Dana Gioia on Longfellow’s Mythmaking

The poet Dana Gioia, formerly chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, has written about Henry W. Longfellow’s role in American culture and particularly about “Paul Revere’s Ride”:
At a crucial time in American history—just as the Revolutionary War receded from living memory and the disastrous Civil War inexorably approached—Longfellow created the national myths for which his new and still unstoried country hungered. His poems gave his contemporaries the words, images, myths, and heroes by which they explained America to one another and themselves. There is no better example of Longfellow’s genius at creating meaningful and enduring national myth than “Paul Revere’s Ride.”

The opening lines of “Paul Revere’s Ride” are still so famous that even people who have not read the entire poem often know them by heart. They have become, in fact, so familiar that most readers might easily take them for granted and miss the striking and paradoxical rhetorical figures they contain.

The poem’s narrator, for example, begins by saying, “Listen, my children, and you shall hear.” He addresses the tale specifically to children, and yet the work is not in any narrow sense a children’s poem. “Paul Revere’s Ride” was published in The Atlantic Monthly, hardly a juvenile journal, and was eventually collected in Longfellow’s masterful book of interwoven narrative poems, Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863), where it is spoken by the Landlord to an audience of adult men. Why then does the poem begin by addressing only one part of its intended audience?
Read the whole of Gioia’s essay here.