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The Wreck of the Hesperus -- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Guest poem submitted by Suresh Ramasubramanian, as
part of this week's theme, poems oft-quoted by Bertie Wooster:
(Poem #717) The Wreck of the Hesperus
 It was the schooner Hesperus,
   That sailed the wintry sea;
 And the skipper had taken his little daughter,
   To bear him company.

 Blue were her eyes as the fairy-flax,
   Her cheeks like the dawn of day,
 And her bosom white as the hawthorn buds,
   That ope in the month of May.
 The skipper he stood beside the helm,
   His pipe was in his mouth,
 And he watched how the veering flaw did blow
   The smoke now West, now South.

 Then up and spake an old Sailor,
   Had sailed to the Spanish Main,
 "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.

 Colder and louder blew the wind,
   A gale from the Northeast,
 The snow fell hissing in the brine,
   And the billows frothed like yeast.

 Down came the storm, and smote amain
   The vessel in its strength;
 She shuddered and paused, like a frighted steed,
   Then leaped her cable's length.

 "Come hither! come hither! my little daughter,
   And do not tremble so;
 For I can weather the roughest gale
   That ever wind did blow."

 He wrapped her warm in his seaman's coat
   Against the stinging blast;
 He cut a rope from a broken spar,
   And bound her to the mast.

 "O father! I hear the church-bells ring,
   Oh say, what may it be?"
 "'T is a fog-bell on a rock-bound coast!" --
   And he steered for the open sea.

 "O father! I hear the sound of guns,
   Oh say, what may it be?"
 "Some ship in distress, that cannot live
   In such an angry sea!"

 "O father! I see a gleaming light,
   Oh say, what may it be?"
 But the father answered never a word,
   A frozen corpse was he.

 Lashed to the helm, all stiff and stark,
   With his face turned to the skies,
 The lantern gleamed through the gleaming snow
   On his fixed and glassy eyes.

 Then the maiden clasped her hands and prayed
   That sav├Ęd she might be;
 And she thought of Christ, who stilled the wave
   On the Lake of Galilee.

 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.

 And ever the fitful gusts between
   A sound came from the land;
 It was the sound of the trampling surf
   On the rocks and the hard sea-sand.

 The breakers were right beneath her bows,
   She drifted a dreary wreck,
 And a whooping billow swept the crew
   Like icicles from her deck.

 She struck where the white and fleecy waves
   Looked soft as carded wool,
 But the cruel rocks, they gored her side
   Like the horns of an angry bull.

 Her rattling shrouds, all sheathed in ice,
   With the masts went by the board;
 Like a vessel of glass, she stove and sank,
   Ho! ho! the breakers roared!

 At daybreak, on the bleak sea-beach,
   A fisherman stood aghast,
 To see the form of a maiden fair,
   Lashed close to a drifting mast.

 The salt sea was frozen on her breast,
   The salt tears in her eyes;
 And he saw her hair, like the brown sea-weed,
   On the billows fall and rise.

 Such was the wreck of the Hesperus,
   In the midnight and the snow!
 Christ save us all from a death like this,
   On the reef of Norman's Woe!
-- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
In 1839, Longfellow was inspired to write one of his best-known poems on
hearing of the wreck of the schooner Hesperus on the reef of Norman's Woe,
off Gloucester, Massachusetts some twenty years ago. One of the bodies
washed ashore was, in fact, lashed to a spar, as described in the poem.

He described the composition of the poem as follows:

"I wrote last evening a notice of Allston's poems. After which I sat till
twelve o'clock by my fire, smoking, when suddenly it came into my mind to
write the Ballad of the Schooner Hesperus; which accordingly I did. Then I
went to bed, but could not sleep. New thoughts were running in my mind, and
I got up to add them to the ballad. It was three by the clock. I then went
to bed and fell asleep. I feel pleased with the ballad. It hardly cost me an
effort. It did not come into my mind by lines but by stanzas."

"The Wreck ..." has been set to music by John Liptrot Hatton, a mostly
self-taught musician who was quite popular during the nineteenth century for
his ballads (and assorted other work including cathedral services, anthems,
operas ...).

As for the Bertie connection, well ... he has often compared his sozzled (or
unhappy, or whatever) friends to "the wreck of the Hesperus".

Oh, and try these two more recent musical takes on 'Hesperus':

George Harrison ([broken link]
Procol Harum (


27 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

mamaliga said...

> Suresh.

Thanks for posting this poem. This is probably the first poem I learnt by
heart in school. A long time ago. And it will always be very special to
me. I am surpiried by how moved I was to read these words again and by the
memories it stirred in me.

Ah, the magic of poetry. Thank you

ASchoolfield said...

what are the eight most important events in this peom and what is the climate
of it hte rising action and the falling action of this peom

Ruth Panthen said...

I first read "The Wreck of the Hesperus"when I was about 8 or 9 years
old. My older brother had a poetry book from the school library and I
picked it up one day and was totally spellbound by this poem.I never
forgot it and just took a chance looking it up tonight.It certainly
created a lasting memory for me during my lifetime. I am now 73 years
old and while it is a rather morbid tale, it still brought back great
memories. Ruth Panthen

Tammy said...

My father used to read this poem to me when I was a little girl. I would
watch my father recite the poem to me by memory and I would sit and
stare spellbind by the words. My father passed away almost five years
ago and I took a chance to see if I could find the poem online tonight.
As I read the words of the poem it made me realized that there is a
special bond between dads and daughters.

Carley or Ian Thomson said...

