In a collection of stories, letters, poems, and speeches, I happened across Paul Revere’s Ride by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It immediately brought a smile, evoking a memory of class memorization from elementary school, which occurred longer ago than I care to think. I can hear myself and my fellow fifth graders reciting in unison, some of us (overachiever Mary Ellen comes to mind) reciting louder to show mastery of the poem, while a few others mumbled to disguise what they hadn’t learned. I was somewhere in the middle but leaning in the direction of Mary Ellen’s loudness.
After I reread the poem, remembering some of the stanzas, I checked back with a Tweetspeak Poetry post from 2017, which took a look at “America’s most patriotic poem.” The Atlantic published Longfellow’s poem in January 1861, long after Revere’s famous ride (although much about that ride remains in historical dispute today). And then I went looking for what was happening when Longfellow wrote and published that poem.
Several Southern states had seceded; others would follow shortly. Federal forts in Southern states were being seized by Confederates. President-elect Lincoln declared slavery in the already seceded states to be unlawful (although James Buchanan was still president). New York City’s mayor proposed that New York become a free city, trading with both North and South. Three months before the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, a merchant ship was fired upon as it tried to bring supplies to the fort. The United States was coming apart.
Longfellow reached back 86 years to an event that had become part of America’s national myth and wrote his poem. The poet had already been writing poetry grounded in American history, with long epic poems like Evangeline (1847), The Song of Hiawatha (1855) and The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858).
“Paul Revere’s Ride” is a much shorter poem than Longfellow’s epics. It’s a poem about impending military danger, but it’s more than that. It’s a poem about personal courage in the face of military danger. And that’s what Longfellow was urging upon his fellow Americans in early 1861. Three months later, armed conflict erupted at Fort Sumter.
Going on from Longfellow, I reread I Hear America Singing by Walt Whitman, actually published the year before the Paul Revere poem, in 1860. And then the poem The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus (1849-1887), inscribed on a plaque in the Statue of Liberty. And then I went back earlier, to Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), a former slave whose poetry was published in both Britain and America. Her best-known poem is “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” but she also wrote a number of patriotic poems, including one for George Washington. Wheatley and Washington had an ongoing correspondence, and in one letter, she referred to America as “Columbia,” the first American known to do so. And then she used it again in a poem written in honor of Washington.
His Excellency General Washington
Celestial choir! enthron’d in realms of light,
Columbia’s scenes of glorious toils I write.
While freedom’s cause her anxious breast alarms,
She flashes dreadful in refulgent arms.
See mother earth her offspring’s fate bemoan,
And nations gaze at scenes before unknown!
See the bright beams of heaven’s revolving light
Involved in sorrows and the veil of night!
The Goddess comes, she moves divinely fair,
Olive and laurel binds Her golden hair:
Wherever shines this native of the skies,
Unnumber’d charms and recent graces rise.
Muse! Bow propitious while my pen relates
How pour her armies through a thousand gates,
As when Eolus heaven’s fair face deforms,
Enwrapp’d in tempest and a night of storms;
Astonish’d ocean feels the wild uproar,
The refluent surges beat the sounding shore;
Or think as leaves in Autumn’s golden reign,
Such, and so many, moves the warrior’s train.
In bright array they seek the work of war,
Where high unfurl’d the ensign waves in air.
Shall I to Washington their praise recite?
Enough thou know’st them in the fields of fight.
Thee, first in peace and honors—we demand
The grace and glory of thy martial band.
Fam’d for thy valour, for thy virtues more,
Hear every tongue thy guardian aid implore!
One century scarce perform’d its destined round,
When Gallic powers Columbia’s fury found;
And so may you, whoever dares disgrace
The land of freedom’s heaven-defended race!
Fix’d are the eyes of nations on the scales,
For in their hopes Columbia’s arm prevails.
Anon Britannia droops the pensive head,
While round increase the rising hills of dead.
Ah! Cruel blindness to Columbia’s state!
Lament thy thirst of boundless power too late.
Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev’ry action let the Goddess guide.
A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,
With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! Be thine.
My fifth-grade class and countless others learned and recited poems like “Paul Revere’s Ride.” Each school day started with the Pledge of Allegiance. Music included singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful.” We can argue endlessly about how inclusive it was or wasn’t, but these types of poems and songs permeated elementary schools and clearly shaped our minds, attitudes, and sensibilities.
You can find examples of patriotic poems in the early 20th century, especially connected to World War I (when newspapers printed poems daily) and a very few as late as World War II. But the era of patriotic poems seems to close at mid-century. If anything, the poems about America became less mythic, less laudatory, more critical, and even darker. The times became less conducive to patriotism; the Cold War, the possibility of nuclear war, the tumult of the 1960s, the Vietnam War, oil embargoes, both Iraq wars, changing academic interests, and our increasingly polarized politics all appear to have dampened expressions of patriotism.
Can you name a patriotic poem from the last 20 years—without looking it up? I can’t.
My class reciting “Paul Revere’s Ride,” led by the loud voice of Mary Ellen, seems a very distant memory.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish