The Wreck of the Hesperus

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is a narrative poem about a shipwreck and the dangers of pride in an emergency.

Cite

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Nationality: English

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is a famed poet and educator.

His poetry collections include Voices of the Night and Ballads and Other Poems.

Key Poem Information

Central Message: Man cannot overcome nature.

Themes: Death, Failure, Nature

Speaker: Unspecified

Emotions Evoked: Frustration, Grief, Sadness

Poetic Form: Ballad, Quatrain

Time Period: 19th Century

'The Wreck of the Hesperus' is a sad tale about the cost of arrogance during a natural emergency.

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‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is a haunting poem that tells a tragic story of a shipwreck as a skipper, or captain, sails straight into a hurricane.

Through vivid imagery and powerful language, Longfellow captures the terror and desperation of those caught in the midst of the storm. The poem is full of sensory details and metaphors, highlighting the dangers of nature and the consequences of human hubris.

The Wreck of the Hesperus
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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!


Summary

‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ is a narrative poem about a sea captain’s arrogance and downfall as his daughter, his ship, and his crew are all destroyed in a hurricane.

‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ opens as the speaker describes the boat called the “Hesperus” and its captain. This captain brought his stunning young daughter along for the voyage this time.

However, as the speaker further describes the scene and the captain smokes his pipe on deck, the wind begins to blow heavily. Although an older, more experienced sailor tells the captain that they should find a port, as it seems like a hurricane is coming, the skipper arrogantly laughs.

Since the captain is too prideful to listen to the sailor, his ship is caught up in a hurricane. In the storm, the skipper attempts to save his daughter by tying her to the mast. However, the hurricane destroys everything, and by the following day, the only evidence left of the ship is the skipper’s dead daughter, still tied to the mast, floating by the shore.

Based on a True Story

‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ is a moral poem, and the characters are very much original. However, the poem is based on a couple of different disasters of the 1800s.

Firstly, Longfellow based this poem on the wreck of the Favorite in 1839, which sank in Norman’s Woe off the coast of Massachusetts. This ship, though a passenger ship, was found to have sunk when a woman tied to the boat’s mast washed up on the shore.

Additionally, Longfellow admitted that he was inspired by the Great Blizzard of 1839, a fierce blizzard that destroyed more than 20 ships and killed many people. It is with this blizzard in mind that Longfellow uses the imagery and symbolism of cold frost in ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus.’

Form And Structure

‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ is a narrative ballad with an ABCB rhyme scheme. This poem is written in iambic pentameter for the most part, but the meter errs in some places, falling into iambic tetrameter. These small irregularities are often there for a reason – in most cases, to mimic the chaotic, swirling waves and thunderings of the hurricane.

The lines are organized into quatrains, making this poem an excellent example of balladic quatrains. In fact, it’s the example that most teachers use to teach students about quatrains.

Meaning

‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ is a tale about hubris or foolish daringness. Like Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and ended up dying, the skipper in this poem is far too confident and proud for his own good.

We can see just how arrogant the skipper is in his interaction with the older, more seasoned sailor on his crew. Although the old sailor knows the signs of a brewing hurricane, the skipper is far too entitled and proud to take the advice of his crew member. Caught up in his superiority, he allows his ship to meet the storm head-on.

During Longfellow’s time, it was uncommon to have young girls on board ships, as many sailors believed that females brought bad luck. However, the skipper’s decision to bring his daughter along shows that he was not superstitious and was willing to take the risk of having a female or child on board. It also reveals the skipper’s excessive confidence in his ability to bring his daughter home safely.

Poetic Devices

Some of the most significant poetic devices in ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ are:

  • Metaphor: The speaker makes many comparisons, especially when describing the skipper and his daughter. For example, the metaphor “But the father answered never a word, / A frozen corpse was he” compares the skipper’s frantic, panicked, and tense expression to a frosty death.
  • Foreshadowing: The above metaphor is also an excellent example of foreshadowing in this poem. The skipper’s attitude may be like a “frozen corpse,” but later in the poem, he and all of the people on the ship will be dead and in the cold sea.
  • Simile: In the speaker’s description of the skipper’s daughter, you’ll find loads of similes. For example, there are two similes in the lines ” Blue were her eyes as the fairy-flax, / Her cheeks like the dawn of day.”
  • Moral: This poem is a parable or moral narrative that teaches a lesson. The story, while entertaining in its own right, is supposed to warn us, listeners, about the dangers of letting pride get in the way of wisdom. If the skipper were humble and wise, he wouldn’t have died, nor would his daughter have died.


