Gateway to the Classics: Historic Poems and Ballads by Rupert S. Holland
Historic Poems and Ballads by  Rupert S. Holland

Paul Revere's Ride

A LL during the winter of 1774-75 an armed truce had existed between the British officials and army in the colony of Massachusetts and the people. No citizen could be found who would serve as councillor, judge, sheriff, or juryman under the King's commission, and the official business of the colony was at a standstill. Every evening the men of each village drilled on the green, and arms and ammunition were collected secretly and stored in town-halls ready for instant use in the conflict which every one expected. The colonials intended that England should be forced to fire the opening shot, so that they would be in the position of defending their homes rather than of attacking the King's government. Gradually a large supply of powder and ball was stored at Concord, about eighteen miles away from Boston, and word of this at length came to General Gage, who commanded the British troops in the latter city.

At about the same time General Gage received orders to arrest two men who had shown themselves leaders among the colonials, Samuel Adams and John Hancock. They were to be sent to England to stand trial for treason. He learned that the two men would be in Lexington at a friend's house during the middle of April, and gave commands that a detachment of eight hundred troops should march from Boston to Lexington, take Adams and Hancock prisoners, and then march on to Concord, which lay beyond Lexington, and seize the stores of powder and shot there.

The British soldiers started on their march on the night of April 18, 1775, keeping their plans as secret as possible, and crossing from Boston to Cambridge, on their way to Concord. In spite of their care, however, word of the plans had leaked out, and the colonial leaders in Boston selected Paul Revere and William Dawes to ride with the news.

It had been arranged that Paul Revere should wait in Charlestown, opposite Boston, until he should see a lantern shining in the tower of the old North Church. When he caught the signal he mounted a swift horse and galloped out of Charlestown on the road to Lexington. As he rode he waked the country people, and they knew that the British troops were on the march. He reached Lexington in time to give the warning to Adams and Hancock, so that they escaped. William Dawes, who had ridden with the same news by way of Roxbury, and Dr. Samuel Prescott, rode on with Paul Revere. They met some British soldiers at Lincoln, but Prescott leaped his horse over a roadside wall and escaped, to take the alarm to Concord. Revere and Dawes were made prisoners, but were soon released.

The British soldiers reached Concord and destroyed a large part of the supplies there, but by the time they began their return to Boston the minutemen were roused. The indignant farmers fired, to the amazement of the red-coated soldiers, and soon the British march became a retreat, and almost a rout. Reinforcements were sent to their aid before they reached Boston, and but for that very few would have escaped their pursuers. As it was, this first fight of the War for American Independence was a victory for the colonials.

This poem is the "Landlord's Tale," the first of the "Tales of a Wayside Inn."

Paul Revere's Ride

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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 climb'd to 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,

Wrapp'd 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 spurr'd, with a heavy stride,

On the opposite shore walk'd Paul Revere.

Now he patted his horse's side,

Now he gazed at the landscape far and near,

Then, impetuous, stamp'd the earth,

And turn'd and tighten'd his saddle-girth;

But mostly he watch'd 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, blank 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 meadows 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 forevermore!

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-beat of that steed,

And the midnight message of Paul Revere.

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