How Longfellow Woke the DeadPrint
When first published 150 years ago, his famous poem about Paul Revere was read as a bold statement of his opposition to slavery
By Jill Lepore
March 2, 2011
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow used to be both the best-known poet in the English-speaking world and the most beloved, adored by the learned and the lowly alike, read by everyone from Nathaniel Hawthorne and Abraham Lincoln to John Ruskin and Queen Victoria—and, just as avidly, by the queen’s servants. “Paul Revere’s Ride” is Longfellow’s best-known poem. It begins at a trot:
Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.
It clips (“impatient to mount and ride, / Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride”); it clops (“impetuous, stamped the earth, / And turned and tightened his saddle-girth”); then it gallops—
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
—until, at last, it stops:
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!
Generations of American schoolchildren have memorized these lines and recited them in class, sweating it out, which is why Longfellow is known as a schoolroom poet. “Dear Mr. Longfellow: I am a little girl nine years old. I have learned some of your poems and love them very much,” wrote Berta Shaffer from Ohio in 1880. This is, no doubt, a kind of acclaim. But for a poet’s literary reputation, to be read by children—and especially to be loved by children—is the sweet, sloppy kiss of death. Beginning even before the rise of New Criticism, literary scholars have paid almost no attention to Longfellow, dismissing “Paul Revere’s Ride” as just another cloying Longfellow poem, ho-hum and dum-de-dum-de-dum-de-dum, a piece of 19th-century romantic nationalism, drippy, contemptible, silly. “Rarely has so respected a writer been so discredited by posterity,” as the literary historian Lawrence Buell once put it. Feeble is a word you often see, describing Longfellow’s poetic gifts. Where was the ambiguity, the paradox, the difficulty, the anxiety, the obscurity? What good was a poem that was easy? Longfellow was soft. And, although feminist critics have subjected all things squishy and sentimental to close inspection, arguing for the elevation of writers like Susan Warner and Harriet Jacobs and Harriet Beecher Stowe to canonical status, Longfellow hasn’t warranted recovery, or even, really, a reading, presumably because he was a man, and the canon had enough of those already. Meanwhile, historians have pointed out from the start that Longfellow’s poem is, as history, rotten. (Longfellow wouldn’t have cared. “Nor let the Historian blame the Poet here, / If he perchance misdate the day or year.” ) Before Longfellow wrote his poem about how Revere rode from Boston, warning Massachusetts minutemen that the redcoats were coming, Revere wasn’t known for his ride (his obituary didn’t even mention it). Also, he never reached Concord, and he didn’t ride alone. Longfellow, in other words, got almost every detail of what happened that night wrong. In 1896, Century Magazine published a parody—
’Tis all very well for the children to hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere;
But why should my name be quite forgot,
Who rode as boldly and well, God wot?
Why should I ask? The reason is clear—
My name was Dawes and his Revere
—which is read aloud every year on the 19th of April on Cambridge Common, where brass horseshoes sunk into the pavement mark the path ridden by a man who had the bad luck to have a name that rhymes with everything grunting, earthy, and broken: jaws, caws, maws, paws, flaws. Poor Dawes.
This year, though, marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Longfellow’s most famous poem, which makes it a good time to ask: What would it mean to take “Paul Revere’s Ride” seriously?
Listen my children. Longfellow, who, one supposes, could have done things differently if he’d been of a mind to, loved writing poems that everyone would read, poems that everyone could read, poems in which people, unsophisticated people, even little people, might find pleasure and solace. (Emerson once wrote to Longfellow, “I have always one foremost satisfaction in reading your books—that I am safe.”) “Such songs have power to quiet,” Longfellow wrote, in “The Day Is Done”:
Come, read to me some poem,
Some simple and heartfelt lay,
That shall soothe this restless feeling,
And banish the thoughts of day.
