Today in history: February 27, 1807


“Believe me, every man has his secret sorrows,
which the world knows not; and oftimes
we call a man cold, when he is only sad.”

— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born on this day, in 1807, in Portland, Maine.

He was the first poet to take on American themes and dialects and making it the focal point of his work. He really is our first “local” poet. He was also the first American poet to be laid to rest in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey alongside chaps like, you know, Chaucer (an idol of Longfellow’s). Longfellow was huge in his day. And his poems still carry a lot of sentimental feeling for Americans – he is still read. His reputation during his life, however, cannot be overstated. He was a celebrity. His poems were EVENTS. His first major work was “Evangeline”, published in 1847, a long epic poem about the deportation of the French-speaking inhabitants (the Acadians) of Nova Scotia. It was a smash hit, and actually, for some time, created its own tourist trade. What poet today could ever generate such a response?


“Evangeline” came about because of a small dinner party held in Longfellow’s rented rooms in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Friend Nathaniel Hawthorne was there. A minister, also at the gathering, told a story of a young couple separated on their wedding day by the deportation of the people from Nova Scotia, and how the bride spent the rest of her life, wandering, looking for her lost husband. The minister thought that Hawthorne might be interested in turning it into a story. He wasn’t. But Longfellow was. With a sense of propriety (after all, Hawthorne was asked first), he asked for Hawthorne’s blessing to turn it into a poem. It took him years to complete it. He researched exhaustively what had happened to the Acadians. Most of them, actually, ended up in New Orleans, and they are very much responsible for the particular brand of culture still found there today. There was much that had already been forgotten about the Acadians, and Longfellow was totally immersed in the subject. “Evangeline” is not a history lesson, however. It is a story, a fictionalized version of events, which struck a huge chord in the populace. There is still a Memorial Site in New Orleans today (the Longfellow-Evangeline Historic Site), but after the publication of the poem, all kinds of sites sprung up – trails, trees, anything at all that was mentioned in the poem … Readers were captivated by this mournful tale of wandering and exile, and went on pilgrimages to the places mentioned.

So came the autumn, and passed, and the winter, — yet Gabriel came not;
Blossomed the opening spring and the notes of the robin and bluebird
Sounded sweet upon the wold and in wood, yet Gabriel came not.

I personally find Evangeline as a heroine to be a bit of a drip. It is the cliched stereotype of a long-suffering patient goodly woman – which is just not inherently dramatic. Not to mention a sentimentalized version of womanhood that I cannot get behind, since its purpose is expressly to limit. Longfellow may not have been aware of that, it was the ideal of Womanhood at the time, and it was obviously a slamdunk among readers, male and female. But to me, it really dates itself. Dickens had similar cliches of women in his books – his young heroines are particuarly awful and boring – but he more than makes up for it with all of the other characters surrounding these goody-two-shoes drips. Only Dickens’ female leads are not complex. This was, again, the style of the day – encapsulated in “Evangeline”, but when you realize that just across the way from Longfellow, Emily Dickinson was dashing off her frightening sharp poems – a woman in all the colors of humanity possible – not at all the simpering long-suffering heroine so beloved at that time – you can see that these men were missing the boat, to some degree. It is a failure of imagination. Again, we all are people of our own time, as much as we may try to rise above. We don’t have that cultural problem with “Paul Revere’s Ride”, a Longfellow poem that doesn’t deal with love, or inter-relationships – and so can be a bit more free and easy with itself and its topic.

Longfellow was a star. His poems are still well-known: Hiawatha, The Courtship of Miles Standish, Paul Revere’s Ride. He was a poet, yes, but he was also a myth-maker. A person who was actually creating a community through his work. Memory is very important. Memory is key to a nation’s survival. A nation that lives in forgetfulness (thank you, Milan Kundera), either willfully or carelessly, is going to have problems. America was such a new nation, it didn’t have, say, the relationship that the Persians did to their country, one of the oldest civilizations on earth (and a place where poetry is very important, as containers for cultural memory) – but Longfellow (and then Whitman) was very important in creating these works, that told the story of America to itself, in rollicking exciting verse … something that all could participate in. A myth-maker, a storyteller, I mean the opening line of Paul Revere’s Ride basically calls the people to come in close to listen: “Listen my children and you will hear …” It’s almost like a game of telephone. Listen to my story. Pass it on. Tell them to pass it on. These are not history lessons. These are myths, legends, pass it on. Most of his stuff comes off much better when read out loud. The rhythm is not separate from the content. The rhythm is essential. His reputation as a poet has not quite lived past his own day, but he was huge – HUGE – in his own time.

He traveled far, for a man of his time, and there’s a great story of him basically bunking with Charles Dickens on a visit to England in 1842. There is a similarity between the two writers (I mean, besides what I mentioned earlier – their tendency to have drippy cliches as their female romantic leads), something almost theatrical. Understanding their audience better than most writers. Longfellow was so American, Dickens so British – and Dickens was pretty befuddled by the “New World” – he had recently visited it. Longfellow was a celebrity, yes, and, like Ben Franklin back in the day, was representative of the entire nation.

A happy man, with a happy home life, many children, he suffered a horrible tragedy later in life which makes me shiver just to think of it. His second wife was sealing a letter with hot wax, and her dress caught fire from the candle. She went up in flames. Longfellow tried to save her, and received severe burns himself. She died. Longfellow never quite recovered. He never stopped writing, but he was forever changed.

