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Longfellow’s Poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride”

Introduction

With fourteen memorable stanzas, American poet and ardent abolitionist Henry Wadsworth Longfellow immortalized Old North Church and Paul Revere in American folklore and cemented their place in American history. This poem is perhaps the main reason that both are household names today. But who was Longfellow? Why did he write this poem and how did it elevate the status of Revere and Old North?

A celebrated and nationally beloved poet, Longfellow began his career at Bowdoin College as a student in the 1820s, then as a professor of modern languages in the 1830s. Longfellow spent several years in Europe where he studied nine different languages. He used his studies and experience abroad to translate European works into English back in the United States. Longfellow moved to Cambridge in 1836 to begin a language professorship at Harvard. By the early 1840s, his poetry found great success through publication in books and periodicals. Many of his works focused on political and moral issues of the day. Longfellow decided to tackle the Civil War, a major event during his lifetime, by making reference to the Revolutionary War in his famous poem Paul Revere’s Ride.

Eighty-five years after Paul Revere’s ride, the country was on the brink of the Civil War. The issues of slavery and states’ rights threatened to tear the country apart. As Southern states prepared to secede from the Union, Northerners prepared to fight to preserve it. With war looming, Americans from the North and South were searching for inspiration for their cause. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow visited the Old North Church on April 5, 1860 where he learned about Paul Revere’s role with the signal lanterns. Intensely inspired by this visit, Longfellow immediately began writing a poem to rally Northerners and remind Southerners of their mutual Revolutionary past.

Longfellow specifically chose to focus his poem on the relatively unknown figure of Paul Revere. Using Revere as the hero, Longfellow appealed to Northern readers’ patriotism. However, Longfellow knew that Revere’s story would need some creative alterations to better suit the goals of his poem.

To make his poem more patriotic, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow changes the details of Paul Revere’s story by taking some artistic liberties while preserving some truth. First, Longfellow frames Revere as the sole hero of his poem by purposely omitting other messenger riders. He knew that having only one hero demonstrated how one man can change history. Second, Longfellow tweaks historical record by altering Paul Revere’s role with the signal lanterns. In a dramatic scene from the poem, Longfellow writes Revere as the recipient of the signal lanterns, rather than the sender. The lines read:

“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.”

By making Revere the man seeing the lanterns “on the opposite shore” instead of the man sending them, Longfellow transforms the character of Revere into a messenger for the people rather than a Patriot spy. He also devotes several stanzas to Old North itself as the important location of the signal lanterns, which is historically accurate. Along with the number of riders and Paul Revere’s location for the signal lanterns, Longfellow changed a number of other details about the night of April 18, 1775 in his poem Paul Revere’s Ride.

 

Among these changes included the lengthening of the time frame of the ride itself. Revere’s ride lasted a little more than two hours, whereas the poem specifies him riding through the night, a much more dramatic timeframe. Furthermore, Longfellow omitted the British capture of Revere between Lexington and Concord, a major historical alteration. Longfellow’s poem would not have had the same patriotic impact or sense of urgency with a detained hero. Accordingly, Longfellow ignored some of the true events in favor of poetic license.

 

Literature often influences our understanding and interpretation of history as a society. Many American schoolchildren throughout the 19th and 20th centuries learned Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem and presumed it factual, a fallacy we challenge daily. Despite Longfellow’s literary creativity with the actual history (available in the pews on the other side of the church), his poem secured Old North and Paul Revere a lasting place in American history and folklore. We credit him for our enduring fame, which shaped Old North into a national icon.

The Poem

Paul Revere’s Ride
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 – 1882)

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 to-night,
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 to the tower of the church,
Up 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 on 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 that flies 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 felt the damp of the river-fog,
That rises when 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 be 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 farmyard-wall,
Chasing the red-coats 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 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.

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