Shooting down Longfellow’s greeting-card verse—in which the anodyne yields to the lachrymose—has been, for modernist critics, nothing more demanding than target practice on a lazy afternoon, where the target is as big as Longfellow’s much-visited and palatial Cambridge mansion. “Longfellow is to poetry what the barrel-organ is to music,” Van Wyck Brooks wrote in 1915. Lewis Mumford said that Longfellow could be cut out of American literary history and no one would miss him or even notice. T. E. Lawrence once joked that Ezra Pound was Longfellow’s grandnephew, and he didn’t mean that as a compliment. Newton Arvin, who quite liked Longfellow, thought his trouble was his moralizing—“And come like the benediction / That follows after prayer”—although the problem, Arvin believed, wasn’t that Longfellow was a moralist; it was that his morals were secondhand and boring. But Daniel Aaron once wisely pointed out that American literature isn’t so swell that it can afford to junk the guy who wrote “Seaweed”:
Ever drifting, drifting, drifting
On the shifting
Currents of the reckless heart;
Till at length in books recorded,
They, like hoarded
Household words, no more depart.
Longfellow was born by the sea, in Portland, Maine, in 1807. When he was 16 and away at Bowdoin College, he wrote home to his mother that he was reading Thomas Gray, and that he admired the poet’s obscurity. His mother wrote back that all she had read of Gray was his “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”—“Approach and read (for thou canst read) the lay / Graved on the stone beneath yon aged thorn”—but that she admired it only so far. “Obscurity is favorable to the sublime, you think,” she wrote her son, “but I am much better pleased with those pieces that touch the feelings and improve the heart than with those that excite the imagination only and raise perhaps an indistinct admiration. That is, an admiration of we know not exactly what.” Longfellow took that to heart.
After studying in Europe, Longfellow taught at Bowdoin. He wrote for the North American Review. He published an indifferent work of prose. In 1837, at the age of 30, he became the Smith Professor of Modern Languages and Belles Lettres at Harvard. He published his first collection of poems, Voices of the Night, in 1839. Although he liked teaching, he hated lecturing and didn’t like being a professor enough to want to do it forever. Beginning in 1843, he made it a practice to buy the plates of his books, which gave him control of reprints; unlike most writers, and very much unlike his archnemesis, Edgar Allan Poe (who unfairly called him a plagiarist), Longfellow was a canny businessman. Most years, he earned more than $2,000 in royalties, a good enough living to allow him, in 1854, to quit teaching. For his final lecture, he spoke on the last canto of Dante’s Inferno, a classy way to go out.
A scholar of poetry and editor and translator of a landmark anthology, The Poets and Poetry of Europe (1845), Longfellow could speak eight languages and read more than a dozen. His own poems are thick with allusions, especially of the classical sort. But they were also so singularly accessible and so overwhelmingly popular that he has been blamed, preposterously, for the death of poetry, as if readers reared on Longfellow were ruined forever for anything tougher. He worked hard to make poetry look easy; his success was his failure. “Liking Longfellow has become improper,” Christoph Irmscher recently argued in a discerning and persuasive reappraisal, mainly because Longfellow is “too likely to be admired by people who have no business commenting on literary works.” That includes kids.
Longfellow often wrote about his own much-beloved children, doting on them in a fashion well within the conventions of his day, but that now comes across to many readers as soppy and slightly sickening, as in “The Children’s Hour,” written when his children were 15, 14, nine, six, and four:
I hear in the chamber above me
The patter of little feet,
The sound of a door that is opened,
And voices soft and sweet.
Longfellow had a knack for writing about children; he was also motherly—“This having a babe is like dropping an anchor in to the dark, deep waters of Futurity,” he wrote, when his first son was born—and his work has been described as “maternal,” which of course, does no one’s work any good, the maternal being generally and viciously thought to be opposed, at least since the Enlightenment, to the intellectual. Anyone who could possibly like Longfellow, the argument goes, is a twit.
That Longfellow has been neglected, and relegated to the domestic, the maternal, and the juvenile, means that he was never subjected to the scrutiny of New Historicists, either. If he had been, they might have picked up on something strange about “Paul Revere’s Ride,” which is that one way of reading it is as a poem less about liberty and Paul Revere, and more about slavery and John Brown.
