December 20, 2010

The hour of darkness and peril and need

Though it was issued two days earlier in a Boston newspaper, the first official publication of the poem "Paul Revere's Ride" occurred on December 20, 1860 — 150 years ago today. The Atlantic Monthly introduced the now-famous poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in its issue dated January 1861. Longfellow and editor James T. Fields were both surprised to see that six lines were accidentally omitted; its iconic first lines, however, were intact:

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.

Coincidentally, on the day the poem was published, South Carolina seceded from the Union — one of the many steps that led to the American Civil War. That event only emphasizes the period in which Longfellow was motivated to write the poem. His mythologized version of the historic ride on the 18th of April in '75 was never meant as an accurate representation but as a message about the importance of liberty and joining together in times of national crisis. By invoking our shared past, he was trying to warn us of the future. Though the opening lines are the poem's most famous, it may be more appropriate to consider its final stanza in light of that time of national crisis:

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-beat of that steed,
And the midnight-message of Paul Revere.

*For the information in this post, I am indebted to the recent research of historian Charles Bahne, author of The Complete Guide to Boston's Freedom Trail. For more information on Longfellow's poem, please visit

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