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The Subtle Use of Patriotism in The Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is widely considered one of the great American writers. One of his signature themes that he utilised in his writing was patriotism. This theme is expressed in his poems “Wreck of the Hesperus,” “The Arsenal at Springfield,” and “Paul Revere’s Ride.” Themes of hubris, pride, innocence, sacrifice, and optimism influenced his New England readers, who also were influenced by Longfellow’s usage of images of devastating battles and peaceful utopias. His sense of urgency throughout his works also motivated many of his readers to act with urgency in their own lives. Longfellow’s historical, satirical writing includes a strong sense of patriotism and pride that tries to affect change.

In Longfellow’s poem “Wreck of the Hesperus,” a ship captain sails his ship into a dangerous storm, endangering his own daughter due to his arrogance and hubris. He deliberately ignores the advice of his men to turn around to avoid the oncoming storm. “”I pray thee, put into yonder port, for I fear a hurricane. ‘Last night, the moon had a golden ring, and to-night no moon we see!’ The skipper, he blew a whiff from his pipe, and a scornful laugh laughed he” (Longfellow). Instead of going to the nearest port, the captain’s only preparation for the disaster is to “cut a rope from a broken spar, And [bind his daughter] to the mast” (Longfellow). The captain’s hubris led to the downfall of himself, his daughter, his crew, and his ship because he was blinded by his own pride. Longfellow’s inclusion and emphasis on hubris in “Wreck of the Hesperus” could have been seen as a warning to his readers to not repeat the ship captain’s arrogant actions in their own lives. The poem was first published in 1842, a time of extreme sectionalism and anger throughout America that eventually led to the secession of the South and the beginning of the Civil War. It was certainly a crucial time in our nation’s history, and Longfellow wanted to be sure that his readers would not give into the same vexation that divided their neighbors in both the North and South of the country.

Another way in which Longfellow tried tried to influence his audience in “Wreck of the Hesperus” was through the usage of themes of pride, innocence, and sacrifice. The captain’s pride is what blinds him and causes his hubris that leads to the wreck of his ship. “Hubris is the term used to describe the pride that characterizes the heroes of Greek tragedy, the kind of pride that blinds people to their limitations and allows them to pit their will against the will or power of supernatural elements, like the gods or fate in Greek tragedy, or great natural forces” (Constantakis 316). The hurricane that engulfs the Hesperus is an example of such a force, and it is an example of powerful imagery that Longfellow often employed to engage his readers further into his poems.

Innocence is also a very present theme throughout “Wreck of the Hesperus,” and is portrayed in the form of the captain’s daughter’s youthful arrogance towards the dangers of the oncoming storm and her dependence on her father. The captain betrayed her innocence by sailing straight into the storm without taking into account his daughter’s safety. Longfellow clearly attempted to manipulate his maternal readers by including this in the poem. The girl’s innocence is also implied by Longfellow’s images of springtime flowers and morning scenery. The theme of sacrifice is exhibited in the poem when the captain sacrifices his ship, his crew, and his daughter to his own pride. Later in the poem, when the storm reaches the ship, he sacrifices himself for his daughter by giving her his greatcoat. Even while handing his daughter the coat, he pridefully boasts of his own ability to save his doomed crew and ship.

The location, setting, and optimism of “Wreck of the Hesperus” is another way in which Longfellow tried to affect change in his readers. In the same way that the narrator is optimistic that God will save us all from the same fate that the crew of the Hesperus brutally and unnecessarily suffered, Longfellow was optimistic for the fate of his nation. “The closing [lines] alone should dispel any overemphasis on Longfellow’s optimism: Christ save us all from a death like this, On the reef of Norman’s Woe” (Johnston 169). These closing lines also reflect the fact that Longfellow tried to manipulate and affect change in the hearts of his New England audience, because he writes that the wreck crashed “on the reef of Norman’s Woe,” a rock reef just five hundred feet off the coast of Cape Ann in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The reef had previously been the site of several wrecks before Longfellow wrote the poem. “And fast through the midnight dark and drear, through the whistling sleet and snow, like a sheeted ghost, the vessel swept tow’rds the reef of Norman’s Woe” (Longfellow). The inclusion of this seemingly small detail in “Wreck of the Hesperus” clearly shows the modern-day reader that the poem was an attempt by Longfellow to reach out to the sailing culture of Massachusetts and New England, and remind his readers from this area about their long, illustrious, and often infamous boating history. Perhaps Longfellow even anticipated the beginning of the Civil War when he wrote the poem in 1840, and was trying to influence some of his braver readers to join the Union Navy. This may or may not be true, but even so, there should be no doubt that Longfellow’s satirical writing in “Wreck of the Hesperus” was a clear attempt to try to affect in his American audience.

