Hiawatha,” where his subject was peculiarly suited to the graceful surface humor of his genius,—this is, to our minds, the pleasantest of all his volumes. His reputation was acquired by a kind of rhetorical sentimental class of poem, which has, we are happy to say, disappeared from his more recent volumes,—the “life is real, life is earnest” sort of thing, and all the platitudes of feverish youth. Experience always sooner or later filters a genuine poet clear of that class of sentiments, teaching him that true as they are, they should be kept back, like steam, for working the will, and not let off by the safety-valve of imaginative expression. In this volume such beauty as there is, is pure beauty, though it is not of a very powerful kind. Mr. Longfellow has adopted the idea of Chaucer (recently taken up also by his friend, Mr. Clough, with greater genius, but, unfortunately, less of life and leisure at his command), of making each of a group of friends relate a tale at a “wayside inn,” and, as generally happens in such cases, perhaps, the best part of the poem is the prelude which introduces and describes the various guests and story-tellers in the Massachusetts wayside inn. One of them is a musician who plays upon a violin:—

“The instrument on which he played
Was in Cremona’s workshops made,
By a great master of the past,
Ere yet was lost the art divine;
Fashioned of maple and of pine,
That in Tyrolian forests vast
Had rocked and wrestled with the blast.”

“Longfellow is certainly chiefly characterised by the crystal grace of his poem.... Even in subjects there is a greater and a less capacity for what we may call the crystal treatment; and Longfellow always selects those in which a clear, still, pale beauty may be seen by a swift, delicate vision, playing almost on the surface.”

And the musician himself is finely described as listening to the music that haunts the heart of his instrument before he can educe it:—

“Before the blazing fire of wood
Erect the rapt musician stood;
And ever and anon he bent
His head upon his instrument,
And seemed to listen till he caught
Confessions of its secret thought,—
The joy, the triumph, the lament,
The exultation and the pain;
Then by the magic of his art
He soothed the throbbings of its heart,
And lulled it into peace again.”

No one could have distilled, as it were, the rapture of musical inspiration into more lustrous speech than this; and the description of the young Sicilian is scarcely less bright and liquid:—

“A young Sicilian, too, was there;—
Insight of Etna born and bred,
Some breath of its volcanic air
Was glowing in his heart and brain;
And being rebellious to his liege
After Palermo’s fatal siege,
Across the western seas he fled,
In good King Bomba’s happy reign.
His face was like a summer night,
All flooded with a dusky light;
His hands were small; his teeth shone white
As seashells, when he smiled or spoke;
His sinews supple and strong as oak;
Clean shaven was he as a priest,
Who at the Mass on Sunday sings;
Save that upon his upper lip
His beard a good palm’s length at least,
Level and pointed at the top,
Shot sideways like a swallow’s wings.
The poets read he o’er and o’er,
And lost of all the Immortal four
Of Italy; and next to those
The story-telling bard of prose
Who wrote the joyous Tuscan tales
Of the Decameron, that make
Fiesole’s green hills and vales
Remembered for Boccaccio’s sake.
Much, too, of music was his thought,
The melodies and measures fraught
With sunshine and the open air
Of vineyards, and the singing sea
Of his beloved Sicily.”

This is not a very powerful species of poetry, and yet it is very pleasant, and to our ears much more truly poetical than the sentimental verse which first obtained for Longfellow his wide popularity. Longfellow does not catch the deepest beauty or the deepest passions which human life presents to us. His tale of “Torquemada” and the consuming fire of persecuting orthodoxy, is comparatively feeble and ineffectual. But he catches the surface bubbles,—the imprisoned air which rises from the stratum next beneath the commonplace,—the beauty that a mild and serene intellect can see issuing everywhere, both from nature and from life,—with exceedingly delicate discrimination; and his poetry affects us with the same sense of beauty as the blue wood-smoke curling up from a cottage chimney into an evening sky. The essence of poetry consists in giving us by music and by thought this inner sense of the unity of life in the scenes or feelings it depicts; the power of poetry is measured by the variety and range of the life it can thus succeed in reducing to an artistic harmony and unity. Longfellow does not attempt to deal with rich or various materials. He seizes on the lighter phases of gentle loveliness, and distils them at once into his verse.

And he does this with a true poetic felicity of language that shows how keenly he feels the expressive associations of the words he uses, which are never far fetched, though often fetched from afar. We will give but one example—we might select a hundred—of the felicity with which he illustrates a comparatively narrow poetic theme,—and he does this in some respects better the narrower it is. In describing the, falcon’s dream in his story of Sir Frederigo he says:—

“Beside him, motionless, the drowsy bird
Dreamed of the chase, and in his slumber heard
The sudden scythelike sweep of wings that dare
The headlong plunge through eddying gulfs of air.”

The beauty of the adjective “scythelike,” as applied to the sweep of the falcon’s wings, is by no means exhausted when you have thought of the motion and of the sound it suggests. It calls up, besides, a hundred associations with dewy summer mornings and “wet, bird-haunted English lawns” that help the beauty, the freshness, and the music of the thought. Of such delicate touches as these this last volume of Mr. Longfellow, though by no means of the highest order of poetry, is very full. And few influences on the imagination are more resting and sunny, though there may be many more bracing and stimulating. The poem on “The Birds of Killingworth” is full of such beauties.

Source: “Mr. Longfellow’s New Poems,” in The Living Age, Vol. xxx, No. 1022, January 1864, pp. 43-4.


Gioia, Dana, “Longfellow in the Aftermath of Modernism,” in The Columbia History of American Poetry, edited by Jay Parini, Columbia University Press, 1993, pp. 64-96.

Pearson, Norman Holmes, “Both Longfellows,” in The University of Kansas City Review XVI, No. 4, Summer, 1950, pp. 245-53.

Saintsbury, George, “Longfellow’s Poems,” in his Prefaces and Essays, Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1933, pp. 324-44.

For Further Study

Arvin, Newton, Longfellow: His Life and Work, Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1963.

In the two chapters covering the poet’s dramatic poems, this book gives the reader a good sense of what Longfellow was trying to accomplish with the way that he tells the story of Revere.

Suchard, Alan, American Poetry: The Puritans Through Walt Whitman, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988.

Suchard gives one of the more sympathetic views of Longfellow in recent literary criticism, downplaying his weaknesses and emphasizing his historical significance.

Waggoner, Hyatt H., American Poets, revised edition, Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1984.

A chapter about the Schoolbook Poets gives a few pages each to Longfellow, Holmes, Bryant, Lowell and Whittier, explaining their differences as well as their individual strengths and weaknesses.

Williams, Cecil B., Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1964.

Williams has a very interesting comparison between Tales of the Wayside Inn, the book which “Paul Revere’s Ride” was originally published in, and Geoffery Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, from which Longfellow borrowed his book’s structure.