Longfellow and Emerson as “Historians”

North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts. Minute Man Monument dedicated in 1837 (far side).

I readily admit it. I am a patriot. I do not pretend to be an historian but do enjoy American (United States) History. In particular, I relish the colonial and revolutionary periods as well as the early days of our republic. I love my country and think it has been a great plus for the world at large. Oh, yes, I totally see our ugly warts and have long studied our egregious flaws and wrong-headedness at periods in our history, but I am proud that through it all, we continue to reach for the promise of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution the framers envisioned as we appeal to “the better angels of our nature.” All in all, I believe we have been a force for vast good in the world, developing into the freest nation ever known, with a citizenry that has in our history made grave sacrifices not only for our own country but also for numerous others. So, in thinking about Transcendentalists (previous blog) and Ralph Waldo Emerson, in particular, I offer the poem he wrote for the dedication of a monument at Old North Bridge, Concord, MA., commemorating the first battle of the Revolutionary War. But first, I want to set the scene with an excerpt from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride.”  There was a time when those of us of a certain age, read these poems in our junior high literature books and marveled at the pluck and sacrifice of these colonials. Every syllable may not be historically accurate, but you’ll get the gist.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem depicts the time when tensions between the American colonists and the English Crown had grown to the breaking point. Colonists had stockpiled ammunitions in Concord, Massachusetts, and, as they feared, the British were coming. I’m sure you recall that Paul Revere (as well as William Dawes and Samuel Prescott) rode to warn the people and militias of Lexington and Concord.

Paul Revere’s Ride (excerpts) 
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 tonight,
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.”


It was one by the village clock,
When he galloped into Lexington…


It was two by the village clock,
When he came to the bridge in Concord town…


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 land,
Then crossing the fields to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road,
And only pausing to fire and load…


The Concord Hymn
by Ralph Waldo Emerson

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.

On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set today a votive stone;
That memory may her dead redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

Spirit, that made those heroes dare
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.

The first stanza of The Concord Hymn is inscribed on the base of the Minute Man monument standing at one end of the bridge. Do not miss it if you go to Concord, Massachusetts. In fact, if at all possible, do not miss Concord!

2 thoughts on “Longfellow and Emerson as “Historians”

  1. It is refreshing to remember that our literary giants and other creatives once celebrated their country. They understood the importance of retelling history. The response of the citizenery after 9-11 may well have been ignited by remberances of such poems heard in public schools.

    Liked by 4 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s