By Catherine Matthews
Twenty-two years before he wrote “Paul Revere’s Ride,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned an article for the July 1838 issue of The North American Review. [i] Nothing would indicate that this piece was particularly special: the index simply lists a review of several publications pertaining to Anglo-Saxon literature, a dictionary included; most items were five or more years old; the author was not even listed. In the first evocative paragraph, however, Longfellow upends all assumptions. What follows is a thoughtful and spirited overview of the language, literature, and culture of Anglo-Saxon England. It is an essay that offers another way of looking at Longfellow’s work.
Anglo-Saxon England, Longfellow tells us, was an era of constant change, invasion, and transformation. He details the many shifts that occurred over the Anglo-Saxon period: the language evolved with time and the influx of the Danes and then the Normans; pagan and folk religions changed with the coming of Christianity to Britain; beliefs and attitudes once universally accepted became perceived as relics or myths. Transience is inevitable in history, and literature, Longfellow reminds us, can capture—however imperfectly—these aspects of a nation, even after the nation is no more. He comments, “Old men and venerable accompany us through the Past; and, pausing at the threshold of the Present, they put into our hands, at parting, such written records of themselves as they have.” (99) Literature may convey the mood and values of a culture to the people who follow; it can capture a fleeting moment. Certainly Longfellow’s Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie and The Song of Hiawatha attempt to evoke the sense of change and of cultures passing.
Longfellow’s essay also reveals an interest in the related theme of how moments of tremendous historical importance simultaneously have an effect on individual and global levels:
It is oftentimes curious to consider the far-off beginnings of great events . . . . The British peasant looked seaward from his harvest-field and saw, with wondering eyes, the piratical schooner of a Saxon Viking making for the mouth of the Thames. A few years,–only a few years,–afterward, while the same peasant . . . still lives to tell the story to his grandchildren, another race lords it over the land . . . .This important event in his history is even more important in the world’s history. (95)
The first stanza of “Paul Revere’s Ride” takes us back to these words with the invitation of the narrator, telling a story of an event that changed the course of history that “[h]ardly a man is now alive” to recount firsthand. [ii] In Evangeline and “Paul Revere’s Ride,” Longfellow explores this motif of telling the story of historic change through the events of an individual who witnesses history and simultaneously becomes the means through which a larger tale of transformation and transition is told.
Longfellow’s appreciation for Anglo-Saxon literature extends beyond theme and history. He enjoys the power, rhythm, and vitality found in the poetry. Scholar Roy Liuzza suggests, “. . .one can even imagine that [Longfellow’s] appreciation of [Beowulf’s] short forceful half-lines influenced some of his own later poetry such as . . Song of Hiawatha.” (290) [iii]
While an essay on Anglo-Saxon literature may be an unlikely starting point for consideration of Longfellow’s work, it is a way, perhaps, of understanding his thoughts and his own “mindscape” in approaching his work.
Catherine Matthews received her bachelor’s degree in English literature and a master’s in Liberal Arts from Harvard University. Her master’s thesis work focused on the Old English vitae of Anglo-Saxon royal saints. She has been a longtime friend of Old North, serving in many roles–including board member and volunteer–over the past seven years.
[i] Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. “Anglo-Saxon Literature.” The North American Review. Vol. 47, No. 100, July 1838, pp. 90-134. JSTOR. Accessed May 2017.