This story starts in 1837, the year Longfellow arrived at Harvard, where he met the future senator Charles Sumner, four years his junior, who was lecturing at the law school. They both joined a literary society called the Five of Clubs. Longfellow and Sumner became best friends and remained best friends—passionate friends—for the rest of their lives. Together, they dined and talked and confided and read one another’s work; apart, they exchanged endless letters of news and gossip and longing. “Querido Carlos,” Longfellow addressed Sumner. When Longfellow got married, Sumner, a bachelor, went with him on the honeymoon. Not long after the two men first met, Sumner left Cambridge to study in Europe, bearing letters of introduction from Longfellow, and they carried on an intimate correspondence. The historian Frederick Blue, who has carefully documented their friendship, calls them an odd couple, which gets it just about right: Sumner was dogmatic and abrasive, even ferocious; Longfellow was gentle and retiring and contented, a famously nice man. Sumner pursued politics; politics made Longfellow cringe. They divided their talents. They once posed together for a portrait; it is titled The Politics and Poetry of New England. Everyone knew which was which.
At the beginning of 1842, Longfellow entertained Dickens during his American tour; he took him to Boston’s North End to see Copps Hill and the Old North Church. Not long after, Longfellow sailed for Europe. (“I am desolate,” Sumner wrote, at Longfellow’s departure. ) In London, Longfellow again ran into Dickens and listened to him fulminate over slavery and American hypocrisy. Meanwhile Sumner, back in the States, had become an ardent abolitionist. He wrote to Longfellow, begging him to put his pen to the cause. “Write some stirring words that shall move the whole land,” Sumner urged. “Send them home, and we will publish them.” Longfellow obliged; on the return sea voyage, he wrote seven poems in his cabin during “stormy, sleepless nights.” His Poems on Slavery was published later that year—they’re not that stormy. Longfellow had no appetite for combat and no interest in attacking slave owners (that was for Sumner to do); instead, he wrote, mournfully—modern readers would say mawkishly—about the plight of slaves. His poems on slavery were, in his view, “so mild that even a Slaveholder might read them without losing his appetite for breakfast.” Still, he was proud of them, writing to his father, “Some persons regret that I should have written them, but for my own part I am glad of what I have done.” They earned him the gratitude of abolitionists but also much opprobrium, especially from Poe, who wrote a review dismissing Poems on Slavery as “intended for the especial use of those negrophilic old ladies of the north, who form so large a part of Mr. LONGFELLOW’s friends.”
Longfellow, therefore, backed off. (He was unwilling even to do battle with Poe; that, too, he left to Sumner.) To write about slavery was to enter Sumner’s world of politics, a world Longfellow had no interest in entering. When the Liberty Party urged Longfellow to run for Congress, he declined. “Though a strong anti-Slavery man, I am not a member of any society, and fight under no single banner,” Longfellow explained, adding, “Partizan warfare becomes too violent, too vindictive, for my taste; and I should be found a weak and unworthy champion in public debate.” Instead, he turned his poetic attention to history—a turn that would produce “Evangeline,” “The Song of Hiawatha,” “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” and, of course, “Paul Revere’s Ride.” Longfellow is often considered to have held himself above politics, but really, he was afraid of it. He had little taste for political speech—even Sumner’s—and less for the fray. Hearing Sumner speak at a Free Soil rally in Cambridge in 1848, Longfellow found the spectacle discordant: “It was like one of Beethoven’s symphonies played in a saw-mill! He spoke admirably well. But the shouts and the hisses and the vulgar interruptions grated on my ears. I was glad to get away.”
