Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s (1807-1882) famous poem Paul Revere’s Ride begins:
Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere
Nice poem, but much of it untrue. Writers have to be careful with historical accuracy, even while allowing for poetic license. Longfellow wasn’t.
What really happened
On the night of April 18, 1775, two men rode from Boston to warn that the British were coming. Revere and William Dawes took separate routes to Lexington to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock, both on the British most-wanted list.
A third man, Samuel Prescott, joined them there. Prescott was the only one who finished the job. After he and Dawes warned Adams and Hancock, British patrols arrested all three. Dawes escaped and turned back. Revere was kept in custody longer. It was Prescott who got away and went on to Concord to rouse the minutemen.
Varnishing the truth
Longfellow chose to write about Revere, and his poem shaped the thinking of generations. Never mind accuracy, never mind history; Revere gets credit for what Prescott did. Although Revere arranged the signals—“One, if by land, and two, if by sea”—all he managed to do later that night was get arrested.
Should we take liberties with our writing? Does it matter if we color the truth and change the way people think about an event?
Longfellow was safe when he wrote his poem in 1861. After all, as his poem says, “Hardly a man is now alive who remembers that famous day and year.” Who would bother to check his poem for accuracy?
But people today can check facts—and they do. Online research available with a few keystrokes can easily put us in the camp of the liars, burdening us with reputations difficult to undo. Longfellow told his varnished truth and the public bought it. We may not do as well today if we decide to varnish ours.