April 20, 2022

Rhymes in “Paul Revere’s Ride”

I first encountered Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” in high school. It is an excellent piece of literature to study, as it provides a gentle introduction to poetry and has the benefit of teaching a little history as well. (One should not take everything in the poem as historical fact, however.)

Paul Revere
Paul Revere (from J.S. Copely painting)
I liked the poem so much that I memorized the first few stanzas of it. Memorizing the whole poem apparently required more commitment than I was able to muster.

In any case, on the two-hundred-forty-seventh anniversary of the events described in the beginning of the poem—i.e., on April 18, 2022—I took a closer look at the poem. The first thing I noticed is that the stanzas vary in length. Moreover, there is no consistent rhyme scheme. The poem is not, for example, constructed of a sequence of rhymed couplets. Nevertheless, the poem is full of rhymes.

I have long been intrigued by differing rhyme schemes and have employed a variety of them in my own poetry. Besides using a series of couplets, the simplest possible scheme—see, for example, “Maidenhood”—I have employed the more difficult to sustain ABAB form—see, for example, “Musashi’s Odyssey.” Somewhat easier to write is the ABCB form, which I used in “First Class” and “The Quecreek Mine Disaster.” Some of the more interesting rhyme schemes I’ve used include ABBC in “Thanksgiving” and ABCDCBA in “Sunday Afternoon,” a poem deliberately written to employ this unusual mirrored-stanza scheme. Of course, some of my poems don’t rhyme at all, such as “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” which nevertheless is composed of stanzas of equal length.

Then there is the “Paul Revere” poem. As one reads it—as I read it anyway—one is aware of there being rhymes, but rhymes that fall into no consistent pattern. Nonetheless, the poem reads well. Upon close examination, one notices that the poem contains not a single un-rhymed line, although rhyming lines are sometimes widely separated from one another. In the stanza beginning “It was one by the village clock,” the second line rhymes only with the eighth and last line. Only one rhyme seems a bit forced: Lexington/upon. It is easy to excuse this is a poem constrained, in large measure, by historical facts. Also, some may object to lane/again, but this is perfectly conventional. One can imagine the poem with different line breaks, but, of course, this would obscure the rhymes further.

I invite you to enjoy “Paul Revere’s Ride” below, where I have indicated the rhymes in the left column. Longfellow did a masterful job!
  

Paul Revere’s Ride 
A   Listen, my children and you shall hear
A   Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
B   On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five:
B   Hardly a man is now alive
A   Who remembers that famous day and year.

A   He said to his friend, “If the British march
B   By land or sea from the town to-night,
A   Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry-arch
B   Of the North-Church-tower, as a signal-light,—
C   One if by land, and two if by sea;
C   And I on the opposite shore will be,
D   Ready to ride and spread the alarm
D   Through every Middlesex village and farm,
D   For the country-folk to be up and to arm.”

A   Then he said “Good night!” and with muffled oar
A   Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
B   Just as the moon rose over the bay,
B   Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
C   The Somerset, British man-of-war:
C   A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
C   Across the moon, like a prison-bar,
D   And a huge black hulk, that was magnified
D   By its own reflection in the tide.

A   Meanwhile, his friend, through alley and street
B   Wanders and watches with eager ears,
B   Till in the silence around him he hears
C   The muster of men at the barrack door,
A   The sound of arms, and the tramp of feet,
B   And the measured tread of the grenadiers
C   Marching down to their boats on the shore.

A   Then he climbed to the tower of the church,
B   Up the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,
B   To the belfry-chamber overhead,
A   And startled the pigeons from their perch
D   On the sombre rafters, that round him made
D   Masses and moving shapes of shade,—
E   By the trembling ladder, steep and tall,
E   To the highest window in the wall,
F   A moment on the roofs of the town,
F   Where he paused to listen and look down
E   And the moonlight flowing over all.

A   Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead,
B   In their night-encampment on the hill,
B   Wrapped in silence so deep and still
A   That he could hear, like a sentinel’s tread,
C   The watchful night-wind, as it went
C   Creeping along from tent to tent,
D   And seeming to whisper, “All is well!”
D   A moment only he feels the spell
A   Of the place and the hour, and the secret dread
A   Of the lonely belfry and the dead;
C   For suddenly all his thoughts are bent
E   On a shadowy something far away,
E   Where the river widens to meet the bay,—
F   A line of black, that bends and floats
F   On the rising tide, like a bridge of boats.

A   Meanwhile, impatient to mount and ride,
A   Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride,
B   On the opposite shore walked Paul Revere.
A   Now he patted his horse’s side,
B   Now gazed on the landscape far and near,
C   Then impetuous stamped the earth,
C   And turned and tightened his saddle-girth;
D   But mostly he watched with eager search
D   The belfry-tower of the old North Church,
E   As it rose above the graves on the hill,
E   Lonely and spectral and sombre and still.
F   And lo! as he looks, on the belfry’s height,
F   A glimmer, and then a gleam of light!
G   He springs to the saddle, the bridle he turns,
F   But lingers and gazes, till full on his sight
G   A second lamp in the belfry burns!

A   A hurry of hoofs in a village-street,
B   A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,
B   And beneath from the pebbles, in passing, a spark
A   Struck out by a steed that flies fearless and fleet:
C   That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,
C   The fate of a nation was riding that night;
C   And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,
A   Kindled the land into flame with its heat.

A   He has left the village and mounted the steep,
A   And beneath him, tranquil and broad and deep,
B   Is the Mystic, meeting the ocean tides;
C   And under the alders, that skirt its edge,
C   Now soft on the sand, now loud on the ledge,
B   Is heard the tramp of his steed as he rides.

A   It was twelve by the village clock
B   When he crossed the bridge into Medford town.
A   He heard the crowing of the cock,
C   And the barking of the farmer’s dog,
C   And felt the damp of the river-fog,
B   That rises when the sun goes down.

A   It was one by the village clock,
B   When he galloped into Lexington.
A   He saw the gilded weathercock
C   Swim in the moonlight as he passed,
D   And the meeting-house windows, blank and bare,
D   Gaze at him with a spectral glare,
C   As if they already stood aghast
B   At the bloody work they would look upon.

A   It was two by the village clock,
B   When he came to the bridge in Concord town.
B   He heard the bleating of the flock,
C   And the twitter of birds among the trees,
C   And felt the breath of the morning breeze
B   Blowing over the meadows brown.
D   And one was safe and asleep in his bed
E   Who at the bridge would be first to fall,
D   Who that day would be lying dead,
E   Pierced by a British musket-ball.

A   You know the rest. In the books you have read,
A   How the British Regulars fired and fled,—
B   How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
B   From behind each fence and farmyard-wall,
C   Chasing the red-coats down the lane,
C   Then crossing the fields to emerge again
D   Under the trees at the turn of the road,
A   And only pausing to fire and load.

A   So through the night rode Paul Revere;
B   And so through the night went his cry of alarm
B   To every Middlesex village and farm,—
A   A cry of defiance, and not of fear,
C   A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
C   And a word that shall echo forevermore!
D   For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
D   Through all our history, to the last,
E   In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
A   The people will waken and listen to hear
E   The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
A   And the midnight message of Paul Revere.