Longfellow’s writing room

Due to my family’s connection with the Boston area, and the fact that my father used to read “Paul Revere’s Ride” out loud to us as kids, it’s my favorite of his (his other stuff can seem quaint and sentimental to me now – it just doesn’t have the same cultural resonance). It should be read out loud. If you read it to yourself, the hoof-beat rhythm of the verse will be lost to you.


The poem has the blood-beat in it, the pulse racing, the adrenaline surges – appropriate to the story being told. It’s one of my favorites and I know long stretches of it by heart.

Paul Revere’s Ride

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.
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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

“borne on the night-winds of the Past” – Goosebumps. It flat out gives me goosebumps. And I also wonder if F. Scott Fitzgerald was consciously referencing it in his heartbreaker of a last line in The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Fitzgerald, knowing that he was the voice of a certain time, voice of his generation, it would not surprise me if he did consciously reference Longfellow there, at the very end of that quintessentially American story. Of course, in his context, the past takes on very different connotations, even with the nostalgia. There’s an emptiness at the heart of it, an emptiness that did Gatsby in, with his constant looking-back, looking-back. Longfellow looked to the past for inspiration, for the wellspring of storytelling magic – he was almost like a reporter in that respect, digging through the past for a story that could hit, could speak to his time. Paul Revere’s Ride, for example, was first published in 1860, and Longfellow, seeing the Civil War approach, wanted to prepare the populace, call them to arms (even though he was a pacifist), and remind them where they all had come from. This is propaganda at a very high level.

The surrounding context of the political atmosphere is now forgotten, for the most part, at least in conjunction with “Paul Revere’s Ride”, which is now basically seen as a history lesson of what happened on that 18th of April, ’75. More than a history lesson, though, it’s a story. A story that must be passed on in order to survive. As Joan Didion so famously wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live”.

Longfellow knew that better than anyone.

Here are some quotes about and also by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

“He seems to combine the assured rhetoric of the Tennyson of the Idylls, with the exuberance of Browning on one hand and of the Borders balladeers on the other. It’s a heady mix: popular and folk poetry tailored for the wide-eyed bourgeoisie.” — Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets

“Her writings are a capital picture of real life, with all the little wheels and machinery laid bare like a patent clock. But she explains and fills out too much.” — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Jane Austen

“Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, on the other hand, could sing. He could tell stories about America. Maybe his forms were imported, but they were tempered and transformed by his fantastic world. He provides an alternative to the gothic even as he shares in some of its preposterous attitudes and posturings.” — Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets

“His poems never lose their witchery for me. There are undoubtedly many greater poets than Longfellow — many stronger, grander, deeper; but he is full of sweetness and tenderness and grace.” — L.M. Montgomery, journal entry

“For Europeans, American poetry was Longfellow.” — Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets

“As was his poetic practice, once Longfellow had briefed himself on the factual background, he used his material with a very free hand. He was a bard, not a historian; what mattered was the basic human truth of his story, not its particulars.” — Charles Calhoun, author of Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life, on the writing of “Evangeline”

“Only [Wallace] Stevens in later American poetry is musical in the ways that Longfellow at his best can be.” — Michael Schmidt

“And now I long to try a loftier strain, the sublimer Song whose broken melodies have for so many years breathed through my soul in the better hours of life, and which I trust and believe will ere long unite themselves into a symphony not all unworthy the sublime theme, but furnishing ‘some equivalent expression for the trouble and wrath of life, for its sorrow and its mystery.'” — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“He suffered excessive popularity; he has now suffered three quarters of a century of critical neglect.” — Michael Schmidt

“A gentle man, with sentiments stronger than his passions, and ambition continuing his genius, highly cultivated, not strongly intellectual but truly aesthetic, with a fondness for melancholy and a nostalgia for the past – that is one view of Longfellow. Yet – and this is what makes him interesting and made him successful – also a writer of incredible literary energy, pursuing the best in craftsmanship, a mind intensely sensitive, not so much to life as to the feelings about life which we call literature. Also, again, the best representative of young America seeking Old World culture, one of the most articulate romancers of our past and of all pasts which seemed to him romantic. No Shakespeare, no Dante, no Emerson in height, no Walt Whitman in prophetic intuition, nevertheless, he did enough in being Longfellow definitely to enrich his times and our literature.” — Henry Seidel Canby, editor of the 1947 “Favorite Poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow”


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6 Responses to Today in history: February 27, 1807

  1. Mr. Bingley says:

    I can’t read “Paul Revere’s Ride” without thinking of one of my favorite movies.

    (and a word of caution: in my innocence I googled images using the movie’s name, as I was looking for a screen grab of Luther riding Beatrice to warn folks…and I found that the movie’s title leads to some rather interesting photos…)

  2. red says:

    God, I love that movie.

  3. Mr. Bingley says:

    Gosh yeah. We just watched it again the other night for the umpteenth time.

  4. Lou says:

    Don’t forget one of the most important of the poem “Evangeline”; it was name-checked in “Angel Heart”. : )

  5. Lou says:

    Don’t forget one of the most important aspects of the poem “Evangeline”; it was name-checked in “Angel Heart”. : )

  6. Lou says:

    Sorry about the double post. : (

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