Closer Readings Commentary

Paul Revere’s Ride: Waking the Sleeping and the Dead

“Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead, / In their night encampment on the hill.”

Once memorized by schoolchildren worldwide, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's famous poem “Paul Revere’s Ride,” available from the EDSITEment resource The Academy of American Poets, is thought to be about the courage of a colonial hero at the start of the Revolutionary War.

EDSITEment’s lesson Why Do We Remember Revere? Paul Revere's Ride in History and Literature suggests an alternative way to interpret this poem, published in early 1861, when South Carolina and other southern states were seceding from the Union and Abraham Lincoln was waiting to be sworn in as President.

Longfellow was, in fact, a long time abolitionist who fervently disapproved of slavery. Decades before “Paul Revere’s Ride,” he published a volume of anti-slavery poetry in 1842 called “Poems on Slavery.” This small collection brought his name and opinions to a national audience, and with the money he earned from this and other publications including the widely popular Song of Hiawatha, he bought slaves their freedom.

Longfellow was a close friend of the fiery abolitionist Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner. In their correspondence one can see how closely the poet followed the tumultuous events of the 1850s generated by the slavery controversy.

Longfellow viewed John Brown’s raid and his subsequent trial in 1859 as a revolutionary moment, and one which may have launched him into composing the “Ride.” Learning of Lincoln’s election as he was finishing the poem, he exclaimed, “Freedom is triumphant.”

As historian Jill Lepore shows, Longfellow’s poem about the American Revolution—Paul Revere’s Ride—“is a poem about waking the sleeping, and waking the dead.” The poet quietly but firmly attempts to awaken the “sleeping” consciences of Northerners and to revive the hopes of “dead” who are enslaved.

Teachers are often unaware of Longfellow’s political views and support of abolition, let alone the fact that these views are underlie his famous poem about the Revolutionary War, an event that took place nearly 90 years earlier.

Reading and paying close attention to the imagery and tone in Longfellow’s antislavery poems such as “The Slave’s Dream” and “The Witnesses” will help illuminate the antislavery sentiments in “Paul Revere’s Ride.”

Teaching students how to read between the lines for “clues” that hint to the author’s buried message is especially pertinent to the Common Core Standards, which emphasize building students’ ability to find the implicit meaning of a text.

Longfellow’s hidden message

After closely reading and synthesizing different accounts of Revere’s famous ride to sort “fact” from “fiction”, students will turn their attention to Longfellow’s poem, highlighting the portions that stand out to them and making annotations in the margins.

Let volunteers read aloud to the class follows along and discuss the literary elements of the poem. Then, gear the discussion toward the probability that Longfellow was trying to awaken the moral conscience and spirit of Americans during the tumultuous period in which the nation was divided over the future of slavery and Union.

“Paul Revere’s Ride” is by far the most popular “version” of Revere’s ride, yet when it is taught in classrooms, students are often not asked to place the poem within the historical context in which it was written.

To contextualize the poem, students will consider questions such as: Was Longfellow calling up that earlier revolutionary symbol in an effort to appeal to the American spirit of liberty and defiance against tyranny? If so, does this poem include references to the abolition of slavery?

Focusing on these questions will help teachers guide students through a deep analysis of the impact of specific word choices in meaning and tone, including analogies or allusions to other texts (or broader historical moments!), as outlined in CCSS.ELA-Literacy standard RI.8.4.

For more, see the EDSITEment-reviewed Antislavery Literature Project essay Longfellow and Whittier on Slavery, which discusses Longfellow’s role within the abolitionist movement and his successful series, Poems on Slavery, published in 1842.

You can find an example of the work of another anti-slavery poet, John Greenleaf Whittier on the front page of the [Ohio] Holmes County Republican, one of the newspapers available through Chronicling America.

Whittier’s poem “The Struggle for Freedom” appears on the front page of the newspaper. Point out to students that the front page features an article on one of the Lincoln–Douglas debates debate going on in nearby Illinois. Ask students to reflect on the juxtaposition of the poem with the article, “The Little Giant and Mr. Lincoln.”

Finally teachers may want to consult the EDSITEment lesson Abraham Lincoln, the 1860 Election and the Future of the Union and Slavery for an overview of the political alternatives facing the American voter regarding the spread of slavery and the preservation of the American union in the decade leading up to the 1860 presidential election.