Paul Revere’s famous ride on April 18th, 1775 is the subject of this famous Longfellow poem. It is told from the perspective of a landlord who is hoping to entertain and inform his “children”. ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’ was published in Atlantic Monthly magazine in 1861 around the beginning of the Civil War. Longfellow wrote this piece with the intent of inspiring Northerners.
One of the less discussed elements of this poem is its function as an anti-slavery statement. There are several allusions in this poem, such as to a burial ground for enslaved people and the use of the name “Somerset” at the beginning of the poem. The latter is connected to a landmark case that outlawed slavery in Britain in 1772.
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Summary of Paul Revere’s Ride
The poem follows Paul Revere on his midnight ride. The events occur in chronological order and Longfellow gives sufficient time to develop the drama of every moment. The most dramatic and important part of the plan comes as Revere rides quickly through the countryside from village to village. He’s riding with the warning that the British are coming by sea.
At the end of the poem, the poet alludes to the historical importance of this moment and how, just like Revere’s horse, the facts of this evening will permeate history for years to come.
Structure of Paul Revere’s Ride
‘Paul Revere’s Ride’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is a ten-stanza poem that is separated into uneven stanzas or lines. The shortest stanza is five lines and the longest is twenty-seven lines long.
Like most of Longfellow’s poems, this one is structured using a rhyme scheme and metrical pattern. Due to the varying length of the stanzas, the pattern changes but as an example here is the pattern from stanza one: AABBA
In regards to meter, Longfellow uses iambs and anapaests. The latter refers to two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable and the former, an iamb, is a metrical foot that contains one unstressed beat followed by one stressed beat.
Literary Devices in Paul Revere’s Ride
Longfellow makes use of several literary devices in ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’. These include but are not limited to allusion, imagery, and enjambment. The latter, enjambment, occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines three and four of the second stanza as well as lines two and three of the fifth stanza.
An allusion is an expression that’s meant to call something specific to mind without directly stating it. In this poem, there are numerous examples as Longfellow crafts the story of Paul Revere. A close reader, with knowledge of the contemporary period in which the poem was written, can find references to the new conflict that was about to break out—the Civil War.
Imagery refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. Traditionally, the word “image” is related to visual sights, things that a reader can imagine seeing, but imagery is much more than that. It is something one can sense with their five senses. This is one of the most important techniques at work in ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’. It can be seen through descriptions such as: “Wrapped in silence so deep and still / That he could hear, like a sentinel’s tread”.
Analysis of 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.
In the first stanza of ‘Paul Revere’s Ride,’ the speaker begins by gathering the listeners around him. The landlord, who is telling the story of Paul Revere, is directing it towards his children. He asked them to listen closely to the story of the “midnight ride of Paul Revere“. The landlord has the date and alludes to the fame that this historically significant act gave Revere.
It is already evident from the first stanza how the perfect rhyme scheme is going to benefit the song like qualities of this poem.
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.
In the second stanza of ‘Paul Revere’s Ride,’ the landlord conveys the words that are integrally tied to Revere’s ride. He speaks the famous words “One, if by land, and two, if by sea“. This refers to the number of lanterns that his friend going to hang “aloft“ in the “belfry arch“ of the “north church tower“.
Nowadays, this line is quite famous. It should’ve been recognizable to anyone reading this poem and to the fictional children to whom this poem was spoken by the landlord. Revere had to be ready to ride and spread the alarm through every village and farm to make sure that all the countryfolk were “up into arm“.
Everyone needed to be prepared for an incursion by British troops. There’s a great example of imagery at the end of the second stanza when the poet describes the bay and the image of the “phantom ship“. The ship was massive, walking out the moon “like a prison bar“. A clearly foreboding and fearsome image.
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.
The third stanza of ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’ provides the reader with several examples of alliteration. These include “wanders“ and “watches” as well as “muster” and “men”. Everyone is waiting to see if the British are going to come by land or by sea. There is a very clear atmosphere of expectation in this stanza and the others before and after it. Everyone is ready to jump into action at a moment’s notice. This helps to coney how much there is at stake.
