April 18, 2010

The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed

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.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wasn't entirely correct in his description of the fateful day of April 18, 1775 and the exploits of patriot and silversmith Paul Revere — now one of his most famous and most criticized works. Then again, it was never his intention to write history.

Longfellow visited the North End early in April 1861. In his journal, he records: "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." He started writing "Paul Revere's Ride" around the same time, 150 years ago this year.

It took him six months to complete the poem. During that time, Abraham Lincoln was elected president. The poet corresponded heavily with his friend the United States Senator Charles Sumner. He read the newspapers. And, perhaps most importantly, he knew the country was headed to a new "revolution" (his word, not mine).

He knew the true story of Paul Revere, having read his autobiography and other accounts. In fact, Longfellow was not writing about Paul Revere or the American Revolution. He was writing about the Civil War, the next revolution. The poem was not so much a call to arms, but a call to unite, a message of defiance (and not of fear). Longfellow wanted the American people to remember the last time they united for the cause of freedom (this time, the cause was freedom of slaves). He had publicly announced his abolitionist thoughts in 1842 in his book Poems on Slavery, just as his fame as a poet was beginning to build.

Between the first publication of "Paul Revere's Ride" and its inclusion in Tales of a Wayside Inn (renamed "The Landlord's Tale") in 1863, Longfellow wrote in his journal: "We are on the brink of Civil War. It is Slavery against Freedom; the north wind against the southern pestilence."

More on the sesquicentennial of "Paul Revere's Ride," including ongoing events in celebration of it as well as further discussions of its writing and its accuracy, visit www.paulreveresride.org.

6 comments:

  1. I am a most-times reader of the blog. I read because it presents new facets of known literary figures and also new literary figures that I would otherwise never come across. In my case there is certainly more of the latter than the former but each snippet is finely wrought so as to be equally appealing. The concept and the content may have made me sign up for the RSS feed but it is the quality of each entry that keeps me reading.

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  2. Good timing for this post. It's important to understand the Civil War aspect of this "revolutionary" poem.

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  3. When I was in 5th Grade a member of my class memorized Paul Revere's Ride. Whenever I'm challenged with memorization - I remember that Donald Loverin learned the whole thing. (His delivery, however, was less than spell-binding.)

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  4. I often wonder how beneficial it is to memorize poetry and, in particular, a long one like "Paul Revere's Ride." It may surprise people that I don't advocate it - in part because I worry it makes a young person see poetry as an obstacle to be overcome and ultimately strips the words of meaning.

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    1. I take your point, but I think if you ask people who memorized some poetry, even long pieces, early on, most are glad that they did. Of course it should never be a daunting chore, but maybe somewhere up there with piano practice. There can be a real satisfaction in the accomplishment. Above all, so many aspects of poems memorized when we are young can really take on meaning over time.

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    2. Maybe, but maybe I'm playing devil's advocate here. I've met lots of people who proudly note they have memorized certain poems and have remembered them for decades... Yet they still don't know what the poem is about. I myself remember struggling with memorizing a couple in my school years, forced to have a deadline, being scared to death of getting the lines wrong in front of my peers, and I've retained nothing. I think we both agree that it's more beneficial to help people learn to read poetry, rather than how to memorize poems.

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