Longfellow also tries to affect change in his readers with the dramatic poem “The Arsenal at Springfield.” Longfellow express his pacifism in this poem by using intense symbols of the destructiveness of war. “Were half the power, that fills the world with terror, were half the wealth bestowed on camps and courts given to redeem the human mind from error, there were no need of arsenals or forts ” (Longfellow 2). Here, Longfellow writes that if just half the money humanity spent on war and destruction were to be spent on “camps and courts,” the world would be a much better place and there would be no need for war. He also tries to make the reader agree with him and affect change by including beautiful images of a peaceful society without war – a holy world. “Peace! and no longer from its brazen portals the blast of War’s great organ shakes the skies! But beautiful as songs of the immortals, the holy melodies of love arise” (Longfellow 2). This passage could be seen as an appeal to the Puritan population of Longfellow’s 1800s New England. These people sought to purify both the church and the world around them. The Puritan readers of “The Arsenal at Springfield” would have sympathized with Longfellow’s disapprobation of war and admiration and desire for a peaceful society.

The fact that Longfellow’s poem “The Arsenal at Springfield” took place at the site of a Revolutionary War battlefield, is also a blatant appeal to his New England readers in the mid-1800s, who could have been directly affected by the Revolutionary War. Interestingly, however, Longfellow doesn’t write about recent wars. Instead, he “references the great Norsemen of Scandinavia, the Cimbri of Germany, and the Tartars of Asia. All these tribes were known for their warlike culture of invasions and domination” (Saduka). Instead of directly mentioning the effects of the Revolutionary War that could have affected his readers, he chose to write about ancient battles when “Aztec priests upon their teocallis beat the wild war-drums made of serpent’s skin” (Longfellow 2). Longfellow must have done this to not only affect his American readers’ thoughts about their own domestic battles, but also of foreign wars that may not have affected them at all. Longfellow’s “The Arsenal at Springfield” is an attempt to affect the pacifism of all of his readers in general.

Another way in which Longfellow tries to affect change in his readers in his poem “The Arsenal at Springfield” is through the extensive use of metaphors throughout the poem. He compares weapons and battles to instruments and symphonies. This comparison is an example of a dramatic metaphor because it involves something most people would never expect to appear together: music and violence. “The collective guns sit ‘Like a huge organ,’ waiting to be played. In stanzas two and three, this ‘organ’ bursts into activity, as it is played by the ‘death-angel,’ and the resulting ‘symphonies’ are anything but pleasant” (Poquette). Longfellow compares the way that the military officers stored the guns to the way an organ’s pipes stand against a wall. He later says that guns are instruments that “drownest nature’s sweet and kindly voices, and jarrest the celestial harmonies” (Longfellow 2). When the conflict is resolved, “beautiful as songs of the immortals, the holy melodies of love arise” (Longfellow 2). Longfellow’s dramatic comparison of weapons to instruments would have affected his readers in a way that would forever change the way they saw both conflict and symphony.Longfellow also appeals to his New England readers’ senses of urgency in his famous historic poem “Paul Revere’s Ride.” In the poem, Paul Revere tells a friend to prepare signal lanterns in the Old North Church in Revolutionary Boston, to prepare for the arrival of British forces, either by land or by sea. Revere plans to await the signal across the river in Charlestown and be ready to spread the alarm throughout Middlesex County. The friend signals that the British are coming by sea, and Revere rides through the towns of Medford, Lexington, and Concord to warn the Patriot militia. To the reader, Revere appears very urgent throughout his adventure. “Then, impetuous, stamped the earth, and turned and tightened his saddle girth; but mostly he watched with eager search the belfry tower of the Old North Church” (Longfellow 3). As seen in this passage, Revere is very determined to complete his important mission. Revere’s sense of urgency throughout the poem is a clear sign of Longfellow’s attempt to appeal to Northerners’ sense of urgency during the Civil War, when the poem was written. Longfellow also used “Paul Revere’s Ride” to remind his readers of their morals and values about their country by reminding them of the origins of their nation during the Revolutionary War.

