Excelsior, the Latin phrase for “ever higher” (or a similar equivalent) is the focus of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem with the same title. The idea of seeking greatness, of trying to move higher in the world is a common one in contemporary times, and this would have been true in Longfellow’s time as well. Throughout Excelsior, Longfellow discusses the idea that there is such as thing as aiming too high, and warns his readers not to lose sight of the world around them.
First and Second Stanza
The shades of night were falling fast,
As through an Alpine village passed
A youth, who bore, ‘mid snow and ice,
A banner with the strange device,
His brow was sad; his eye beneath,
Flashed like a falchion from its sheath,
And like a silver clarion rung
The accents of that unknown tongue,
Longfellow begins his work as most literature tends to begin, by introducing a setting for his reader. The story told here takes place around dusk in a mountainside village, where a young man is passing through. The young man wields a banner with the word “excelsior” printed on it. Immediately, the reader can draw a parallel between the setting of an Alpine village and the Latin phrase for “ever higher.” The second verse fills in a number of useful details about the boy, who appears both sad and attentive to the world around him, and also that he is likely not from around the place he is visiting, for his cries are described here as being foreign.
Longfellow uses most of his poetic devices in these verses for establishing mountainous themes. The cry of the youth is described as being like a clarion — a war-trumped — but in particular a silver one, to be like the colour of snow. The village is described directly as being alpine, and the snow and ice that surrounds the youth are described as being a part of his difficult journey. The sense of isolation, coldness, and of being beyond typical human societies are subtly referred to in these verses, and are clearly tied to the theme introduced through repetition — excelsior.
In happy homes he saw the light
Of household fires gleam warm and bright;
Above, the spectral glaciers shone,
“Try not the Pass!” the old man said;
“Dark lowers the tempest overhead,
The roaring torrent is deep and wide!”
And loud that clarion voice replied,
The repetition of the youth’s cry and the appearance of mountains in the story suggests that his principal aim is to scale those mountains, and that he is passing through this village only because it is physically higher up than other places he has already visited. The third verse takes this idea of adventuring and describes it in a very black-and-white sort of way: “happy” homes against “spectral” glaciers. In both descriptions there is a light, but one is warm and bright, while the other is cold. “Excelsior” here means the glacial path, which the youth is specifically warned about in the following verse. He is told that it is a tempest, a torrent, and a far more terrible place than the one he is in now. His response suggests a theme that Longfellow has hinted at thus far in Excelsior: that there is a fine line between bravery and stupidity, and eventually, you have travelled far enough before crossing that line.
Fourth and Fifth Stanza
“Oh stay,” the maiden said, “and rest
Thy weary head upon this breast!”
A tear stood in his bright blue eye,
But still he answered, with a sigh,
“Beware the pine-tree’s withered branch!
Beware the awful avalanche!”
This was the peasant’s last Good-night,
A voice replied, far up the height,
The next two verses are fairly straightforward in their intended literal and thematic meaning: the traveller is approached two more times and told to abandon his quest. A woman with whom the youth becomes infatuated offers him a place in her life if he will stay with her, and this offer proves more difficult to pass up than the warnings. When he is warned about tempest and terror, he replies loudly, with the war-trumpet-like voice he used to announce his quest initially. When he turns down the maiden’s offer, it is “with a sigh,” as well as with signs of regret. Neither the prospect of a happy life nor the idea of a brutal death by avalanche is enough to sway him from his goal, and by the end of the sixth verse, he is already gone, his goal echoing from far away. Longfellow never uses any word other than “excelsior” while the youth describes his aims and goals. The reason he wishes to scale the mountain is never explored in any meaningful way, suggesting that his entire reason is a sense of adventure. Perhaps he wishes to be the first to scale the mountain, or perhaps he believes he will find something there that is more important than home or safety. Whatever the reason, it is strong enough that he resists all reasons to stay behind and begin a new life in the village.
Sixth, Seventh and Eight Stanza
At break of day, as heavenward
The pious monks of Saint Bernard
Uttered the oft-repeated prayer,
A voice cried through the startled air,
A traveller, by the faithful hound,
Half-buried in the snow was found,
Still grasping in his hand of ice
That banner with the strange device,
There in the twilight cold and gray,
Lifeless, but beautiful, he lay,
And from the sky, serene and far,
A voice fell like a falling star,
The conclusion of the poem is hardly a surprising one, because the reader knows, thanks to the many warnings the youth received, that the path ever higher was a dangerous one to take. In a tranquil scene, a group of monks find the peace of their morning prayers shattered by the youth’s cry. Eventually, someone investigates, and finds the frozen body of the man, his journey ended by his death in the snow, still holding fast to his banner. Those who find him see beauty in his form, but he is still dead, still gone, and had still failed in his quest. The poem ends with the stars in the sky echoing his dying words, serving as a reminder that even had he reached the peak of the mountain, there still would have been an entire world of mystery and unknown above his head. It was always impossible to reach the highest point of existence, and the man found only death trying, while he was offered a life, happiness, and comfort in return for giving up the journey. Eventually, some point has to be high enough; excelsior cannot be a hard rule for living life, because there is always something higher to reach for, as the youth in Excelsior would have sadly learned the hard way.