Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Listen, my children, and you shall hear
- The speaker is setting the stage here, gathering us around him like little kids. He opens the poem like you would a campfire story or a fairytale. Without getting too detailed, Longfellow gives us clues that our speaker is someone older and wiser. He also says that this is an important story he has to tell, something all kids should know about.
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere
- Here's where the speaker introduces our main man Paul and the big event of the poem, his "midnight ride."
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five
- Longfellow doesn't always get his facts right, but this one is right on target. Paul's ride happened on April 18, 1775 (and the morning of April 19, if you want to get specific). It's a big date in American history, the night before the first battles of the American Revolution. (That would be the battles of Lexington and Concord, on April 19, if you want US History bonus points.)
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
- This is talking about the fact that the poem was written much later, in 1860.
- By then, the generation that had fought the war was pretty much gone. The famous ride had happened 85 years ago, so anyone who remembered it would have to be really old.
- It's a little like the distance between World War I and now. It's history, but the poem also makes it into a legend of the past.
He said to his friend, 'If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night
- Just some quick history to set the scene: In 1775, the British army was in Boston, and the Revolutionary leaders, the militia, and their guns were hiding out in the countryside around the city. Paul Revere stayed behind to keep an eye on the British.
- Longfellow fibs a little about the facts but gets the basic layout right. At the beginning of the story, Paul and a buddy are making a plan to warn the people about the British leaving the city to attack the revolutionaries.
- The big question is whether the army is going to head out marching or crossing the water in boats. Paul needs to know so he can warn his fellow patriots.
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
- Here's where we learn about their sneaky plan.
- Paul tells his friend to signal him by hanging lanterns in the window of a belfry. He picks the North Church, an actual church in Boston, which would have been easy to see from far away.
- It's a pretty simple system: One light if they march on land, two if they go in boats.
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.'
- Paul tells his friend that he plans to cross the river, saddle up, and wait for the signal. Once he gets it, he'll take off and warn the people in Middlesex (the area north and west of Boston) to get up and grab their guns.