Wreck of the HesperusLegends

Wreck of the Hesperus, Dec.15, 1839

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem was inspired by the Blizzard of 1839, which ravaged the North Shore for 12 hours in December, 1839. Twenty ships and forty lives were lost during the storm, which was described in the broadsheet, Awful Calamities, published in Boston in 1840.

Awful Calamities the storm of 1839
NY Times article the Hesperus

More than fifty vessels were either driven ashore dismasted, or carried to sea, and the loss of lives could not have fallen short of fifty. From one end of the beach to the other, nothing could be seen but pieces of broken wrecks; planks and spars shattered into a thousand splinters; ropes and sails parted and rent; flour, fish, lumber, and a hundred other kinds of lading and furniture, soaked and broken; with here and there a mangled and naked body of some poor mariner; and in one instance that of a woman lashed to the windlass-bits of a Coastline schooner, lay along the beach, while off thirty yards, with the surf breaking over them every moment and freezing in the air, lay nearly a score of lost vessels; all together forming a picture which it is in vain to attempt to copy in words.”

The probable subject of Longfellow’s poem 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.

Hesperus Avenue in Gloucester is named after this poem. The actual Hesperus was a ship which suffered damage to its bowsprit while docked in Boston during the storm.  It is unknown if this is the same Hesperus which accompanied by a sister ship the Whitby, left Calcutta on the 29 January 1838 with 165 men, women and children from Calcutta and arrived in Guyana late on the night of the 5 May,1838 by which time 13 had already died. The remaining 135 men, 6 women and 11 children were distributed to plantations where the men agreed to a five-year contract of indenture. A British commission found that the Indians were being ill-treated and the Governor ordered the prosecution of plantations that had brutalized them. Read the story of the Hesperus and the Whitby.

Many of the older generation grew up hearing the expression, “You look like the wreck of the Hesperus” which meant that their appearance was very untidy!

Norman's Woe by Fitz Henry Lane
Norman’s Woe, in Gloucester off of Hesperus Road. Painting by Fitz Henry Lane

The Wreck of the Hesperus


By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

hesperus_ship

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.

Wreck of the Hesperus

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.

Wreck of the Hesperus

“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.

Wreck of the Hesperus

“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.

Wreck of the Hesperus

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.

Wreck of the Hesperus

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.

Wreck of the Hesperus

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!

Further Reading

Ships off Liverpool in the Great Storm of 1839 Awful Calamities: the Shipwrecks of December, 1839 - Three gales of unequaled fury and destructiveness swept along our coast carrying desolation and death in their stormy pathway, and overwhelming many families in the deepest mourning.

18 replies »

  1. I used this phrase this morning when FaceTiming with my 42year old daughter. Her reply was: ‘What does that mean? I’ve never heard it before’. I have used this saying for many years, as my mom would often use it, usually at the end of a long day, as her children came home from playing out side.
    I told my daughter the meaning of it, as looking disheveled, or a mess. I then googled the saying and read it to her. Now I know she will use this when she least expects it to come from her lips. I hung up from her and proceeded to read the poem, I have a faint memory of learning this poem during my school days and found it to be a very sad albeit a beautiful poem.

  2. After slavery was abolished in the British Empire by the efforts of William Wilberforce and others, Indian Indenture labourers were taken to British Guiana by a ship named Hesperus to replace the free slaves on sugar cane plantations.. Arriving at a place named Highbury,.Berbice, British Guiana on May 5, 1838. View YouTube movie ‘Guyana 1838 The Arrival’ and ‘Amazing Grace’.

  3. I am from Cork in Ireland and my mum would always use this expression and I use it too. I used it today in company and it led to a discussion on its origin. Hence my research! It is a beautiful poem though very sad. Thank you for enlightening me!

  4. Finally I’ve found out where it came from. I picked up the saying “I look like the wreck of the Hesperus” on bad hair days, from my Granny Brown born 15/4/1894 in Charters Towers, Australia. In old age she liked to play Danny Boy on the mouth organ, to smoke and read cowboy stories.

  5. It was so much better reading this poem and understanding the true meaning behind it. High school junior year I had the assignment to memorize half of it; and, my partner would memorize the other half to present in class.
    However, now, years later; it is so much more than about a Skipper’s pride. Thank you for enlightening me and touching my heart.

  6. I too am moved greatly by these poems shanties and stories. One in particular was the capsize and loss of a R. N. L. I. lifeboat out of Longhope northern Scotland. U. K. Alex Keep

  7. Like so many others, I too, have uttered the words “I look like the wreck of the Hesperus.”
    My mother, born in 1918. frequently commented thus regarding my disheveled appearance.
    Her other utterance…”you look like the wrath of God” was self-explanatory. Now I have a frame of reference for both… and a new appreciation of the sad meaning of the phrase.
    Thank you so much!

  8. 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.

  9. This poem is soooo sad! It literally left me in tears,I get very emotional about these kinds of stories.

  10. 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”.

    • At 72 ,I now know what the Hesperus was.My mother frequently said she or I looked like the dregs of the Hesperus and I continue to refer to my self as such.

  11. 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.

    • 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.

  12. 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.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.