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Monday, April 25, 2011

Number 136: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow "The Wreck of the Hesperus"

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 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?'
"'Tis 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 hclm, 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 saved 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,
Tbrougb the whistling sleet and snow,
Like a sheeted ghost, the vessel swept
T'wards 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 bard sea-sand.

Tle 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 be saw her hair, like the brown seaweed,
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!

Hap Notes: Well, it's not a cheery poem but I was reminded of it today when I looked in the bathroom mirror and said to myself, ""You look like the wreck of the Hesperus." It dawned on me that this somewhat common phrase (in my youth) was common no more and, of course, it reminded me of the poem which the phrase references.

There is a Massachusetts reef called Norman's Woe but Longfellow's poem is a pastiche of shipwrecks of which he knew. The little girl bound to the mast (so that she would not fall off the careening ship) is possibly a reference to a woman found bound to the mast after the wreck of the Favorite (a ship)on Norman's Woe in the mid 1800s.

The poem used to be quite famous but I'm not so sure now. It's sort of a lesson in paying attention to your old-salt hand at sea when he tells you there's gonna be trouble. It was pride that wenteth before the fall here, eh?

When I was a kid, the poem seemed full of drama and fascinating details like the captain's frozen eyes and the "glassy" ship. It still holds a certain drama for me as corny as that may be. Rhyming story poems are harder to write than one would imagine. You should give it a try sometime just to try your hand at it.

Longfellow, by the by, is the first American poet to have a carved bust representing him placed in "Poet's Corner" in Westminster Abbey.

Here's where we've talked about Longfellow before:

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