At age 5, (1928) one night, I was taken by my parents to hear my
paternal Grandfather recite The Wreck of the Hesperus. He was totally
without teeth, had a huge moustache (mustache) and spoke with a very heavy
Glasgow accent. Having been Canadian born I sat, spellbound, listening to
his lengthy recitation - ***and didn't understood one single word of what
he'd said.*** Nevertheless, the memory of that event stayed with me. A few
years back I tried to find it, at the Library but was unsuccessful, probably
as a result of my own failure to properly search for it. Today, on the web,
I found it. Wow! Terrific! Great! Thanks to those responsible for its
presentation in this medium.
Ian, 80, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

James Jones said...

Thanks for the poem. I heard it many years ago. Today at lunch with some friends, one mentioned that his Mother used to tell him that his room looked like "The Wreck of the Hesperus" when she wanted him to clean it up. He had no idea where that expression came from, but it must have come from this poem. (He is only 53, and his Mother is 80). She probably had the poem read to her as a child. Thank you.

Groveen Jones

clint and kathy said...

not meaning to shoot you in the foot or talk bad about you, but the boat in this poem was NOT the hesperus but a different ship, the hesperus did not wreck on Norman's Woe reef.

Sorry, hope you are not mad

Robert L. Haley III said...

What a master poet is Longfellow, to delve into our hearts and consciences,
and probe the soul and spirit as well.

What astounds me is the last stanza, the last sentence. The last sentence
is, as it were, a prayer. Furthermore, it is a prayer that draws you and me
into this poem, by the "us all." And, it is a prayer regarding our death.
Longfellow expresses a prayer that Christ save us. Interesting.

One might argue that when L. writes, "Christ save us...," that he is only
using a common expression. Yes, perhaps, but I believe he means what he
says as well, common expression or no. I believe this because, i. as the
last sentence of the poem, I doubt L. will use a common expression with
little or no meaning; nevertheless, if you want to receive it as a mere
platitude, so be it; ii. but Longfellow's poems refer to God in respectful
ways, as best I can tell from my too little reading of him. So, platitude
if you so chose, but I believe he indeed means what he says by this, "Christ
save us."

What is "a death like this"? Is it a death in the sea at the location of
Norman's Woe, off the coast of Masachusettes? No. Few people for whom L.
writes are going to pass by Norman's Woe in winter (or summer, or ever) in a
ship. Is it the death of a daughter by the foolishness of her father to
take her into harm's way? Possibly, and the boys and men of us can apply
the same to ourselves. A prayer then, that we not be
foolishly led by our fathers to death. Okay, maybe so.

Or maybe, an untimely death, or a death born of such stupidity? Maybe, but
most people live a long life, most die of age and aged disease. Not in
untimely fashion or of a seeming accident. I think that Longfellow means,
indeed, "us all." All of us.

No, this is a cold, dark death, a midnight death. A death without warmth,
without compassion, without light. A woeful death of a man apart from
Christ. It is death from which only Christ can save a man.

You may be familiar with the words of John, the disciple of Jesus, who
walked with Jesus and learned from him for several years, who saw him at the
cross, and after the cross:

God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten (i.e., uniquely born)
Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish.

Interesting, the Greek word translated here "perish," is apollumi. It is
the word used by Jesus' disciples (Matthew 8:25) for perishing, as they
thought their boat might capsize in the middle of the sea. It was, as I
understand, the Greek word used for perishing at sea - a perish without hope
of retrieval at all. The perish of John's words is to perish in cold and
darkness, woefully, without hope of retrieval.

Indeed, my dear friend, writes Longfellow, may Christ save you from such a
death. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ that you might be saved.

Such was the wreck of the Hesperus,
In the midnight and the snow!
Christ save us all from a death like this,
On the reef of Norman's Woe!

David Gibbs said...

I too learnt this poem at around the age of eight or nine years while attending school at Harrison College in Barbados, West Indies. Much to my surprise, I just realized that I remember every word of it in spite of not having thought about it for at least 60 years. When I was given lines for some misdeed at school, I always wrote out this poem. This, I believe, is the reason why I remember it so well.

Claude Davis said...

I'm 77 and my mother, too, who loved poetry used this expressions: "I feel like the Wreck of the Hesperus;" or "Claude
you look like the Wreck of the Hesperus." What a dramatic poem. Pure genius shown by Longfellow.

Anonymous said...

why are you all old?

Anonymous said...

I'm from Grenada in the West Indies. I read this poem in school over fifty plus years ago. Today I am in my office in the US and I thought of this poem but could not remember the words. I googled the title on the internet and there it was! Naturally, I printed it. I forgot how log it was. I'll take it with me and read it at home when I have more time. There were great poems in the Royal Readers; if I remembered correctly, that's where I first read this poem. I'm touched, but not surprised, that so many people were affected by this poem. Thank you Longfellow.

Clymer of Tucson said...

In reference to James Jones's blog above my mother too would refer to any mess as liken to the wreck of the Hesperus. I am almost 88. It seems as though the generation before me was taught more poems and encouraged to memorize them. Doing this enriches our lives.

In the long run it makes little difference if the Schooner Hesperus ever existed or not. It is the thought that counts.

J. T. Clymer

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Unknown said...

I'm sitting in the hospital with my 87 year mother who is recovering from surgery. When asked how she felt, she replied, "I feel like the wreck of the Hesperus." I asked what did she mean and my 89 year old begin reciting the poem. He said anyone who went to St. Vincent's school had to memorize The Wreck of the Hesperus. I too memorized poetry in school and am sorry that children no longer memorize poetry.

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