About the poem – The Wreck of the Hesperus

The Wreck of the Hesperus

Illustration by John Gilbert

The Wreck of the Hesperus” is a narrative poem by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, first published in Ballads and Other Poems in 1842. It is a story that presents the tragic consequences of a sea captain’s pride. On an ill-fated voyage in winter, he brings his daughter aboard ship for company. The captain ignores the advice of one of his experienced men, who fears that a hurricane is approaching. When the storm arrives, the captain ties his daughter to the mast to prevent her from being swept overboard. She calls out to her dying father as she hears the surf beating on the shore, then prays to Christ to calm the seas. The ship crashes onto the reef of Norman’s Woe and sinks; the next morning a horrified fisherman finds the daughter’s body, still tied to the mast and drifting in the surf. The poem ends with a prayer that all be spared such a fate “on the reef of Norman’s Woe.”

The poem was published in the New World, edited by Park Benjamin, which appeared on January 10, 1840. Longfellow was paid $25 for it, equivalent to $654 in 2015.

Inspiration

Longfellow combined fact and fiction to create this poem. His inspiration was the great Blizzard of 1839, which ravaged the northeast coast of the United States for 12 hours starting January 6, 1839, destroying 20 ships with a loss of 40 lives. He probably drew specifically on the destruction of the Favorite, a ship from Wiscasset, Maine, on the reef of Norman’s Woe off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts. All hands were lost, one of which was a woman, who reportedly floated to shore dead but still tied to the mast. It is, however, possible that this detail was taken from a different ship that foundered during the same storm. “The Wreck of the Hesperus” is based on two events: an actual shipwreck at Norman’s Woe, after which a body like the one in the poem was found, and the real wreck of the Hesperus, which took place near Boston. Despite that fact, the poem is so well known that the loop road leading close to Norman’s Woe from Route 127 is named Hesperus Ave.

In December 1839, Longfellow wrote in his diary about the writing of “The Wreck of the Hesperus”:

…suddenly it came into my mind to write [it], which I accordingly 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.


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