Detailed Analysis

Stanzas 1-3

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.

The first stanza of ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus‘ introduces the setting and characters of the poem, where a father and his daughter are sailing on the schooner Hesperus on a wintry sea.

The second stanza describes the daughter’s physical appearance, using imagery of flowers and the dawn to create a vivid picture. In this stanza, the speaker seems to relish just how pretty this girl is.

By comparing her hair, eyes, and “bosom” to various land-side natural features, it’s clear that the skipper thinks of her as a reminder of home. As such, the girl is a representative of the earth and land that the skipper leaves to go on his voyage.

The third stanza focuses on the skipper, describing his relaxed and watchful demeanor as he stands by the helm with his pipe. However, he’s far too calm. The “veering flaw,” a metaphor for the wind, blows first “West, now South,” changing directions in a split second. A storm is brewing.

These stanzas also use meter and rhyme to create a flow that ebbs and falls like the sea or a ship on the waves.

Stanzas 4-6

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.

In stanzas four through six of ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus,’ an old sailor, presumably one of the crew members, warns the skipper to seek shelter in a nearby port because he senses a hurricane is approaching.

This old sailor tells the captain about his suspicion that a hurricane’s coming using his own superstitious beliefs and observations. Although this sailor is clearly experienced, as he has sailed all the way to the “Spanish Main” in the past, the skipper laughs arrogantly, scoffing at the sailor’s suggestion.

This prideful laugh marks the turning point of the poem, as it becomes clear that the skipper is not a very nice man. Instead, he’s prideful and arrogant. These characteristics make him unwilling to take advice from his crew, even when his crew clearly knows best.

The wind continues to intensify, and snow begins to fall as the ship encounters a gale from the Northeast. Note here that the wind is now coming from the Northeast when just a second ago, it was flickering between the “South” and “West.” This description of wind coming in from all sides of the ship creates imagery, helping us imagine the sheer power of the winter winds.

Stanzas 7-9

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.

Stanzas seven through nine of ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ describe the moment the storm hits the ship.

As the wind billows in forcefully, the skipper, trying to reassure his frightened daughter, attempts to take control of the situation. He is an active character here, but he’s still arrogant and prideful. He doesn’t turn to his crew for advice but acts independently – which curses the Hesperus.

The ship is hit with great force by the storm, causing it to shake and lurch violently. The skipper then calls out to his daughter, asking her to come closer to him and not to be afraid. He assures her that he can handle any storm, no matter how rough. Again, here, we see just how deluded and prideful the skipper is. He thinks of himself as some kind of superhero, it seems.

The skipper then takes off his coat and wraps it around his daughter to keep her warm in the bitter cold. He also uses a rope from a broken spar to tie her to the mast, ensuring her safety.

These stanzas create a sense of urgency and danger, with vivid descriptions of the storm’s impact on the ship. They also emphasize the skipper’s determination to protect his daughter, even at his own cost. His daughter is his weakness, and her loss would absolutely break him, it seems.

Stanzas 10-12

“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.

Stanzas ten through twelve of ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ describe the skipper’s daughter’s attempts to get her father’s attention as the hurricane grows even more intense.

The daughter hears church bells ringing and asks her father what it is. He tells her it is a fog bell on a rock-bound coast and steers towards the open sea. She then hears the sound of guns and asks her father what it could be. He tells her it is likely another ship in distress in the storm. Finally, she sees a gleaming light and asks her father what it is, but he remains silent, having frozen to death in the harsh conditions.

These stanzas are important in the poem’s development as they show the daughter’s innocence and trust in her father’s judgment.

However, they also reveal the father’s ability to react in tough situations like a storm. The skipper is clearly dedicated to his ship and his duty, even in the face of danger. But still, we must remember that, by not listening to his crewmate, he is the one who caused the problem and sent them sailing on into a terrible storm.

These stanzas also create a sense of foreboding as the situation becomes increasingly dire, ultimately leading to tragedy.

The repetition of the daughter’s questions, the foreshadowing with the ominous mention of the other ship in distress, and the irony with the father’s silence in response to his daughter’s question about the light all bring panic to this poem. The frantic skipper and confused, trusting daughter are frightened and, ultimately, already doomed.

Stanzas 13-15

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.

Stanzas thirteen through fifteen of ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ describe the final moments of the ship as the skipper and his daughter approach the reef of Norman’s Woe in Massachusetts.

The speaker uses hyperbole to describe how the skipper has “lashed” or bound himself to the helm as he does his best to steer the ship out of the storm. However, the gleaming light of the lighthouse on the rocky coast is already so close that it’s reflecting off of his petrified eyes.

