Longfellow’s Poetic License

And now we come to the crux of the matter, the question that is so often asked: Why is Longfellow’s poem so wrong when it comes to the historical facts of Paul Revere’s ride? Why have countless generations of schoolchildren been misled into thinking that Revere himself was waiting for the signal “on the opposite shore … Ready to ride and spread the alarm”?

The answer is simple: Poetic License. Longfellow was a poet, not a historian.

In literature, as in all fine arts, practitioners of the art use symbols to inspire. And for those symbols to succeed, they must be simplified, to remove details that obscure the intended message.

My research has led me firmly to believe that Longfellow knew the truth about Paul Revere’s actual ride, and he chose to ignore it. The reason was simple: Longfellow’s version of the tale made a better, simpler story than the real, historic version.

Longfellow’s epic poems—Hiawatha, Evangeline, The Courtship of Miles Standish—have all been criticized by scholars for historical inaccuracies. Many of his shorter poems sound real, but they never happened. Even his “Village Blacksmith,” with its vivid imagery set just down the street from his home, was not true to the real story of Dexter Pratt’s family life.

In other words, the historical inaccuracies that we see in Longfellow’s poem about Paul Revere are nothing new. Virtually all of Longfellow’s poems are rife with similar exaggerations or extensions of the truth. Longfellow was a storyteller who crafted a tale, sometimes for the beauty of the imagery, and sometimes to make a point—as he did with “Paul Revere’s Ride.”

Yes, he sought out the details from real places—the pigeons on their perch in the steeple, the old clock on the wall of the ancient inn—and then incorporated those details into his works. But the fact that those vivid details are true does not mean that the entire poem is true. The purpose of the details is to give the illusion of veracity, to convince you that the myth is true.

As biographer Edward Wagenknecht writes, “He preferred the poet’s imagination to the scholar’s knowledge.”

Sixteen years after Longfellow’s poem was published, in December 1876, the Boston City Council proposed to put a plaque on the tower of Christ Church, the Old North Church. The plaque was to have read, “The lanterns hung from this tower signalled to Paul Revere the march of the British troops upon Concord and Lexington.” Historians protested, and after much public debate a corrected version of the plaque was placed on the church steeple, “without any ceremony of inauguration,” on October 17, 1878.

It was, of course, Longfellow’s poem which had launched the church, and Revere’s ride, into the popular imagination. But there is no record of Longfellow joining in this debate.

Longfellow did, however, reply privately to one criticism of his work. In 1878, Henry Ware Holland, a descendant of William Dawes, published a book about his own illustrious ancestor. On October 27 of that year, Longfellow wrote to his old friend George Washington Greene, with a disparaging comment about Holland’s book.

Greene replied to his friend Longfellow, “I look forward with curiosity to Mr Holland’s volume, and think I can make a pretty good guess as to the character of it. Some people have no idea of the differences between history and tradition.”

No idea of the differences between history and tradition, indeed. A perfect summary of why Longfellow’s poem is not, and was never intended as, an accurate telling of the tale. And a perfect summary of why the poem has endured—of why we now celebrate its sesquicentenary.

Longfellow wrote the poem as his own alarm signal, about the war over slavery; but that war is long over and slavery has been gone from our nation for 144 years. Yet “the midnight ride of Paul Revere” persists in our collective memory. Listen, my children!

This article was composed by Charles Bahne, author of The Complete Guide to Boston’s Freedom Trail, for the bulletin of the Paul Revere House. Copyright © 2010 by Charles Bahne. Click here to go back to Part 1.

Extracts from the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow papers are printed courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University. Call numbers: Journal, MS Am 1340 (209); poem manuscript, MS Am 1340 (105); G. W. Greene letter, bMS Am 1340.2 (2379), no. 494.