Upfront Home
In This Issue
News and Trends
Features
 • 
 • 
 • 
 • 
Times Past
The Ethicist
Debate
Teen Voices
Upfront Topics
Contact
Magazine Info

'Paul Revere's Ride'

What war was Longfellow really writing about in his classic poem?

By Jill Lepore


Paul Revere's Ride" was published on the same day—Dec. 20, 1860—that South Carolina seceded from the Union and set in motion the chain of events that launched the Civil War.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's best-known poem begins: Listen, my children, and you shall hear/Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere. Before Longfellow wrote those lines, however, Revere wasn't known for his ride, and Longfellow got almost every detail of what happened in 1775 wrong.

But Longfellow didn't care: "Paul Revere's Ride" is less a poem about the Revolutionary War than about the impending Civil War and the conflict over slavery that was its main cause.

Now, on the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, the real meaning of Longfellow's poem has been almost entirely forgotten.

Longfellow, though a very private person, was a passionate abolitionist. His best friend was Charles Sumner, the U.S. Senator from Massachusetts who was known for stirring speeches against slavery.

In 1857, Longfellow wrote to Sumner, calling the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision (which said that slaves were not protected by the Constitution) heartbreaking, and wishing he could find a way to write about it: "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."

A 'New Revolution'?

On Dec. 2, 1859, the day abolitionist John Brown was hanged for his failed attempt to start a slave revolt with a raid on a federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, Longfellow wrote in his diary, "This will be a great day in our history, the date of a new Revolution quite as much needed as the old one."

Pondering that new revolution, Longfellow got to thinking about the old one. In April 1860, he began writing "Paul Revere's Ride." While he worked on the poem, he worried about the fate of the nation.

"Paul Revere's Ride" was published in the January 1861 issue of The Atlantic. It appeared on newsstands on Dec. 20, 1860, and was widely read as a rallying cry for the Union. It is a poem about waking the sleeping, and waking the dead: Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead,/In their night encampment on the hill.

The dead are Northerners, awakened, at last aroused. But the dead are also the enslaved, entombed in slavery.

Thanks to poems like "Paul Revere's Ride," Longfellow was once the country's most respected and beloved poet. In recent decades, literary scholars have dismissed his poetry as cloying and childish. Many schoolchildren have memorized "Paul Revere's Ride"; most critics have barely read it.

It's worth remembering that the poem is, after all, a rousing call to action.

"The dissolution of the Union goes slowly on," Longfellow wrote in his diary in January 1861. "Behind it all I hear the low murmur of the slaves, like the chorus in a Greek tragedy."

Paul Revere's Ride
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 the tower of the Old North Church,
By the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,
To the belfry-chamber overhead,
And startled the pigeons from their perch
On the somber 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, 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 somber 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 flying 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 after 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 he 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 farm-yard 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-beat of that steed,
And the midnight-message of Paul Revere.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1860.

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, February 21, 2011)