Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 583

Decades before the Civil War, the North and the South vied for the dominant role in America’s Revolution. Each claimed to have originated the idea of independence, and their writers commemorated specific battles as proof of these assertions. Apparently, Longfellow originally intended “Paul Revere’s Ride” as part of this literary war; he had actually written this poem slightly earlier, but coincidentally The Atlantic published it as the Civil War began. Both Longfellow and editor James Fields recognized that the poem could build support for the Union, and supposedly Fields suggested the reference to “the hour of darkness and peril and need” in the final stanza.

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The patriotic message is only one reason for emphasis upon the Revolutionary past. Longfellow is the prototypical poet of American Romanticism, whose work incorporates most Romantic conventions. For example, Longfellow’s attempt to create a legendary American hero is philosophically compatible with the Romantic emphasis upon the importance of narrative poetry, especially that which recounts significant events in a culture’s political or social history. Further, Romanticism required that such narratives be set at least sixty years in the past, and Longfellow describes events that took place eighty-six years earlier.

Also typical of Romanticism is the theme of individualism, especially the effect of one person whose heroism elevates him or her to mythic significance. Longfellow portrays Revere as essentially a colonial American Everyman, whose cleverness and courage earn him a place among Revolutionary War heroes. The infrequent references to Revere by name increase this sense of the messenger as a representative American citizen-soldier, the type of individual that might appear in response to the nation’s needs, at any time or place. Since Romantics saw past, present, and future as interrelated, Longfellow probably would have made Revere the guardian spirit of American sovereignty, even without the impetus of sectional conflict.

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Romantic individualism was also closely associated with melancholy musings on loneliness and death. For example, when the friend climbs the tower (stanzas 5 and 6), he feels separated from the citizens he is trying to save, his loneliness leads him to contemplate the danger and death represented by the church graveyard, and he is momentarily distracted from his mission. Revere echoes this lonely, somber mood as he too observes the proximity of the graveyard and the church (stanza 7).

The most obvious examples of the death theme occur as Revere nears the end of his ride (stanzas 11 and 12), however. In Lexington, the meetinghouse windows are as “blank and bare” as the eyes of the dead, and Longfellow suggests they are contemplating with horror “the bloody work they would look upon.” As Revere enters Concord, the peaceful pastoral setting is marred by his reflections that someone now “safe and asleep in his bed” will become the first casualty of the coming battle.

Romantics were strongly influenced by the literature of other cultures. Longfellow began his career as a professor of comparative literature, but his studies extended beyond traditional familiarity with English, French, German, and Italian literature to include knowledge of Scandinavian literature as well. Narrative genres like the saga and the romance were compatible with his temperament and his purpose. Certainly one major influence during this period was Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1387-1400); Longfellow adopted a similar framework for Tales of a Wayside Inn, in which he incorporated “Paul Revere’s Ride,” assigning this tale to Squire Howe, the innkeeper. In this way, Longfellow seems to remind readers that the poem is a literary construct, not a historical account.

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