Last Wednesday, I had the pleasure of attending Charles Bahne’s lecture on “‘Paul Revere’s Ride’ Revisited” at the Old South Meeting-House. He gave a detailed account of how Henry W. Longfellow wrote that famous poem, including his artistic choice to deviate from his main source, Revere’s own account, in order to create a better story.
In Longfellow’s papers, Charlie found what appears to be the first complete draft of “Paul Revere’s Ride.” It includes an entire lost stanza about a “tall, gray rider,” inspired by the legend of Hezekiah Wyman. (Someday I’ll discuss the basis of that story.) I suspect Longfellow dropped those lines because focusing attention on that man—another rider, in fact—would have dimmed his poetic spotlight on Revere as a lone hero.
Charlie’s talk also made me rethink the political significance of “Paul Revere’s Ride” in its own time. The poem is usually interpreted as Longfellow’s call to arms to loyal Americans as the Civil War approached. It was published in the issue of The Atlantic Monthly that went on sale on 20 Dec 1860, the same day that the slaveholders who held power in South Carolina voted to secede. War was on its way.
However, Longfellow started writing his poem in early April 1860, before the Democratic Party split over slavery and before the Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln for president. Longfellow finished that first draft on 13 October, when the election was still more than three weeks away. Because he was pacifist, I doubt he would have looked ahead to a war while he could still imagine the country avoiding it. So although I believe Longfellow wrote “Paul Revere’s Ride” to inspire his contemporaries, I’m not sure the crisis he was thinking about was a future war.
Instead, I look at the political atmosphere that surrounded Longfellow as he wrote, under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and the Dred Scott decision of 1857. Longfellow was an Abolitionist, giving that movement both his Poems on Slavery and financial contributions for both organizations and escapees. (Read about the notations in his account books in this downloadable issue of the Longfellow House Bulletin.)
Read against the background of mid-1860, there’s a different historical resonance to Longfellow’s lines:
A cry of defiance, and not of fear,The call in the night sounds like a call to help refugees, defying the authorities who might be marching after them. Of course, by the time “Paul Revere’s Ride” was actually in print, the U.S. of A. faced a crisis of a different form.
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo for evermore!
In a matter of weeks, Charlie Bahne’s presentation will be available at the WGBH Forum Network for everyone to enjoy. [ADDENDUM: Here it is.] This was the first time those lost lines of “Paul Revere’s Ride” were ever read publicly.
This month’s series of Longfellow lectures ends on Wednesday, 26 September, at 7:30 P.M. at the First Parish in Cambridge, right off Harvard Square. National Endowment for the Arts chairman Dana Gioia and Poetry Foundation president John Barr will talk about Longfellow’s legacy as a public poet. See the Cambridge Forum website for more details.