Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “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. 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. Longfellow wrote this poem one sleepless night after reading about a storm that caused many shipwrecks and fatalities. “The Wreck of the Hesperus” was inspired by two actual shipwrecks, one being the real-life ship of the same name, which was ruined near Boston, and the other 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” can be identified 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!” distinguishes 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, some of the most potent imagery of the piece. The description of the corpses is also striking as it focuses not only on the the bodies themselves but their morbidly beautiful interaction with nature.
“The Wreck of the Hesperus” is more popular amongst contemporary readers than others by Longfellow and “make[s] Longfellow seem more narrowly New England in his perspective,” (Henry) though his work has extensive worldly influence. This poem popularized using the phrase “you look like the Wreck of the Hesperus” to tell someone they look awful or disheveled, like a horrible shipwreck. The title of the poem appeared in multiple books, movies, music, and comics of the twentieth century and continues to make its way into pop culture today.
“The Wreck of the Hesperus” is a beautiful lyrical poem that shows the repercussions of pride and poor judgment, as humans are susceptible 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; “The Wreck of the Hesperus.” Representative Poetry Online.