By Adam Andrews
When our kids were little, Missy and I used to read them Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem about Paul Revere. It’s a great poem—a classic by any definition. We particularly like how the poem’s imagery takes us back in time, and we imagine ourselves in the Boston hinterland on the 18th of April, 1775, as Paul Revere rides out to warn his countrymen of the British threat. Even the rhythm of the piece recalls a galloping horse:
LISTen my CHILDren and YOU shall HEAR
Of the MIDnight RIDE of PAUL reVERE.
In all the years that I read it to my children, I had never thought to ask them what Longfellow’s poem was about. It went without saying, I suppose. It’s about the American Revolution, of course. It’s about the famed Minutemen of Massachusetts and their heroic battle with the British at Old North Bridge in Concord.
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year . . .
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 . . .
But in larger sense, the poem is also about the American spirit. It’s about how Americans won’t stand for slavery and how they fight against any and all threats to their liberties. Longfellow urges his readers to adopt the Minutemen’s attitude toward oppression and tyranny:
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.
One day fairly recently, long after I had stopped reading the poem to my kids, I decided to explore the context of Longfellow’s poem—that is, the details of time and place that surrounded its writing. I learned that until you take a look at these details, you may never really know what a story is about.
Thanks to Google, it is much easier to find out about a story’s context than it used to be. In no more than three minutes of searching for terms such as “Longfellow” and “Paul Revere’s Ride,” I came up with the following details:
First, I found that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lived from 1807 to 1882 and was a lifelong resident of New England. This made him a contemporary of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Abraham Lincoln, and Mark Twain. This also means he lived through the War of 1812, the development of steam power, and the American Civil War.
Second, I learned that Longfellow was a famous poet. By some accounts he was the most famous man in America and was considered a national treasure even during his own lifetime. It was customary, I read, for gentlemen to rise and doff their hats when Longfellow entered a room, out of respect for the great man. Longfellow was so highly regarded, in fact, that everything he wrote was immediately bought up and read by an adoring public. He could be certain of a wide listening audience every time he put pen to paper.
Finally, I noted the publication details of “Paul Revere’s Ride.” It first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, a Boston literary journal, in January 1861. January 1861! I was shocked. That means that he wrote the poem less than two months after Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States without the benefit of a single Southern vote. That means he wrote the poem just as the first Southern states began to secede from the Union, a little more than a month before a Southern government, the Confederate States of America, was formally declared, and less than four months before shots were fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina’s Charleston harbor. Longfellow wrote the poem, in other words, at the very height of the secession crisis that brought on the American Civil War.
The combination of these three simple details produced a dramatic and immediate change in the way I understood Longfellow’s poem. I realized that while the events of 1775 gave shape to the story, it wasn’t really about the American Revolution at all. After all, why would Longfellow spend so much energy rallying his readers to a cause nearly a century old? Why encourage them with all of those passionate words about the American spirit if the issue had been decided before they were born? What need was there in 1861 to fan the spark of patriotism into flame if he was writing about the crisis of 1775?
But Longfellow did spend that energy to rally his readers. He did encourage them with passionate words about the American spirit. He did strive to fan the spark of patriotism into flame. Longfellow clearly wanted to arouse in his readers the American love of liberty that had animated the founders and direct it against the old foes: slavery, oppression, and tyranny. But what power of slavery, oppression, and tyranny was he railing against? The eighteenth-century British Empire? In 1861? Hardly.
I realized it was much more likely that this famous New Englander and friend of abolitionists used this poem to rally his troops against the Southern slave power and the incipient Confederacy.
As a historian, I already knew that “Paul Revere’s Ride” is not a very reliable guide for historical details about the American Revolution. It exaggerates some of the facts and gets others simply wrong. A quick look into the context of the poem, however, reveals its great value as a glimpse into the mind of an American Northerner on the eve of the Civil War as he contemplates his nation’s past and looks hopefully toward a glorious future.
As it happens, all stories are written by particular people at particular times in particular places. We readers would do well to pay attention to these details of context. As I learned with Paul Revere, they are often the key that unlocks a story’s meaning.
Adam Andrews is the Director of the Center for Literary Education and a homeschooling father of six. Adam earned his B.A. from Hillsdale College and is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington. He and his wife Missy are the authors of Teaching the Classics, the popular reading and literature curriculum. They teach their children at home in Rice, Washington. For more information, visit www.centerforlit.com.
Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.