Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is one of my all-time favorite American poets. I’m particularly fond of his collection The Seaside & The Fireside (1850). One of Longfellow’s most famous poems is also a favorite of mine, and once upon a time, I had the whole thing memorized: Paul Revere’s Ride.
“Wait, you promised a ‘Yankee poem’ for this post?”
And I’m following through on that promise. We’re not talking about the rather mythological content about Paul Revere and the opening shots of the Revolutionary War. We’re talking about this poem which was published in January 1861 and the content in light of the road to the Civil War.
If you’re not familiar with Paul Revere’s Ride, you can check it out here.
Today, I’d like to particularly focus on the very first and very last stanzas.
[First] 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.
[Last] 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.
So…Longfellow first published this poem in the Atlantic Monthly in January 1861. That’s right. January 1861, as southern states were declaring secession and leaving the union.
While Longfellow drew on a historical event (the midnight messengers prior to Lexington and Concord’s battles in 1775), he was crafting a poem that spoke to the events happening in his own time. It was an “hour of darkness and peril and need” as the 1860 Election capstoned years of sectional conflict and debate over abolition, slavery, and states rights. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina declared secession and was followed by six other states in the early weeks of the following year. Perhaps Longfellow was reminding his readers about the importance of response. The north was in the processing of waking and listening to hear the rumbles of conflict.
In the first stanza of the poem, Longfellow told his readers “hardly a man is now alive who remembers that famous day and year.” For years, I always took that as a little insult at people who forget historical dates. But, looking at the poem in the context of its creation, there’s another more likely meaning: take the words literally. The generation of the American Revolution had slipped away. One of the youngest boys at Lexington in 1775 had died in 1854, aged 96. The fate of the nation rest with a new generation of patriots.
The news of the shots fired at Fort Sumter echoed “To every Middlesex village and farm” and thousands of men across the states answered with “A cry of defiance, and not of fear.” The ideals and memory of the Revolutionary War inspired both sides—north and south—and Longfellow captured a northern version of that spirit.
Using a historical account for the basis of his fictionalized poem, he wrote a message to his readers about response in times of national crisis. Understanding that “Paul Revere’s Ride” was published in January 1861 perhaps gives it a deeper meaning and places Longfellow’s words about an earlier era against the backdrop of another erupting conflict.
P.S. One of Longfellow’s own sons would hear the “midnight message,” enlist, and nearly die of injury during the Civil War. But is another story which inspired another piece of poetry. I’ll save it for a different day…