We’re all doing a lot of hand washing these days. I was taught to wash my hands a long time ago, but back than it wasn’t a matter of life and death. My mother told me over and over again Wash your hands! Actually, she said it in Italian, Lava le mani! Or Lava la faccia e le mani, your face and hands.
That was back around 1934 or 1935. Now decades later we’re in a global pandemic and I’m told over and over again to wash my hands. And this time it’s Wash your hands and keep at it for at least twenty-seconds!
I was told that reciting the poem “Mary had a little lamb,” a couple of times will take about twenty seconds. I tried it and discovered I couldn’t recall the entire poem, and when I looked it up online and memorized it, I believed that if I had to recite it every time I washed my hands I’d soon go crazy. And the same was true for “Happy Birthday,” another recommended rhyme.
I needed something a more substantial, such as, say, the opening lines of Dante’s “Inferno.” My mother could recite the first few lines and I figured I could do that, too. Groping my way through the opening of that poem took a little more than half a minute, plenty of time for the soap’s molecules to puncture the lipid surface of the corona virus, turning its RNA to useless junk.
Dante’s poem about visiting the geography and inhabitants of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven is long — very long — but he uses a quick running style. The lines are brief and to the point. By line five he’s warning me how hard it is for him to tell his tale, even the thought of it renews his fear -– death is only a little worse, he says. After a day of scrupulous washing while reciting those lines, my hands were immaculate and I was darkly depressed.
I grew up in the town of Lexington, Massachusetts, site of the battle between a handful of Minute Men and British troops on their way to Concord in April of 1775. In the old brick public school I attended — my uncles had gone to the same school — we were encouraged to memorize poems or pieces of poems, and along the way we all read, or had read to us, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” the story of how Revere had galloped from Boston to Lexington one night to warm people that the British were coming.
The poem was written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1860, eighty-five years after the bloody skirmish in Lexington. Longfellow was probably the most widely known person in America at the time, and he wrote it hoping to inspire national pride and unity on the eve of a war that was about to tear the country apart. Longfellow is almost forgotten nowadays, but he was certainly famous in my school where his Hiawatha poem was read to us, just a little piece every day, by Miss Blodgette, my grandmotherly second-grade teacher. Now we were in fifth grade, memorizing, and “Paul Revere’s Ride” was a good one to put in memory, along with the author’s name, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, all seven syllables of it.
Here’s the poem. Don’t be put off by the opening phrase, “Listen, my children.” Longfellow is going to take an episode from the years preceding the founding of the nation and transform it into an powerful myth and, though he’s going to do this in the guise of teaching history to school kids, the history lesson is actually for adults.
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 to-night,
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.”
Then he said “Good night!” and with muffled oar
Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
Just as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
The Somerset, British man-of-war:
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
Across the moon, like a prison-bar,
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified
By its own reflection in the tide.
That’s the way the tale begins. The first fourteen lines, the linear equivalent of a conventional sonnet, will probably give you about twenty seconds of hand washing. The next nine will provide you with peace of mind that you’ve actually done enough to slaughter every single COVID-19 virus and you can now rinse away the exploded remains.
The poem is easy to read and the story moves right along. The meter is strong but not obtrusive, generally being two light beats and then a heavy one, four beats to a line. And the rhymes come rather casually, but frequently enough so that you can catch them, there being no rigid rhyme scheme. Despite the freedom in meter and rhyme, there no incoherence when you read it, especially if you read it aloud. In fact, reading this aloud makes it easy to understand that rhymed poetry began in pre-literate societies where rhythm and rhyme made it easier to recall and pass along, word for word, events they had no way to write down.
Any historian will point out that the Longfellow’s poem isn’t a wholly accurate report on those events of April 18 and 19th. But it’s accurate enough. The British military under General Gage occupied Boston while the villagers and farmers in the surrounding countryside were organizing militias to defend themselves against further incursions.
Paul Revere, a successful Boston silver smith, activist and revolutionary, knew that the British planned to send troops to Lexington under the cover of dark on the night of April 18, to arrest John Hancock and Sam Adams and to seize or destroy munitions hidden in Concord. The line between city and farm wasn’t firm and military secrets slipped easily between enemy lines.
At the time, Boston was essentially an island attached to the rest of Massachusetts by a narrow neck of land. The only unknown was whether the British would cross the waters of Charles River Bay to Charleston and then march to Concord, or would leave Boston by the land bridge and then swing toward Concord. The British had anchored ships in the waters around Boston and had sealed off the land route, but Revere was successfully rowed across by a fellow conspirator, despite passing close to one of the sentinel ships. Longfellow’s description of the British sloop, the Somerset, is more than picturesque. He calls the Somerset a “man-of-war,” a category of heavily armed ships in the Royal Navy. It’s a “phantom ship,” as if it and its crew were dead, and at the same time each mast and spar is across the moon “like a prison bar,” an image relating to the imprisonment of the citizens in Boston under the British.
Through out this poem Longfellow comes up with imagery of death. There’s a fine description of Revere’s friend climbing inside the Old North Church tower. In fact, the friend was Robert Newman, sexton of the church, the conspirator who made the long climb and — as depicted by Longfellow — he pauses to look down from a high window to the graves in the churchyard where the dead lay
Wrapped in silence so deep and still
That he could hear, like a sentinel’s tread,
The watchful night-wind as it went
Creeping along from tent to tent…
Thus the poet transforms the graveyard into a military encampment of dead soldiers. And later he refers to the church itself as “spectral,” as if it too were dead, and later in the poem, as Revere gallops into Lexington in the moonlight, the meeting-house windows, which are blank and bare
Gaze at him with a spectral glare,
As if they already stood aghast
At the bloody work they would look upon.
Longfellow was aware that the nation was divided and that an impending war — if people allowed it to happen — would be ghastly and bloody. Fortunately, there was Paul Revere to awaken them.
A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,
And beneath, from the pebbles, in passing, a spark
Struck out by a steed flying fearless and fleet:
That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,
The fate of a nation was riding that night…
As a kid, I loved those lines – The fate of a nation was riding that night. That was poetry!
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow has vanished from the school curriculum. He was born in 1807 in Portland, Maine, and died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1882, at 75. He was a man of broad learning, a productive poet all his life, skilled at languages, for many years a professor at Harvard University, and the unofficial poet lauriate of his country. In grief after the death of his wife, he set himself the task of bringing Dante to the American reader, and made a somewhat plodding translation of the Divina Comedia.