Longfellow may not have taken up politics in his poetry, but he followed it closely, and his diary is full of references to slavery and sectionalism and, after 1850, to the Fugitive Slave Act. (“If anybody wants to break a law, let him break the Fugitive-slave Law,” he wrote. “That is all it is fit for.” ) His account books, too, are filled with references to slavery: month by month, year after year, in dozens and dozens of carefully recorded entries, Longfellow noted sums of money given to black newspapers, black schools, black churches, and, especially, to fugitive slaves. In 1854, for instance, his accounts include these items:
Jan. 25—For Slaves 3.00
Feb. 16—Slaves in Canada 5.00
March 29—Negro Church Buffalo
June 23—Mr. Spence Negro School 3.00
“June 13—To free a slave 5.00,” he wrote in his account book for 1856, and “Dec.—To ransom Slave 3.00,” two years later. Longfellow used some of the money he made writing poems to buy men, women, and children their freedom.
Longfellow’s intimacy with Sumner also meant that politics—the politics, in particular, of radical Republicans—was never far from his mind or his heart. Sumner was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1851, but instead of celebrating his much-contested election, he hid out in Longfellow’s house. “The papers are all ringing with Sumner, Sumner!” Longfellow wrote in his diary. “Meanwhile the hero of the strife is sitting quietly here, more saddened than exalted.” Sumner, braced for battle, left for Washington. In 1856 he wrote to Longfellow of his plan to deliver what would be his most famous speech, “The Crime Against Kansas.” It is frothy, terrifying, and foreboding. “Even now, while I speak,” Sumner thundered, “portents lower in the horizon, threatening to darken the land, which already palpitates with the mutterings of civil war.” Better him than me, Longfellow must have thought. Longfellow called Sumner on slavery “the greatest voice, on the greatest subject, that has been uttered since we became a nation,” and told him, “You have torn the mask off the faces of traitors; and at last the spirit of the North is aroused.”
That speech also led, later that year, to South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks beating Sumner on the head with a cane, beating him bloody and senseless. Longfellow was consumed with worry. Sumner’s younger brother George raced to Washington to care for him, but Sumner was very badly injured; it would take him more than three years to recover. He went to Europe seeking medical treatment. Longfellow sent him magazines. “A new Magazine called ‘The Atlantic Monthly’ has just been established,” Longfellow reported to Sumner, in 1857, enclosing the first issue (which contained Longfellow’s “Santa Filomena”). “I groan with you over the iniquity of the times,” Longfellow wrote Sumner the next year in the wake of the Dred Scott decision. “It is deplorable; it is heart-breaking; and I long to say some vibrant word, that should have vitality in it, and force. Be sure if it comes to me I will not be slow in uttering it.”
In Sumner’s absence, Longfellow spent a good deal of time with George Sumner, one brother taking the place of another. In 1859, Longfellow went to see George deliver a Fourth of July oration in Boston. Sumner attacked those in the north who would hesitate to take a stand, who would continue, even after Dred Scott, to seek compromise and concession. “I honor the conservative who stands the guardian of order, of existing rights, and of instituted liberty, and who gracefully yields at last to the progress of an advancing civilization,” Sumner said.
But there are some who, calling themselves conservatives, conserve nothing, and who yield, not to the advances of civilization, but to the encroachments of barbarism; whose whole conservatism is constant concession; who tell us they are “as much opposed to barbarism as any one,” but they wouldn’t meet it on the field of politics,—“as much opposed to crime as any one,” but they wouldn’t hear a warning voice raised against it from the pulpit;—their politics are too pure, their Sunday slumbers too precious, to be disturbed by any allusions to such exciting matters as the advances of crime. And so they go on, conceding everything,—not to civilization, but to barbarism,—not to liberty, but to liberticide—backing down before every presumptuous aggression—down—and down still—until they fall among the lost ones whom Dante has described. From them there is nothing to expect.
Longfellow wrote to Charles that George’s speech was “solid, sober, literally paved with facts, which he pounded in so hard as considerably to hurt some of the Boston aldermen; particularly the Dred Scott fact jammed the lovers of fiction very badly.”
Charles Sumner returned from Europe that November, two weeks after John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. Brown was convicted and sentenced to be hanged. That execution led Herman Melville to write “The Portent”:
The cut is on the crown
(Lo, John Brown),
And the stabs shall heal no more.
