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.
“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!
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.
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?”
“‘It 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!
- A Wikipedia article previously used as a source for this story confuses the December 1839 blizzard with Europe’s “Night of the Big Wind” which occurred earlier that year on January 6.
- DowntoSea.com: The Great Storm of 1839
- Awful Calamities, published in Boston in 1840.