MORE Reasons Why New Englanders Are Annoyed with Longfellow
Last month, we wondered why Henry Wadsworth Longfellow omitted the name of Paul Revere’s horse in his famous poem that begins, “Listen my children and you shall hear / Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.” After all, every horse has a name.
Well, now it turns out that’s not the only reason New Englanders are annoyed with Longfellow. Also irritating to us is that he omitted the name of the man who hung the two lanterns in the steeple of the Old North Church. He referred to him simply as Revere’s “friend” who “climbed the tower of the Old North Church, / By the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread, / To the belfry-chamber overhead.”
Most believe it was the sexton of the Old North Church, Robert Newman, who climbed those 154 steps with the lanterns. Others vehemently support a Captain John Pulling, who was Revere’s good “friend” and shared the same political beliefs. Pulling advocates, comprising principally the captain’s descendants, argue that Revere would not have entrusted the mission to anyone but a valued and courageous friend such as Pulling. But there’s not enough hard evidence to dissuade either side.
Even the Old North Church itself has, over the years, been involved in controversy. Some years ago I received an impressive collection of data from a small group of amateur historians who feel strongly that Paul Revere’s lanterns didn’t hang in the Old North Church at all. They maintain the lanterns were hung in what history today refers to as the Second Church, but which was known in 1775 as “Old North.” Second Church was situated across the street from Paul Revere’s house in North Square, its steeple also had a clear view of the harbor, and it was the only Boston church demolished by the British after the lantern episode.
Second Church advocates point adamantly to a letter Revere wrote 23 years later, recalling that “if the British went by water we would show two lanterns in the North Church steeple.” They say that if Revere had meant the present-day Old North Church, he would have said “Christ Church,” as it was known at that time. Longfellow avoided that particular hornet’s nest by omitting the street address of the Old North Church.
Connecticut Yankees also have a special problem with Longfellow. They wish he’d seen fit to mention one Israel Bissell of East Windsor, Connecticut, who left Watertown, Massachusetts, on the afternoon of April 19, 1775, calling men to arms in town after town all through the state of Connecticut and down as far as Philadelphia. It is said he rode 345 miles in five days, and that at one stop along the way he didn’t even have to rein in his exhausted horse. It simply dropped dead.
That’s certainly the stuff of poetry, but because a poem was never written about it, say Connecticut’s Bissell fans, the heroic ride of their man has virtually been forgotten. However, I can sympathize with Longfellow on this one. I mean, can you think of anything that rhymes with “Bissell”?