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Listen My Children

One hundred and fifty years ago this week wrapping the last Christmas gift was not the first order of business for many Americans.  On December 20, 1860, one hundred and sixty nine delegates to the South Carolina legislature signed the Secession Ordinance, launching the nation toward the Civil War.  Little did those secessionist slave holders in the South, or their unionist and abolitionist counterparts in the north imagine of the magnitude of the violence that would engulf the nation during the ensuing four and a half years or the agony the emancipated men and women and their descendents would endure during decades of Jim Crow and segregation

That same day in 1860 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published “Paul Revere’s Ride” in Boston.  I became acquainted with Longfellow’s poem through my father who, along with most school children in Boston in the early part of the 20th century, memorized it for the annual observance of Patriot’s Day on April 19.  He could still recite large sections of it throughout his life.

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.

In recent decades Longfellow’s poem lost its cachet, dismissed by many as sentimental verse and criticized by others for its historical inaccuracies.  But Sunday in an article by Harvard historian Jill Lempore in The New York Times, I learned something new about the poem and a reading that had less to do with colonial artifact than antebellum challenge.  Longfellow was an ardent abolitionist.  In 1842 he published a scathing attack on the institution of slavery called The Witnesses which includes these poignant lines –

These are the bones of Slaves;
They gleam from the abyss;
They cry, from yawning waves,
“We are the witnesses!”

In the face of the slavery’s intransigence, and the growing belligerence of Southern politicians, “Paul Revere’s Ride” is less a historical record than the shaping of the American myth of resistance to oppression, a clarion call to northerners to emulate their forebears at the time of new peril for the American freedom experiment.  In this light, hear in a fresh way the closing lines of Longfellow’s poetry:

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

All of this reminds me of the danger for narratives to be sapped of their power by the encrustations of sentimentality, a loss of any sense of original context, and our frequent readiness to depoliticize almost anything to make it more comfortable, respectable, or palatable.  Friday night we will rehearse the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke, sometimes accompanied by the warm romance of bathrobe pageantry.  Some will experience it with the same appreciation one greets the annual performance of The Nutcracker, the hanging of the greens, or the displays of lights, be they artistic or campy.  Others will scoff at the obvious “fictions” embedded in the texts.  A few, perhaps, will recognize beneath the beloved prose the poetry of resistance to a violent world order dominated by Rome in which the poor were crushed and dehumanizing boundaries of race or moralism defined the limits of grace.

Longfellow’s poem, it seems, was far more than a Boston schoolboy’s memory verse.  Instead it was an Advent-like warning of the wrath that was to come, and of the conflict that Lincoln came to see as the righteous judgment of the Lord for “the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil. . . and every drop of blood drawn with the lash.”  One hundred and fifty years later do we sense a similar “hour of darkness and peril and need?”  Perhaps we have simply rushed past Advent and its warning cry, displacing its judgment with plans for a merry Christmas having little to do with the Incarnation’s transformative power.  Lulled to sleep with eggnog, and dreaming of hooves on the rooftop, we fail to see a world still violent and violated, dominated by imperial designs in which the poor remain crushed and boundaries still protect grace for the few.  Advent lingers for one more day reminding us of the darkness, peril and need.”  May it call us, like “a night-wind of the Past,” to “waken and listen and hear.”

John H. Thomas

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