I recited the poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” to myself while walking across campus last week.
A few hours earlier, I’d cancelled the seminar that I’d been slated to cohost two days later. In a few hours, I’d cancel the rest of the seminars in the series. Undergraduates would begin vacating their dorms within a day. Labs would shut down, and postdocs would receive instructions to work from home.
I memorized “Paul Revere’s Ride” after moving to Cambridge, following tradition: As a research assistant at Lancaster University in the UK, I memorized e. e. cummings’s “anyone lived in a pretty how town.” At Caltech, I memorized “Kubla Khan.” Another home called for another poem. “Paul Revere’s Ride” brooked no competition: Campus’s red bricks run into Boston, where Revere’s story began during the 1700s.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who lived a few blocks from Harvard, composed the poem. It centers on the British assault against the American colonies, at Lexington and Concord, on the eve of the Revolutionary War. A patriot learned of the British troops’ movements one night. He communicated the information to faraway colleagues by hanging lamps in a church’s belfry. His colleagues rode throughout the night, to “spread the alarm / through every Middlesex village and farm.” The riders included Paul Revere, a Boston silversmith.
The Boston-area bricks share their color with Harvard’s crest, crimson. So do the protrusions on the coronavirus’s surface in colored pictures.
The yard that I was crossing was about to “de-densify,” the red-brick buildings were about to empty, and my home was about to lock its doors. I’d watch regulations multiply, emails keep pace, and masks appear. Revere’s messenger friend, too, stood back and observed his home:
he climbed to the tower of the church,
Up the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,
To the belfry-chamber overhead, [ . . . ]
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.
I commiserated also with Revere, waiting on tenterhooks for his message:
Meanwhile, impatient to mount and ride,
Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride,
On the opposite shore walked Paul Revere.
Now he patted his horse’s side,
Now gazed on the landscape far and near,
Then impetuous stamped the earth,
And turned and tightened his saddle-girth…
The lamps ended the wait, and Revere rode off. His mission carried a sense of urgency, yet led him to serenity that I hadn’t expected:
He has left the village and mounted the steep,
And beneath him, tranquil and broad and deep,
Is the Mystic, meeting the ocean tides…
The poem’s final stanza kicks. Its message carries as much relevance to the 21st century as Longfellow, writing about the 1700s during the 1800s, could have dreamed:
So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm,—
A cry of defiance, and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo forevermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.
Reciting poetry clears my head. I can recite on autopilot, while processing other information or admiring my surroundings. But the poem usually wins my attention at last. The rhythm and rhyme sweep me along, narrowing my focus. Reciting “Paul Revere’s Ride” takes me 5-10 minutes. After finishing that morning, I repeated the poem, and began repeating it again, until arriving at my institute on the edge of Harvard’s campus.
Isolation can benefit theorists. Many of us need quiet to study, capture proofs, and disentangle ideas. Many of us need collaboration; but email, Skype, Google hangouts, and Zoom connect us. Many of us share and gain ideas through travel; but I can forfeit a little car sickness, air turbulence, and waiting in lines. Many of us need results from experimentalist collaborators, but experimental results often take long to gather in the absence of pandemics. Many of us are introverts who enjoy a little self-isolation.
April is National Poetry Month in the United States. I often celebrate by intertwining physics with poetry in my April blog post. Next month, though, I’ll have other news to report. Besides, my walk demonstrated, we need poetry now.
Paul Revere found tranquility on the eve of a storm. Maybe, when the night clears and doors reopen, science born of the quiet will flood journals. Aren’t we fortunate, as physicists, to lead lives steeped in a kind of poetry?