But the death of John Brown led Longfellow to write, too. The day Brown was to be hanged, Longfellow wrote in his diary: “The second of December, 1859. This will be a great day in our history; the date of a new Revolution,—quite as much needed as the old one. Even now as I write, they are leading old John Brown to execution in Virginia for attempting to rescue slaves! This is sowing the wind to reap the whirlwind, which will come soon.”
This is Longfellow, an almost maddeningly restrained and genteel man, at his most ardent. Was there a way he could do his part, in his timid manner, so as not to back “down—and down still,” like the conservatives George Sumner had lambasted? John Brown had started “a new Revolution.” Longfellow, writing poems about history, got to thinking about the old one.
Before heading to Washington to resume his Senate duties (his seat had been kept vacant during his recuperation), Charles Sumner visited Longfellow in Cambridge. On January 5, 1860, Longfellow went to a reading at the Revere House—a hotel in Bowdoin Square—and had dinner with Sumner: “He goes to Washington tomorrow with rather sad forebodings, I think.” And, as before, when Sumner left, Longfellow consoled himself with the company of Sumner’s younger brother. On April 5, 1860, he had George over for dinner. “He proposes an expedition to the ‘North End,’ or old town of Boston,” Longfellow wrote in his diary. They went on this outing the next day: “We go to the Copp’s Hill burial-ground and see the tomb of Cotton Mather, his father and his son; then to the old North Church, which looks like a parish church in London. We climb the tower to the chime of bells, now the home of innumerable pigeons. From this tower were hung the lanterns as a signal that the British troops had left Boston for Concord.”
Whether Longfellow had already begun writing his poem about Paul Revere before that outing with George Sumner is uncertain. But he had certainly begun writing it by April 19, when he noted in his diary, “I wrote a few lines in ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’; this being the day of that achievement.” During the months Longfellow was working on the poem, he, like everyone else waited and agonized over the fate of the union. On May 30, he went to see Frederick Douglass deliver an oration in Boston. “At the Anti-Slavery meeting,” Longfellow wrote in his diary, “heard Remond and Douglas, colored men, speak; also Wendell Phillips. All good speakers.” Meanwhile, in Washington, Charles Sumner was writing a speech of his own, “The Barbarism of Slavery.” Longfellow’s thoughts were with him on June 4 when he wrote in his diary, “Charles Sumner speaks to-day in the Senate at Washington.” In a speech that lasted more than four hours, Sumner spoke of the battle between liberty and slavery as a battle between civilization and barbarism. Slavery, Sumner said, was “barbarous in origin; barbarous in its law; barbarous in all its pretensions; barbarous in the instruments it employs; barbarous in consequences; barbarous in spirit; barbarous whenever it shows itself, Slavery must breed Barbarians.” He concluded, “The sacred animosity between Freedom and Slavery can end only with the triumph of Freedom.”
Longfellow had anxiously anticipated the speech, fretting that Sumner wasn’t up to it, that his strength would fail him. He watched for the transcript to be printed in Boston newspapers, and when it appeared, he made clippings and sent them to Sumner, applauding him: “You have done your work fearlessly, faithfully, fully! It was disagreeable, but necessary, and must remain as the great protest of Civilization against Barbarism in this age. Its great simplicity gives it awful effect. In rhetoric you have surpassed it before; in forcible array and arrangement of arguments, never!”
Meanwhile, all this time, he went on writing “Paul Revere’s Ride,” a narrative poem about the struggle for liberty as a flight, a ride, a warning sounded in the night—a poem that is now read as a catchy and technically accomplished but aesthetically dull and politically insipid national romance. He finished writing it on October 13, 1860. Two weeks later, he went to the polls and cast his vote for Lincoln. On November 6, word came that Lincoln had won. “It is the redemption of the country,” Longfellow wrote in his diary. “Freedom is triumphant.”
“Paul Revere’s Ride” was published in The Atlantic Monthly in January 1861. The issue appeared on newsstands in Boston on December 20, the day South Carolina seceded from the Union. The poem was read at the time as a call to arms, rousing northerners to action, against what Charles Sumner called the Slaveocracy—“a warning voice” waking those who would concede to barbarism from what George Sumner called “their precious Sunday slumbers.” But the poem can also be read as concerning, not just the coming war, but slavery itself: “Paul Revere’s Ride” is, in one sense, a fugitive slave narrative.
