In the most recent issue of The American Scholar, Harvard University professor of American history Jill Lepore offers a keen analysis of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s most famous–and one of his most widely debated–poems, “Paul Revere’s Ride.”
“How Longfellow Woke the Dead” examines how the poem was read in Longfellow’s day as a “bold statement of his opposition to slavery” and why it deserves to be taken more seriously than it has been by scholars over the years. Timely, given that the poem was published on the eve of the Civil War (while ostensibly being about the Revolution), and that we are about to begin marking that war’s Sesquicentennial.
Lepore simultaneously redeems Maine’s most famous poet from the various critics, particularly in the 20th century, that made a sport out of “shooting down Longfellow’s [so-called] greeting-card verse.” After all, there’s nothing wrong, she explains, with being a poet who “loved writing poems that everyone would read, poems that everyone could read, poems in which people, unsophisticated people, even little people, might find pleasure and solace.”
Amen to that!