The Poem

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For generations of readers, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” has defined the beginning of the American Revolution, and Revere has become an American hero. Longfellow’s primary concern was not historical accuracy, however; he portrays Revere as the only messenger, ignoring the equally important roles of William Dawes and other riders. From beginning to end, the poet consciously attempts to create a legend. Thus, in the first stanza, he adopts the persona of an older person transmitting a significant oral tradition to a younger generation (“Listen my children”) as he recounts events of eighty-six years earlier that influenced the course of American history. This stanza, the shortest in the poem, serves as prologue, a parallel to the patriotic epilogue in the final stanza.

Subsequent stanzas detail the events of “the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five.” The second stanza continues to develop the title character’s role as protector of his community; though Revere’s name is not mentioned here, Longfellow explains Revere’s scheme to alert the populace if the British initiate military action. The third stanza focuses upon the situation in Boston, emphasizing the intimidating power of the British military as embodied in the Somerset, a man-of-war that seems to dominate both the harbor and the city.

In the fourth stanza, Longfellow further emphasizes the vigilance of the colonists. The unnamed “friend,” who has been delegated to watch the British soldiers, discovers movement but waits until he determines that the invaders will travel by sea. The friend remains central through the sixth stanza. The subject of the fifth stanza is his climb to the North Church tower. From the highest window he surveys the city he is trying to protect. The sixth stanza adds to the myth as he briefly muses on the nearby dead and his own loneliness but soon concentrates on the soldiers’ movement and his role in warning his fellow citizens.

With the seventh stanza, the focus shifts to Revere, who waits impatiently on the opposite shore. He strides back and forth, pats his horse’s side, and tightens his “saddle girth.” As he watches the church steeple, he too thinks about the adjoining graveyard and the danger inherent in the task before him. For him as well, these musings end with greater concentration upon his mission, and he cautiously watches until he is certain he sees the second lamp.

The eighth stanza uses the sights and sounds of his ride to emphasize its significance to “the fate of a nation.” Longfellow implies that, without the patriotism and courage of people like Revere, the American Revolution might have failed. In the ninth stanza, Longfellow begins to trace Revere’s progress through the countryside. Stanzas 10-12 describe his intrusion upon the essentially pastoral setting in towns such as Medford (10), Lexington (11), and Concord (12).

The concluding stanzas return to emphasis upon America’s legendary past and Revere’s relationship to the future. In stanza 13, Longfellow develops the contrast between the “British Regulars” and the American “farmers” who successfully oppose them, forcing them to retreat. The final stanza establishes Revere as the embodiment of American independence; Longfellow suggests that his spirit of “defiance” will reappear to defend Americans whenever the nation is threatened.

Forms and Devices

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Common criticisms of Longfellow’s poetry involve its conventional diction, trite imagery, and excessive metrical uniformity. This poem contains some such flaws, especially in diction and syntax. For example, Longfellow refers to “the tramp of feet” and “the measured tread of the grenadiers” (stanza 4). Likewise, stanzas 9-12 contain such clichés as “the tramp of his steed,” “the crowing of the cock,” “the barking...

(This entire section contains 455 words.)

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of the farmer’s dog,” the “spectral glare” of the meetinghouse windows, “the bleating of the flock,” “the twitter of birds,” and “the breath of the morning breeze.” Sometimes Longfellow also sacrifices syntactic clarity to rhyme scheme. The inverted syntax at the end of the first stanza may be justified by the need to establish an archaic tone, but a similar inversion in stanza 2 (“I on the opposite shore will be”) clearly is not realistic dialogue.

Much of the poem’s imagery also seems somewhat trite. For instance, the simile of the warship’s shadows as prison bars (stanza 3) is a bit heavy-handed. Likewise, repeated references to the moonlight (stanzas 3, 5, and 11) are a bit forced, especially in stanza 11, where the moonlight is described as gilding the meetinghouse’s weathercock. A similar objection could be raised concerning the metaphor of “the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight” as the beginning of the Revolution, and Longfellow’s physical descriptions often consist of various sensory images in rapid succession.

On the other hand, it is important to remember the poet’s purpose and the era in which he wrote. Longfellow deliberately chose conventional imagery and diction because he was developing an American legend; moreover, some elements of the poem may appear trite, primarily because they have become part of American national consciousness. Most important is the fact that, despite these flaws, the poem still appeals to American readers and inspires patriotism.

Certainly this poem is not excessively uniform in stanza length (ranging from five to sixteen lines). Narrative flow seems to determine stanza length; for example, stanzas describing the actual ride (8-12) are shorter than those (6 and 7) in which the characters contemplate their mission. These shorter stanzas create a sense of urgency and rapid movement. Varying stanza lengths also lead to inconsistent rhyme schemes. Most stanzas contain couplets, but none consists entirely of couplets. Likewise, several stanzas include quatrains, but these quatrain patterns also vary.

As in most nineteenth century poetry, true rhyme dominates, but some rhyming syllables are further linked by consonance. For instance, stanzas 5 and 6 employ three rhymes ending in “-ll” (“tall,” “hill,” “well”). Scansion of individual lines is difficult because Longfellow customarily uses many compressed or slurred syllables; inversions (dactyls for iambs) and substitutions (anapests and dactyls) are frequent, but the iambic tetrameter line is the most common.


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