Another way in which Longfellow attempted to affect change in many of his New England readers and all those affected by the Revolutionary War in his poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” was by answering their question “where did we come from.” Revere almost immediately answers this question, in the first stanza of the poem: “On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five: hardly a man is now alive who remembers that famous day and year” (Revere). “Paul Revere’s Ride” is not interesting enough to travel across cultures, nor factual enough to be a history lesson. Americans enjoy the poem because it represents the amazing birth of their country, and Longfellow exploited their enjoyment and interest to get a response out of his audience. “Longfellow gave the story of the night of April 18th a clear focal point: the spark that came off of the horse’s hoof is a specific, concrete image that implies the start of a passionate flame” (Napierkowski 186). The spark of the passionate flame is a metaphor to the birth of America as a nation independent from Britain. “Paul Revere’s Ride” captures the patriotism of all its American readers and awakens them to act for the cause of their country during the time before the Civil War, a time of sectionalism and regional unrest. It answers their question, “Where did we come from?”

Another way that Revere manipulated his audience in “Paul Revere’s Ride” was by

altering the truth. Longfellow focused his poem on Revere because he was a famous patriot and because one rider made for a streamlined narrative, when in reality, the warning of the militia was a group effort. “Many Americans still believe that in April 1775 he rode alone from Boston to alert the countryside that a British force was marching on Concord. There were, in fact, two other riders, and Revere was captured before reaching his destination” (Corbett 122). Eventually, the legend of Paul Revere took hold because, over time, teachers forgot to mention that the poem wasn’t very historically accurate. In “Paul Revere’s Ride,” Longfellow uses the patriotic character of Paul Revere to “manipulate” the American reader’s mind and cause them to recount history incorrectly, therefore creating a powerful legend and symbol of Paul Revere, who now represents patriotism better than almost any figure in American history.

Unlike “The Arsenal at Springfield,” a reflection of Longfellow’s inner pacifism and desire for a peaceful utopia, “Paul Revere’s Ride” is a call to arms for the American people. This fact reveals Longfellow’s pure patriotism because he believed that action was necessary if it was in the best interest of America and its sovereignty. “Written as the United States was entering the Civil War, ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’ is a memorable call to arms from a poet who elsewhere shows himself distressed at war. Longfellow’s great hope, expressed repeatedly, was that an age of peace will one day succeed the great ages of war.” (Johnston 164). Longfellow’s prevailing hope for America was that it could find peace with other nations and its enemies. He wrote that the fate of America was in Longfellow’s hands that night in Boston. Longfellow makes “Paul Revere’s Ride” a call to arms for Americans by making it known that Revere rode with the fate of his nation on his shoulders, and during the Civil War, Longfellow’s audience would be inclined to think that they, like Revere, had an obligation to protect the fate of their nation.

Patriotism is without a doubt the prevailing theme throughout Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s illustrious collection of poems and short stories. His patriotism is best expressed in his poems “Wreck of the Hesperus,” “The Arsenal at Springfield,” and “Paul Revere’s Ride,” in which themes of hubris, pride, innocence, sacrifice, and optimism influenced his audiences, who were further influenced by Longfellow’s usage of images of gruesome battlefronts and peaceful societies. He also utilised urgent voice, particularly in “Paul Revere’s Ride,” to convince some of his more patriotic readers to act with urgency during the time of the Civil War, as Revere did during the Revolutionary. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow affected patriotism onto his readers better than any other writer in American history.

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The Subtle Use of Patriotism in the Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (2018, October 16). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 19, 2021, from
“The Subtle Use of Patriotism in the Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.” GradesFixer, 16 Oct. 2018,
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