The Quiet Pause

While rereading a seasonal poem, I realized that it fits the pattern Karen pointed out last week with “Lady Diamond.” It also fits what Sarah was taking about with the shadows, the quiet darkness, that casts the light and action into higher relief.

“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.

Meanwhile, his friend, through alley and street
Wanders and watches with eager ears,
Till in the silence around him he hears
The muster of men at the barrack door,
The sound of arms, and the tramp of feet,
And the measured tread of the grenadiers
Marching down to their boats on the shore.

Then he climbed to the tower of the church,
Up the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,
To the belfry-chamber overhead,
And startled the pigeons from their perch
On the sombre rafters, that round him made
Masses and moving shapes of shade,—
By the trembling ladder, steep and tall,
To the highest window in the wall,
Where he paused to listen and look down
A moment on the roofs of the town,
And the moonlight flowing over all.

Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead,
In their night-encampment on the hill,
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,
And seeming to whisper, “All is well!”
A moment only he feels the spell
Of the place and the hour, and the secret dread
Of the lonely belfry and the dead;
For suddenly all his thoughts are bent
On a shadowy something far away,
Where the river widens to meet the bay,—
A line of black, that bends and floats
On the rising tide, like a bridge of boats.”

From “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Pause, action, pause, pause, then the poem races with the two riders bringing word to the Minute Men. When I was younger, I didn’t “get” the middle of the poem. I liked the opening, and the end, but the middle seemed to drag. What’s so big about the cemetery, and the moon on the boats, anyway?

Now I know. It’s foreshadowing, warnings of what is to come. The story opens with a reminder of events, then Paul Revere speaking to his friend. The friend listens and watches, sees what happens, and sends the message to Revere and his associate. The riders race into the night to “spread the alarm to every Middlesex village and farm/ for the country folk to be up and to arm.” The slow meditation on the quiet of the night builds tension and paints a scene. It also warns indirectly of the price that will be paid on the morrow, and in the long years to come.

Longfellow wrote a series of poems modeled on the Decameron and Canterbury Tales, entitled Tales from a Wayside Inn. The story-poems are told by travelers wiling away a storm. This is the only one anyone recalls today. It was recited annually when I was growing up, before heroic adventure poems became declassé.

The quiet moment that both eases and then builds tension and drama. The well-timed joke that breaks tension without removing the seriousness of the moment. They are things we know when we read, but that can be so hard to write well. Longfellow managed it in rhyme and rhythm both.

4 thoughts on “The Quiet Pause

  1. I used to have about 1/3 of it memorized because our elementary class was reciting it for some program. And everyone had a few lines. We practiced it a lot and back then I had close to a Photo/Audiographic memory. So I knew all the parts up to mine, and then a few after mine. Any more it’s only the beginning that I remember at all. Kind of like Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, I only remember a few lines.

    1. Water, water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink

      I’m scared to check how well I remember that bit….

      BTW, growing up our family had favorite quotes from books, like:
      “Hello, lunch” (from a Frog & Toad book)
      “We didn’t use ALL the sugar” (from Laura Ingall Wilder’s Farmer Boy)

    2. I can recite the prelude, and the last eight lines or so. The latter is because I sang them at two concerts, and they locked in my memory.

  2. Poetry is a medium of distillation — it concentrates prose, and as such it exposes the rhetorical bones of story structure as well as the surface details. Think how much “story” is manifested in a limerick. Even a haiku manages both, if only by implication.

    The ballads I was using as an example demonstrate a “folk tradition” that wears away (or amplifies) the original the way a tide polishes shells. Granted that the mechanism is one individual singer at a time (not a generic “folk”), but still the process is part of a coherent culture of rhetorical tools/tastes.

    The current era values the individuality of authorial perception excessively, in my view. I cut my teeth on, and am still enormously fond of, the older folk traditions of story telling in all their manifestations (oral-formulaic epics, poetry, campfire tales, fairy stories, ballads, lyric songs, sagas, etc., etc., etc.). Like the study of language itself and the particular roots and influences of a particular instance, the depths are not only endlessly deep, they also support all the floating structures we’ve made on top of them for our insights and amusements.

Comments are closed.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: