By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Written April 19, 1860
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.
Longfellow wrote this poem in 1860, the year Abraham Lincoln was elected 16th President of the United States, and 85 years after Paul Revere’s “midnight ride” into the moonlit Massachusetts night.
By saying “Hardly a man is now alive who remembers that famous day and year,” was Longfellow saying that most of those who were alive in 1775 had passed on by 1860, or was he lamenting the fact that the events surrounding the Revolutionary War had already largely been forgotten? Did he write this poem in an attempt to keep the memory of the Patriots’ daring sacrifices alive?
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.”
“His friend” was Robert Newman, caretaker of Boston’s Old North Church—at the time, Old North’s bell tower was the tallest structure in Boston. The signal was not for Revere only, however, but for other patriots who could help spread the word. Revere was not the only rider to shout the warning that night; it was a group effort. William Dawes, especially, could have as easily been the hero of this poem (and the person immortalized by it), but Longfellow chose Revere. Why do you think that is? One more thing … why do you think the poet placed a hyphen between “to” and “night”?
The water route was quickest, meaning there would be less time to spare. That is why Newman was instructed to not only signal a confirmation that the British were on the move, but to also let the chosen route of departure be known. Newman probably kept the lanterns shining for a minute or less. Not only would the colonists see the light, so would the occupants and occupiers of Boston. By the time he got back down the 14 flights of stairs from the bell tower, British soldiers were at the front door of the church. Newman escaped arrest by climbing through a window to the side of the altar.
In a paradoxical twist, the Old North was a mainstay of the Crown. Most of the members were loyal to the King and embedded in his service. Some called it “The King’s own Church.” Denominationally, it was a colonial outpost of the Church of England. On the night of April 18, 1775, though, Old North shone the light that would signal the monarchy’s coming defeat.
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.
Longfellow, poet extraordinaire, sets the scene and draws us in. The ship’s mast and spar become a “prison bar,” pinning the colonists down and holding them captive to the whims of the King.
According to lunar charts, the moon would have just been rising as Paul Revere was being rowed across the Charles River (for he did not row himself). Here is Paul’s account of the journey:
“Two friends rowed me across Charles River a little to the eastward where the Somerset man-of-war lay. It was then young flood, the ship was winding, and the moon rising. They landed me on the Charlestown side. When I got into town, I met Colonel Conant and several others; they said they had seen our signals. I told them what was acting, and went to get me a horse …”
Particularly astute readers will want to know, “What was the name of the horse Paul Revere selected?” Are you ready? Tradition says his steed’s name was Brown Beauty.
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.
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.
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.
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 he 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.
It is a beautiful poem, but it’s not absolutely accurate. As previously mentioned, the signal from the tower was not for Revere’s benefit only, but to get the word out to as many Patriots as possible that the British were on the move. The threat of capture was intense (and Revere was indeed captured before the night was over, as we shall soon see), so the more people who knew the troops were underway, the more likely it would be that the urgent word would be spread throughout the region.
And what of the cemetery? There was none on the grounds of the Old North Church. Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, however, is only 100 or so yards to the northwest and is the graveyard of which the poet speaks. How could Longfellow know what the lantern lighter was thinking and feeling? Do you think the poet may have climbed the bell tower himself, looking out on the scene and envisioning what may have taken place in 1775?
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.
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.
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, black and bare,
Gaze at him with a spectral glare,
As if they already stood aghast
At the bloody work they would look upon.
Paul Revere intended a more direct route to Lexington, where he was to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock that the British were headed their way—not only to destroy the munitions the Minutemen had stored in Concord, but to arrest the two leaders and make an example of them.
Let’s not quibble about the time. Longfellow says it was one in the morning when Revere arrived in Lexington, and he was close. In an eyewitness recollection of that evening, Sergeant William Monroe, a Minuteman assigned to help guard the house where Adams and Hancock were staying, said:
“About midnight, Col. Paul Revere rode up and requested admittance. I told him the family had just retired, and had requested that they might not be disturbed by any noise about the house.
‘Noise!’ said he, ‘You’ll have noise enough before long. The regulars are coming out.'”
Did “the fate of a nation” really hang in the balance? How important were these events anyway? Was this night of actual importance to anyone other than the poet?
Sunrise, April 19th, saw the first military engagements of the Revolutionary War. And the most famous literary descriptions move us from the Old North Church in Boston, to the North Bridge in Concord. In his own poetic rendering of the battle, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:
“By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.”
Poetic license aside, that “first shot” would probably be best attributed to the initial battle—the one at Lexington. The British, you will remember, were headed marching to Concord to gain control of munitions stored there by the Patriots.
At Lexington, their plans were for a detachment to arrest Adams and Hancock. The Patriots having been forewarned, though, the British were met by armed resistance—about 70 Minutemen were assembled at the north end of Lexington Common to face the 700 or more British Regulars.
Captain John Parker, leader of the Minutemen, told his ragtag army, “Stand your ground. Don’t fire unless fired upon. But if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”
And begin there, it did. Both sides later accused the other of firing that first shot. All we know for sure is that it was indeed fired, that Patriot blood was shed, and the war had begun.
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 meadow 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.
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 farmyard wall,
Chasing the redcoats 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.
Paul Revere didn’t make it to Concord that night. He was captured by British forces and forced to return to Lexington, once again gaining his freedom as the muskets began to sound.
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 for evermore!
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.
Which leaves us with an appropriate question for today … In a present-day “hour of darkness and peril and need,” will we hear the “midnight message of Paul Revere”?
And—after all—what is that message, that message so clear and urgent? Is it only about British soldiers, or is it also about contemporary threats to our freedom?