It is at this moment that the skipper realizes he has steered too close to the “sun” – to the doom of himself, his ship, his crew, and his precious daughter.

As the skipper faces his own death, his daughter, still bound to the mast, prays for salvation and thinks of Christ, who had stilled the waves on the Lake of Galilee.

As the ship hurtles towards the reef of Norman’s Woe, it is metaphorically described as a “sheeted ghost” moving through the dark and dreary night, propelled by the fierce winds and waves. This ship, covered in frost, is already dead, or at the very least, doomed to die.

These stanzas are significant in the poem as they describe the tragic end of the ship and its crew. They also highlight the daughter’s faith and her attempt to find comfort in prayer as the situation becomes increasingly dire. The allusions to biblical stories, such as Christ calming the waves of Galilee, add an extra layer of faith to the already too-trusting daughter.

Additionally, the poem’s regular meter and rhyme scheme continue in these stanzas. This regularity and occasional irregularity create a sense of inevitability as the ship approaches its fate.

Stanzas 16-18

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.

These stanzas from ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ describe the final moments of the ship as it drifts towards the rocks and the crew meets their tragic fate.

The speaker’s description of the “fitful gusts” and “sound” are excellent examples of imagery as the waves crash against the “rocks and the hard sea-sand.”

The storm-battered ship has become a “dreary wreck,” indicating that the skipper’s navigation skills were not as good as he had once indicated.

As the storm swallows the ship, a “whooping billow” of water and wind wash the crew off the deck like “icicles.” Again, we have a simile that creates snowy imagery, indicating that all on deck are both petrified with fear and cold frost.

The phrase “She struck where the white and fleecy waves / Looked soft as carded wool” creates a lot of contrast in this almost black-and-white scene, as the waves’ soft appearance betrays their ferocity. Soft and hard things scrape in this section of the poem, emphasizing the sheer power of nature.

Stanzas 19-22

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!

In these final stanzas of ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus,’ the speaker describes the tragic end of the ship and its crew.

Onomatopoeia and alliteration take center stage in stanza 19 as the speaker consistently uses “s” and “t” to create a breathy, hissing, groaning quality that mimics the sound of the ship shattering in the frosty storm. Additionally, the interjection “Ho! Ho!” adds a sort of humorous tone to the stanza, lightening the dark, spooky mood.

That humorous tone is more than welcome by the next stanza as we discover that all that’s left of the ship is the skipper’s daughter, still tied to the mast. However, she died in the storm, like her father and the rest of the crew.

Now, her hair is not like the land-growing flax. Instead, it is like “sea-weed.” This indicates that she has become a maiden of the sea, never to set foot on land again. That’s some dark stuff.

The poem ends with an apotropaic (something that wards off evil) plea for protection from such a terrible fate.

The speaker prays, “Christ save us all from a death like this, On the reef of Norman’s Woe!” These final stanzas use repetition to paint a haunting picture of the aftermath of the shipwreck, highlighting the tragedy and loss in the aftermath.

FAQ

What is the theme of ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow?

‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow has several themes, including the power of nature, the consequences of pride and arrogance, and the fragility of human life. Even the most powerful humans are no match for the forces of nature, and humility and respect for the natural world are necessary for survival.

Who is the speaker in ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow?

The speaker in ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is not explicitly identified. However, the speaker is a third-person omniscient narrator who knows the thoughts and feelings of the skipper. The speaker’s perspective makes the poem feel more like a story being told to us.

How does ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ depict the theme of Man vs. Nature?

In ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus,’ Longfellow portrays nature as an overwhelming and unstoppable force capable of destroying even the mightiest of men and their creations. Ultimately, the poem emphasizes the need for humans to respect and work with nature rather than trying to dominate it.

What motivates the skipper in ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus?’

The skipper in ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ is motivated by pride, a desire for glory, and his daughter. He is determined to navigate his ship through the dangerous storm despite warnings from his crew. However, his arrogance leads to his death and the death of his innocent daughter.


Similar Poetry

Men and the sea are always a popular poetic trope for poets wishing to explore hubris and the conflict between man and nature.

Some other well-known poems that explore similar ideas include:

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Aimee LaFon Poetry Expert
About
Aimee LaFon has a BAS with honors in English and Classics, focusing her studies on the translation of Latin poetry, manuscript traditions, and the analysis of medieval and neoclassical poetry. She is a full-time writer and poet passionate about making knowledge accessible to everyone.

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