Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Accepts, But Does Not Clutch The Crown

As Americans we are not really big on dates. There are only two that we really tend to remember.

One is coming up in a few days. We all know that on the fourth of July, in 1776, our forefathers signed a document that declared our land to be free from the rule of England. It took another seven years of war to make that declaration of independence accepted by England and the rest of the world.

But that document did not begin the war. The Revolution as we call it. In fact that war began more than a year earlier. And whether we all recognize it or not, all Americans know the date that war started. We don't always think of it as the beginning our our separation from England, we don't always think of it as the beginning of a war, but that is what it was.

We don't necessarily remember it from history class in high school. We remember it from a poem.

"Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the _______________ in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year."

Every American knows that date. I don't even have to print it for Americans. But for the rest of the world, the blank line in the verse above should read: "On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;".

We remember it far less for the sake of Paul Revere, who rode forth on that date, than we do for the sake of the poem that made that silversmith/messenger/political radical famous.

We all know the poem that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote to commemorate Paul Revere's ride far better than we know Paul Revere himself.

But how many of us know that "Paul Revere's Ride" was not a poem by itself? It was in fact originally entitled "The Landlord's Tale"? It was actually the first tale in a series of tales that Longfellow wrote in imitation of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Longfellow hoped to become the "Chaucer" of the American language. He was, he hoped, writing America's Iliad, her Canterbury Tales, her Pentateuch. He saw a new world dawning, and he wanted to be remembered in one hundred centuries who had first given this new world its voice.

So he wrote "Tales Of A Wayside Inn." Like the Canterbury Tales, many people meet in an inn and agree to swap tales. The inkeeper is forced to go first, and his is the famous "Paul Revere's Ride." Many others follow, and like Chaucer there are interludes between orators. It is a great sequence. Not Chaucer; not the voice of a new world. But still a great sequence.

I love the introduction to the poet, one of the cast of characters in the inn's tale swapping that evening.

This is from "The Prologue," and anyone who has read Chaucer will immediately recognize how much even this little fragment is an immitation of the Canterbury Tales. Yet it is new and fresh in Longfellow's voice.

A Poet, too, was there, whose verse
Was tender, musical, and terse;
The inspiration, the delight,
The gleam, the glory, the swift flight,
Of thoughts so sudden, that they seem
The revelations of a dream,
All these were his; but with them came
No envy of another's fame;
He did not find his sleep less sweet
For music in some neighboring street,
Nor rustling hear in every breeze
The laurels of Miltiades.
Honour and blessings on his head
While living, good report when dead,
Who, not too eager for renown,
Accepts, but does not clutch, the crown!

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