Legends

Wreck of the Hesperus, January 6, 1839

hesperus_cover

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem was inspired by the Blizzard of 1839, which ravaged the North Shore for 12 hours, starting on January 6, 1839. Twenty ships and forty lives were lost during the storm. The probable subject of the story is the schooner Favorite, which sank on a rock called Norman’s Woe off the coast of Gloucester, with all hands lost. After the storm, the body of a woman tied to a mast was found on the shore between Gloucester and Magnolia. The actual Hesperus was a schooner which was seriously damaged while docked in Boston during the storm. Hesperus Avenue in Gloucester is named after this poem.hesperus_ship

The Wreck of the Hesperus
BY 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.

hesperus_girl_father

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.

hesperus_waves

“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?”
“‘It is a fog-bell on a rock-bound coast!”
And he steered for the open sea.

hesperus_tied

“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.

hesperus_wrecking

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.

hesperus_found

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.

hesperus_peace2

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!

Norman's Woe, between Magnolia and Gloucester off of Hesperus Road

Norman’s Woe, between Magnolia and Gloucester off of Hesperus Road

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8 replies »

  1. My Dad always mentioned that sometimes us kids look like the wreck of the Hesperus, my GGFather sailed out of Bristol moved to Tasmania purchased his own vessel and traded from the Huon to Hobart and on the Derwent.

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  2. My beautiful Mother was from Northern England and would say when she felt she looked a mess, “I look like the wreck of the Hesperus”.

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  3. If we looked a mess or unkempt when we were young, my old grannie used to say “You’re just like The Wreck of the Hesperus” Grandma was born in 1900, She knew of it through a painting of the wreck she’d seen when young.

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    • I had read about the wreck of the Hesperus as a child, of course, not knowing the full story. Meaning the captain and his daughter along with the rest of the crew!

      I too am guilty of saying when I look like a mess that “I look like the wreck of the Hesperus” & most just smile! Very sad story.

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  4. I am a former Gloucester fisherman, and I crew on schooners in the Summer. This hits close to home for me as my family has been heavily involved in the maritime trade in the Americas for several hundred years. Fair winds and a following sea.

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