During the weeks Longfellow was writing “Paul Revere’s Ride,” the plight of slaves was very much on his mind. He was attending lectures by Frederick Douglass. He was listening to George Sumner condemn the Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott. He was fervently reading speeches given by Charles Sumner. He was casting his vote for Lincoln. He was sympathizing with John Brown. Fearful of politics, Longfellow was, nevertheless, wishing he could do his part, quietly, gently, poetically. “I long to say some vibrant word, that should have vitality in it, and force,” he had written to Sumner. And there is more: much in “Paul Revere’s Ride” echoes lines from Longfellow’s Poems on Slavery—especially “The Slave’s Dream,” “The Slave Singing at Midnight,” “The Witnesses,” and “The Warning”—poems full of fugitive slaves riding through the night, haunted by the dead, hurrying through the darkness, calling out, bearing witness, singing what Longfellow calls (in “The Slave in the Dismal Swamp”) “songs of liberty.”
Longfellow’s historical sources for his account of Revere’s ride appear to have been limited and, of course, the poem wasn’t meant to be accurate. Longfellow loved lore. He began “Hiawatha”: “Should you ask me, whence these stories? / Whence these legends and traditions, / . . . I should answer, I should tell you, / ‘From the forests and the prairies.’” He had, though, seen at least one old document: a letter written by Paul Revere in 1798 to Jeremy Belknap, founder of the Massachusetts Historical Society, describing the night of April 18, 1775. Longfellow almost certainly read this letter because it was published in October 1832 in New England Magazine, in the same issue in which a very early poem of Longfellow’s appeared.
Revere described starting out in Boston: “I . . . went to the north part of the town, where I had kept a Boat; two friends rowed me across the Charles River, a little to the eastward where the Somerset Man-of-War lay. It was then young flood, the ship was winding, and the moon was rising. They landed me in the Charlestown side.” Longfellow, starting out his poem, stays close to Revere’s account:
. . . 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;
But then he leaves Revere’s description behind. His ship takes on a different cast:
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.
Why? To Longfellow’s abolitionist readers, the name Somerset would have readily called to mind the landmark 1772 Somerset case, which outlawed slavery in Britain. And here the “phantom ship” conjures something more. It is as dark and haunting as a slave ship—a dominant conceit in abolitionist writing—“each mast and spar . . . like a prison bar.” Longfellow had written about just such shackled ships in “The Witnesses,” where across the “Ocean’s wide domains . . . Float ships, with all their crews, / No more to sink nor rise”:
There the black Slave-ship swims,
Freighted with human forms,
Whose fettered, fleshless limbs
Are not the sport of storms.
Revere, in his letter to Belknap, next described leaving Charlestown. “I set off upon a very good Horse; it was then about 11 o’Clock, and very pleasant. After I had passed Charlestown Neck, and got nearly opposite where Mark was hung in chains.” Mark, “hung in chains,” refers to the rotting remains of a slave from Charlestown who was executed in 1750, after he and a slave woman named Phyllis were convicted of poisoning their master, a Charlestown merchant, with arsenic. Phyllis was burned at the stake, in Cambridge, not far from Longfellow’s house, in a place called Gallows Hill; Mark was executed in Charlestown, and his body was left, hanged in chains, as a warning to Boston’s slaves of the danger of rebellion. By the time Revere made his ride in 1775, Mark’s bones had been hanging at Charlestown Neck for a quarter century, bearing witness.
Maybe it was Revere’s remark about that landmark, Mark’s bones, that sparked in Longfellow this thought, but here the poem takes a turn. In Boston, the man who mounts the belfry of the Old North Church to light the lanterns looks out at Copps Hill, the burying ground where Longfellow had gone with George Sumner and where the Mathers lay entombed, but which was also, by the 1850s, far better known as the place where Boston’s blacks were buried:
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!”