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 sombre 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.
The narrative of ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’ progresses smoothly and clearly into the fourth stanza. Here, the speaker describes how Revere’s friend climbed up the tower of the church just as he said he would. He “startled the pigeons from their perch” and made it up into the rafters. There was a “trembling ladder” that reached up “step and tall”. The poet is taking the reader through every aspect of this evening in this man’s life. He is providing details that do not exist in the historical account but help to illuminate the moments for curious readers. Plus, these bits of information make the poem all together more engaging.
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, and 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.
In the second half of this stanza of ‘Paul Revere’s Ride,’ the poet spends more time going into all the individual details that make this poem so memorable. It is quite easy, as a reader separated by centuries from these moments, to imagine the tension of the scene. Revere’s friend sees a “line of black that bends and floats” far away on the horizon. It is “like a bridge of boats” that’s headed towards the shore. It’s at this moment that he’s sure the British are coming by sea and not by land. Meaning, that he’s going to hang two lanterns in the belfry for Revere to spot.
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 at 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 sombre 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!
While the friend is up in the tower hanging the lanterns Revere is waiting on the opposite shore. He’s on his horse prepared to ride as soon as he sees how many lanterns are hanging in the “belfry tower of the old North Church“. He is anxious for the signal and that emotion seems to be transferred into his horse who stamps the earth ready to go at a moment’s notice. Suddenly, the light is gleaming from the tower. There was another good example of alliteration at this point in the poem with the use of the words “glimmer“ and “gleam”.
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.
Revere jumps in action, turning his horse and directing it along “in a village street“. The horse runs quickly, a feature that Longfellow is able to emphasize through the use of repetitive words beginning with “f,” for example “flying fearless and fleet”. This helps to mimic the sound of the rushing air.
Revere moves through the villages and beyond. The ride was so important and so grounded in American historical memory that even today the sound of his ride can be heard along the same path.
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.
In the sixth stanza of ‘Paul Revere’s Ride,’ one of the shortest of the poem, Longfellow includes several examples of images that Revere is confronted with as he rides to his destination. The entire village is alive, despite the time of day. In fact, it’s very likely that his senses were heightened by the importance of his task. These stanzas which detail Revere’s ride help to create the feeling that Revere is continually riding, even when the poem was being written on the eve of the Civil War.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
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.
When he finally made it into Lexington it was one o’clock in ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’. Then, it was two when he made it into Concord town. The stanzas are somewhat similar as Longfellow moves the reader through a variety of natural images. He includes the sound of birds, the sight of moonlight, the feeling of the breeze, and the atmosphere of the various locations that he encountered. At the end of the eighth stanza, the speaker references the “one“ who was sleeping in his bed and who would that day end up dead. He was the first of all, “pierced by 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.
The ninth stanza begins with the phrase “you know the rest”. The landlord is still talking to his “children” and he refers to the history that they all should know quite well. But, despite this fact, he just goes into some detail about the battle that was to come. The “British regulars” fired but then fled because the farmers were prepared for them. They were chased out across the fields pursued by fighters who only paused 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-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.
In the final stanza of ‘Paul Revere’s Ride,’ the speaker concludes a story with more examples of allusion, alliteration, and even anaphora. He alludes to the historical importance of the story that is just relayed. He knows, as others know who heard the poem or read it themselves, that no one would ever forget the “midnight message of Paul Revere”.
Just as the poet describes Revere living through the night and encountering various elements, so too does the story move through the years “on the night wind of the past“. It goes through “all our history, to the last“. It is at this point that a reader can clearly relate this poem to the contemporary moment at Longfellow was living through. In an effort to inspire those who are about to embark on the first battles of the Civil War, he wrote this poem to remind specifically the Northerners of the proud history of American courage and determination.