HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW used to be both the best-known poet in the English-speaking world and the most beloved, adored by the learned and the lowly alike, read by everyone from Nathaniel Hawthorne and Abraham Lincoln to John Ruskin and Queen Victoria--and, just as avidly, by the queen's servants. "Paul Revere's Ride" is Longfellow's best-known poem. It begins at a trot:
Listen, my children, and you shall hear Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere. It clips ("impatient to mount and ride, / Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride"); it clops ("impetuous, stamped the earth,/ And turned and tightened his saddle-girth"); then it gallops--
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 --until, at last, it stops: 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 forevermore! Generations of American schoolchildren have memorized these lines and recited them in class, sweating it out, which is why Longfellow is known as a schoolroom poet. "Dear Mr. Longfellow: I am a little girl nine years old. I have learned some of your poems and love them very much," wrote Berta Shaffer from Ohio in 1880. This is, no doubt, a kind of acclaim. But for a poet's literary reputation, to be read by children--and especially to be loved by children--is the sweet, sloppy kiss of death. Beginning even before the rise of New Criticism, literary scholars have paid almost no attention to Longfellow, dismissing "Paul Revere's Ride" as just another cloying Longfellow poem, ho-hum and dum-de-dum-de-dum-de-dum, a piece of 19th-century romantic nationalism, drippy, contemptible, silly. "Rarely has so respected a writer been so discredited by posterity," as the literary historian Lawrence Buell once put it. Feeble is a word you often see, describing Longfellow's poetic gifts. Where was the ambiguity, the paradox, the difficulty, the anxiety, the obscurity? What good was a poem that was easy? Longfellow was soft. And, although feminist critics have subjected all things squishy and sentimental to close inspection, arguing for the elevation of writers like Susan Warner and Harriet Jacobs and Harriet Beecher Stowe to canonical status, Longfellow hasn't warranted recovery, or even, really, a reading, presumably because he was a man, and the canon had enough of those already. Meanwhile, historians have pointed out from the start that Longfellow's poem is, as history, rotten. (Longfellow wouldn't have cared. "Nor let the Historian blame the Poet here, / If he perchance misdate the day or year.") Before Longfellow wrote his poem about how Revere rode from Boston, warning Massachusetts minutemen that the redcoats were coming, Revere wasn't known for his ride (his obituary didn't even mention it). Also, he never reached Concord, and he didn't ride alone. Longfellow, in other words, got almost every detail of what happened that night wrong. In 1896, Century Magazine published a parody--
'Tis all very well for the children to hear Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere; But why should my name be quite forgot, Who rode as boldly and well, God wot? Why should I ask? The reason is clear-- My name was Dawes and his Revere --which is read aloud every year on the 19th of April on Cambridge Common, where brass horseshoes sunk into the pavement mark the path ridden by a man who had the bad luck to have a name that rhymes with everything grunting, earthy, and broken: jaws, caws, maws, paws, flaws. Poor Dawes.
This year, though, marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Longfellow's most famous poem, which makes it a good time to ask: What would it mean to take "Paul Revere's Ride" seriously?
LISTEN MY CHILDREN. Longfellow, who, one supposes, could have done things differently if he'd been of a mind to, loved writing poems that everyone would read, poems that everyone could read, poems in which people, unsophisticated people, even little people, might find pleasure and solace. (Emerson once wrote to Longfellow, "I have always one foremost satisfaction in reading your books--that I am safe.") "Such songs have power to quiet" Longfellow wrote, in "The Day Is Done":
Come, read to me some poem, Some simple and heartfelt lay, That shall soothe this restless feeling, And banish the thoughts of day. Shooting down Longfellow's greeting-card verse--in which the anodyne yields to the lachrymose--has been, for modernist critics, nothing more demanding than target practice on a lazy afternoon, where the target is as big as Longfellow's much-visited and palatial Cambridge mansion. "Longfellow is to poetry what the barrel-organ is to music," Van Wyck Brooks wrote in 1915. Lewis Mumford said that Longfellow could be cut out of American literary history and no one would miss him or even notice. T. E. Lawrence once joked that Ezra Pound was Longfellow's grandnephew, and he didn't mean that as a compliment. Newton Arvin, who quite liked Longfellow, thought his trouble was his moralizing--"And come like the benediction / That follows after prayer"--although the problem, Arvin believed, wasn't that Longfellow was a moralist, it was that his morals were secondhand and boring. But Daniel Aaron once wisely pointed out that American literature isn't so swell that it can afford to junk the guy who wrote "Seaweed":
Ever drifting, drifting, drifting On the shifting Currents of the reckless heart, Till at length in books recorded, They, like hoarded Household words, no more depart. LONGFELLOW WAS BORN by the sea, in Portland, Maine, in 1807. When he was 16 and away at Bowdoin College, he wrote home to his mother that he was reading Thomas Gray, and that he admired the poet's obscurity. His mother wrote back that all she had read of Gray was his "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"--"Approach and read (for thou canst read) the lay/Graved on the stone beneath yon aged thorn"--but that she admired it only so far. "Obscurity is favorable to the sublime, you think," she wrote her son, "but I am much better pleased with those pieces that touch the feelings and improve the heart than with those that excite the imagination only and raise perhaps an indistinct admiration. That is, an admiration of we know not exactly what." Longfellow took that to heart.
After studying in Europe, Longfellow taught at Bowdoin. He wrote for the North American Review. He published an indifferent work of prose. In 1837, at the age of 30, he became the Smith Professor of Modern Languages and Belles Lettres at Harvard. He published his first collection of poems, Voices of the Night, in 1839. Although he liked teaching, he hated lecturing and didn't like being a professor enough to want to do it forever. Beginning in 1843, he made it a practice to buy the plates of his books, which gave him control of reprints; unlike most writers, and very much unlike his archnemesis, Edgar Allan Poe (who unfairly called him a plagiarist), Longfellow was a canny businessman. Most years, he earned more than $2,000 in royalties...