In “The Witnesses,” Longfellow’s dead whisper something else, from the depths:
These are the bones of Slaves;
They gleam from the abyss;
They cry, from yawning waves,
“We are the Witnesses!”
By now, Longfellow has departed quite radically from Revere’s account (which, in any event, was written long after the fact). “In Medford, I awaked the Captain of the Minute men,” Revere wrote Belknap, “and after that, I alarmed almost every House, till I got to Lexington.” Revere stopped in Lexington for half an hour and had a bite to eat while he talked with John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and William Dawes. On the way to Concord, he stopped again, this time to talk with Dr. Samuel Prescott, and was then captured by the British. But in Longfellow’s poem, Revere races, onward,
. . . 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.
That flight, too, has a counterpart not only in abolitionist literature—where, in the wake of the Fugitive Slave Act, the fate of the nation was often said to ride on a slave’s flight—but also in Longfellow’s Poems on Slavery. In “The Slave’s Dream,” another horseman rides wildly through the night:
. . . at furious speed he rode
Along the Niger’s bank;
His bridle-reins were golden chains,
And, with a martial clank,
At each leap he could feel his scabbard of steel
Smiting his stallion’s flank.
This man, though, is a slave, dreaming of riding all the way home to Africa. And while Revere, Longfellow’s Son of Liberty, rides through New England farms and towns, to the sounds of the barnyard—
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
—his son of slavery rides to the howls of African beasts:
At night he heard the lion roar,
And the hyena scream,
And the river-horse, as he crushed the reeds
Beside some hidden stream;
And it passed, like a glorious roll of drums,
Through the triumph of his dream.
But that triumph is no triumph at all. The slave never wakes from his dream. “The Slave’s Dream” ends with death: “For Death had illumined the Land of Sleep, / And his lifeless body lay / A worn-out fetter, that the soul / Had broken and thrown away!” But “Paul Revere’s Ride” ends with the rider, having wakened from its slumber every New England village and farm, riding on, into history (“You know the rest. In the books you have read”):
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of peril men will hear
The midnight message of Paul Revere,
And the hurrying hoof-beat of his steed.
That, anyway, is what Longfellow wrote. But, in a letter written on November 23, 1860, Longfellow’s brilliant editor, J. T. Fields, offered a decided improvement.
Dont you think it better to end Paul Revere’s Ride on this line,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The People will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beat of his steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.
It seems to me the last line as it stands above is stronger than the end as it now remains in the proof.
What do you say?
Longfellow said yes.
“Paul Revere’s Ride” is a poem about waking the dead. The dead are Northerners, roused to war. But the dead are also the enslaved, entombed in slavery—another common conceit: Frederick Douglass once wrote about his escape as “a resurrection from the dark and pestiferous tomb of slavery.” Who shall wake? Neglecting Longfellow, taking the Sumner out of Longfellow, juvenilizing Longfellow, has had its costs. Decades of schoolroom recitation have not only occluded the poem’s meaning but have also made it exceptionally serviceable as a piece of political propaganda, not least because political propaganda and juvenilia have rather a lot in common. Everyone invokes Revere. Everyone reveres Revere. In 1967, at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We still need some Paul Revere of conscience to alert every hamlet and every village of America that revolution is still at hand.” In 1975, during the Bicentennial, Gerald Ford went to Boston and gave a speech at the Old North Church, calling for renewed pride in America: he quoted Longfellow. Edward Kennedy who, like all the Kennedy children, was required by his mother to memorize “Paul Revere’s Ride,” once recited it in its entirety during a meeting of the Senate Appropriations Committee, after which the committee’s chairman, Robert Byrd, recited it back to him. What was the point of that? The poem, as juvenilia, has no point.
