It was the schooner Hesperus,
That sailed the wintry sea;
And the skipper had taken his little daughtèr,
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 Sailòr,
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 daughtèr,
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 savèd 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!
“The Wreck of the Hesperus” appeared in Ballads and Other Poems in 1842, but may have first been published in the New World newspaper in January of 1840. “The Wreck of the Hesperus” was inspired by two actual shipwrecks: the ship of the same name, which was ruined near Boston, and a shipwreck at Norman’s Woe, the location named in the poem.
This narrative poem is comprised of twenty-two stanzas of four lines each, using an ABCB rhyme scheme. “The Wreck of the Hesperus” unfolds in three parts: the context and anticipation of the storm, the chaos during the captain’s death, and the destruction of the ship coming to shore. The daughter’s repeated exclamation of “Oh father!” is an important shift in tone in the middle of the poem. The true event of the shipwreck at Norman’s Woe was the source of inspiration for the violent snowstorm and the girl’s body found tied to the ship, the most potent imagery of the piece. The description of the corpses is also striking in its focus on both the bodies themselves and their morbidly beautiful interaction with nature.
This poem was written during a time of “experimentation in dramatic writing” (Henry) during Longfellow’s career, alongside the other works published in Ballads and Other Poems. “The Wreck of the Hesperus” is more popular among contemporary readers than others Longfellow and “make[s] Longfellow seem more narrowly New England in his perspective,” though his work has extensive worldly influence. This poem popularized using the phrase “you look like the Wreck of the Hesperus” to tell a person they look awful or disheveled, like a horrible shipwreck. The title of the poem and references to the shipwreck have appeared in twentieth century television and film such as The Muppet Show, The Simpsons, The Fisher King (1991), and Anne of Green Gables (1985).
“The Wreck of the Hesperus” is a beautiful lyrical poem that shows the repercussions of pride, poor judgment, and the susceptibility of humans to the ferocity of nature.
Bibliography and Further Reading Gordon Harris, Wreck of the Hesperus, January 6, 1839, Historic Ipswich; Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Poetry Foundation; Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Barefoot Boy: Whittier in Haverhill.
Credits Composed by Lexi Palmer, Fall 2018. Reading by Lexi Palmer.