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Literature / The Wreck of the Hesperus

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Christ save us all from a death like this,
On the reef of Norman's Woe!
—The narrator, closing lines
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"The Wreck of the Hesperus" is a balladic Narrative Poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that was inspired by the many shipwrecks the coast of Massachusetts suffered in December of 1839 starting the 14th. In his journal entry of December 17, 1839,note  Longfellow mentions four pieces of inspiration. Those are that as many as forty bodies of shipwreck victims washed ashore at Gloucester, one of which was a woman lashed to some wreckage, that many of these tragedies occurred at Norman's Woe, a nearby rock reef, that among the lost ships there was the Hesperus, and that the Sea-Flower suffered the same fate at Black Rock, an island in Bristol County.

It's been gathered that the woman Longfellow'd read about was the 59-year old captain's widow Sally Hilton, who was on the Favorite when it went under. The wreckage she was tied to was part of a windlass, which suggests accidental entanglement rather than anything purposeful as Longfellow would pen down in the poem. The Hesperus mentioned was not actually wrecked at Norman's Woe, but was damaged while docked in Boston. Another journal entry detailing the night of December 29 to December 30 states that Longfellow wrote most of the poem in those hours in a burst of inspiration. "The Wreck of the Hesperus" was submitted to The New World and published on January 11, 1840. In 1842, Longfellow included the poem in his own Ballads and Other Poems.

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In "The Wreck of the Hesperus", an unnamed skipper brings his little daughter along on a trip. Despite the concern for her safety that should make him extra careful, the skipper arrogantly refuses to sail the Hesperus into a nearby port when an aged sailor warns him that a storm is approaching. As the wind picks up and the temperature drops, the skipper's daughter becomes scared. To calm her, the skipper gives her his coat for warmth and ties her to the mast so she can safely stay with him. Then he freezes to death at the wheel. All the girl can do is pray as the rest of the crew is swept overboard by the waves, but it doesn't do her any good. The next day, her corpse is found by a fisherman. She's covered in frost and salt and still tied to the mast.

The poem has been adapted twice into a film by the same name, once in 1927 and once in 1948. Beyond that it was the basis of a Mighty Mouse short in 1944, it inspired several songs and one band name, a now defunct ride was named after it, and a street parallel to the coast at Norman's Woe is named Hesperus Avenue.

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"The Wreck of the Hesperus" provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Adult Fear: The skipper's death means his little daughter is left tied to an uncontrollable ship during an unforgiving storm.
  • Braving the Blizzard: Despite advice not to, the skipper chooses to brave the approaching winter storm because he believes it's nothing he can't handle. He believes wrong and as a result gets the entire crew and his daughter killed.
  • Death of a Child: There are several deaths in the poem, but all of it works up to the dramatic death of the skipper's daughter in particular. Because she's described as the skipper's "little daughter", she's probably not even a teen yet.
  • Dying Alone: Towards the end of the poem, the skipper's been frozen to death and all the other crewmen have been swept overboard. The girl thus dies alone tied to the mast.
  • Flower Motifs: The skipper's daughter is said to have a "bosom white as the hawthorn buds that ope in the month of May." It signifies her youthfulness and that as she'll be long dead before May comes, she'll never bloom into adulthood.
  • Hostile Weather: The disastrous winter weather in the poem was inspired by an extended storm that wreaked havoc along the Massachusetts coast for the entire second half of December of 1839. It was cold, the wind blew fiercely, and the waves went high. Many ships, both in reality and in the poem, were wrecked and many lives were lost with them.
  • The Ingenue: The skipper's daughter is young, pious, pretty, pleasant, and very scared. Part of the poem is the skipper's attempt to reassure her everything will be alright. It ends with him freezing to death. Her corpse is among the wreckage found the next morning by a fisherman and possibly the only corpse of the people on the Hesperus that is retrieved.
  • Kind Restraints: The skipper ties his daughter to the mast so she can stay with him without risking falling or being swept overboard. That's all well and good, but when the ship goes to pieces at the rocks of Norman's Reef, the rope ensures a death trap.
  • Meaningful Echo: The skipper's daughter prays to Christ to repeat his miracle at the Sea of Galilee and save her. Her prayers go unanswered. The poem ends with the narrator also praying to Christ to "save us all from a death like this."
  • No Name Given: None of the characters in the poem are named. This is intentional, because at the time of publication the deaths that inspired the poem were still fresh and any sort of naming would have taken away from the memorialization-by-fiction.
  • Pride: The skipper meets the aged sailor's warning to take shelter in a nearby harbor before the storm reaches them with a scornful laugh, because he's certain he's good enough a sailor to weather through it. He remains confident in his own skill and strength while in the midst of the storm, enough so that he gives his coat to his daughter to keep her warm. This causes him to freeze to death at the wheel, making any of his boasts moot.
  • Snow Means Death: It's winter when the Hesperus is lost beneath the waves and the cold has a major role in it. For if it had not been cold, the skipper wouldn't have frozen to death and just maybe he could've saved the schooner and all on board. In the final lines, the frost is juxtaposed with the salt, both of which cover the corpse of the skipper's daughter.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Longfellow was inspired by the devastation caused by the storm of December of 1839, which is fairly reflected in the poem. The Hesperus was a victim of the storm, although Longfellow seems to have mistaken it for a ship that was actually off at sea, and it certainly was nowhere near Norman's Woe. A deliberate dramatization is that Longfellow substitutes the real-life middle-aged Sally Hilton for a fictional young girl as the focus victim of the storm, not to mention the circumstances of her death.

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