April 21, 2014


The Verse Heard Round the World : Emerson's patriotic poetry captured the spirit of Lexington for generations to come. (AMANDA FOREMAN, April 18, 2014, WSJ)

At its heart lie the nameless "embattled farmers" who gave their lives to the cause of liberty. The question for Emerson was how to memorialize their selfless acts when their identities were lost to history. In part, he found the answer in his own act of writing. Memory won't last, he acknowledged, "When, like our sires, our sons are gone." He could only hope that the monument commemorating the battle, "Time and Nature gently spare." Instead, Emerson put his faith in the ineffable "Spirit, that made those heroes dare/ To die." It had inspired the farmers as it now inspired him--and would, he believed, have the same effect on future generations who read his poem.

On the eve of the Civil War, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow revisited the events surrounding the Battle of Lexington. Like Emerson, he was deeply convinced of the transformative power of poetry. Choosing the night before the battle as his subject, Longfellow offered a similar lament about the fragility of memory: "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 also revisited the nameless farmers, who "gave them ball for ball."

But Longfellow was recalling the spirit "borne on the night-wind of the Past" not as a celebration but a warning. The Union had been brought into existence by a single shot; the message in "Paul Revere's Ride" was that a similar event could trigger its destruction. Longfellow's poem could be described as a prayer, an invocation that "The people will waken and listen to hear...the midnight message of Paul Revere."

Posted by at April 21, 2014 5:34 AM

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