Last year, on the anniversary of Paul Revere’s ride, George Pataki turned up in Boston. Pataki, the former Republican governor of New York, was thinking about running for president; in this, the age of the Tea Party, Pataki was in need of a Founding Father. In the North End, he positioned himself in front of an equestrian statue of Paul Revere. He was there to launch “Revere America,” a nonprofit “dedicated to advancing common sense public policies rooted in our traditions of freedom and free markets, and that will once again make America secure and prosperous for generations to come.” Its goal was “to harness and amplify the voices of the American people to give them a greater say in fighting back against the threats to freedom posed by Washington liberals.” Mainly, though, Pataki wanted to gather signatures on a petition “to repeal and replace Obamacare,” which you could sign at the Revere America website by clicking on an icon of a quill and inkwell on a piece of parchment. “We’re standing near where Paul Revere, on this day, 235 years ago, began a ride,” Pataki said. “He was looking to tell patriotic Americans, ‘Our freedom was in danger.’ We’re here today to tell the people of America that once again our freedom is in danger.” From health care.
“I say nothing of politics, for what is the use of talking,” Longfellow wearily wrote Sumner in January 1861, just after “Paul Revere’s Ride” was published. “The events of the last month only strengthen my convictions, and you know well enough what they are.” We, too, know well enough what they are. Longfellow signed his next letter to Sumner, “Yours ever without compromise or concession.” Two weeks later, Longfellow wrote in his diary, “The dissolution of the Union goes slowly on. Behind it all I hear the low murmur of the slaves, like the chorus in a Greek tragedy.” Listen, and you shall hear.
Longfellow’s papers are at the Houghton Library, Harvard University, and see The Letters of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, edited by Andrew Hilen (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966–1982), 6 vols. Excerpts from Longfellow’s diaries are available in Samuel Longfellow, Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, with Extracts from his Journals and Correspondence (Boston, 1886), 2 vols. Letters between Longfellow and his editor have been compiled by James C. Austin, “J. T. Fields and the Revision of Longfellow’s Poems: Unpublished Correspondence,” New England Quarterly 24 (1951): 239–250.Excerpts from Longfellow’s account books have been transcribed by James M. Shea, Director and Museum Curator, Longfellow National Historic Site, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Many thanks to Jim Shea for sharing his transcriptions with me. For Longfellow’s poems, see Poems and Other Writings, selected by J. D. McClatchy (New York: The Library of America, 2000) and Selected Poems, edited with an Introduction by Lawrence Buell (New York: Penguin Books, 1998). An excellent exhibit catalog is Christoph Irmscher, Public Poet, Private Man: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow at 200 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009). For newly discovered and never before published stanzas from Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride,” see the detective work of Charles Bahne, “One Hundred and Fifty Years of ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’—A Sesquicentennial Observation,” The Revere House Gazette 99 (Summer 2010): 1–4, 6.
Biographical and critical studies of Longfellow include Newton Arvin, Longfellow: His Life and Work (Boston: Little, Brown, 1962); Charles C. Calhoun, Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004); Christoph Irmscher, Longfellow Redux (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006); Frederick J. Blue, “The Poet and the Reformer: Longfellow, Sumner, and the Bonds of Male Friendship, 1837–1874,” Journal of the Early Republic 15 (1995): 273–297; Daniel Aaron, “The Legacy of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,”Maine Historical Society Quarterly 27 (1988): 42–66; and Virginia Jackson, “Longfellow’s Tradition: Or, Picture-Writing a Nation,” Modern Language Quarterly 59 (1998): 476–77. For a discussion of Longfellow’s career in the classroom see Angela Sorby, Schoolroom Poets: Childhood, Performance, and the Place of American Poetry, 1865–1917 (Durham: University of New Hampshire Press, 2005). David Hackett Fischer discusses the relationship between Longfellow’s poem and the historical Revere in Paul Revere’s Ride (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994). On Charles Sumner see David Herbert Donald, Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War (New York: Knopf, 1960) and Frederick J. Blue, Charles Sumner and the Conscience of the North (Arlington Heights, Illinois: Harlan Davidson, 1994). Sumner’s papers are at the Houghton Library. A fine selection of his correspondence is The Selected Letters of Charles Sumner, edited by Beverly Wilson Palmer (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1990).
Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard and a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her books include The Name of War, winner of the Bancroft Prize; New York Burning, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History.
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