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
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 of the farmer’s dog,” the “spectral glare” of the meetinghouse windows, “the bleating of the flock,” “the twitter of birds,” and “the...
(The entire section is 1,140 words.)