Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Poem Analysis

  • 0:06 Longfellow's Impact
  • 0:55 'Paul Revere's Ride'
  • 1:34 Rhythm and Rhyme
  • 3:00 American Romantic…
  • 4:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Heather Carroll

Heather teaches high school English. She holds a master's degree in education and is a National Board Certified Teacher.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was known as a fireside poet because his poems were read by the fire as a means of entertainment. Learn about how he created American history through the use of musical elements, like rhythm and rhyme scheme.

Background

LISTEN, my children, and you shall hear

Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,

Longfellow was one of the Fireside Poets
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Chances are you've heard that line from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem but didn't know its source. Chances are, too, that your understanding of Paul Revere's famous ride is based on Longfellow's poem and not the actual historical events that occurred on that day.

Unlike many poets, Longfellow was a huge success during his lifetime. He was known as one of the Fireside Poets because people would read his poems by the fireside as a means of entertainment. Critics believe that Longfellow was popular for a couple reasons. The first is that he wrote lyric poems, which are poems that have a musical quality. The second is because he was interested in common life and found beauty in daily activities. As a result, his poems have a feel-good quality that people could identify with.

Paul Revere

Of course, Longfellow is best known today for memorializing American history through narrative poems, or poems that tell a story. In his poem 'Paul Revere's Ride', he gives readers his version of the beginning of the American Revolution. But we do have to remember that this was his version, not a historical play-by-play. Why would he do this, you might ask yourself. Well, remember that Longfellow wrote for Americans, and evoking patriotism was part of that process. By starting with the command, 'Listen children,' he is insisting that this is a story worth passing down to younger generations. He creates a hero in Revere, a hero who many still recognize today.

Rhythm

Aside from the story aspect of the poem, it is, like many of Longfellow's other poems, musical in nature. The first two lines of the poem have a pattern of beats that create a rhythm. The amount of stress placed on each syllable creates a rhythm, which we can hear if we read each word with emphasis on those stressed syllables.

LISTEN, my children, and you shall hear

Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,

The same can be applied to lyrics from any song. Take, for example, these lines from Michael Jackson's 'Thriller:'

Something evil's lurkin' in the dark.

Longfellow memorialized Revere in his poem
Paul Revere

Of course, if we read poetry or even sang songs with such a ridiculous pattern of stresses, none of it would be popular. It's the natural, subtle rhythm, however, that does make Longfellow's poems (and most song lyrics) musical.

Rhyme

The musical aspect of the poem is enhanced by Longfellow's use of rhyme and rhyme scheme. Like many songs, he uses end rhyme, where words at the end of each line rhyme with the words at the end of the other lines. In the first stanza, or the first block of lines, the words 'hear,' 'Revere,' and 'year' rhyme. The words 'five' and 'alive' also rhyme. This is called a rhyme scheme, the repetition of rhyming words. In this case, it's end rhyme - rhyme at the end of a line.

The predictability of both the rhythm and the rhyme create a pattern like we are used to finding in music.

American Romantic Characteristics

So Longfellow wrote during the Romantic period in America, and like some of the other writers during this period, he was heavily influenced by the German Romantics. As a result, he incorporates themes that are found in much of the writing during that period.

The first of these Romantic themes is that we can gain wisdom from the past. While this is evident in many of his poems, his opening stanza of 'Paul Revere's Ride' illustrates this well. Right away, we know he's giving significance to a time past. Two pieces of evidence point to this. One, all the people who were there are now dead, and two, it was a famous day and year. Why is it famous? Because he says so. We know it's something we need to know because he's summoning the children to learn the story to pass it on.

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