All Over The Road
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Monday, March 03, 2008

Longfellow in 1893.Image from Wikipedia

This was an expression my Mum always used whenever she was feeling particularly disheveled - so I thought I'd find the story behind the saying.

Longfellow's "Wreck Of The Hesperus".

It was the schooner Hesperus,
That sailed the wintery sea;
And the skipper had taken his little daughter,
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 Sailor,
Had sailed 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 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 daughter,
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?"
"Tis 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 saved 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 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!

By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

BBC - h2g2 - The Wreck of The Hesperus In Verse, History and Idiom
The Wreck of The Hesperus In Verse, History and Idiom

In December 1839 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem The Wreck of The Hesperus about a schooner that crashed on a reef off the Massachusetts coast. Since then, there has been much speculation as to whether it was one particular incident which provided the inspiration for the poem; or if it drew upon several such wrecks. In addition, the title of the poem, seemingly cast adrift from the content, has become somewhat proverbial.

The Wreck in Verse

The poem is formed of 22 four-line stanzas, of which the second and fourth lines of each rhyme. Longfellow remarked that it was an incredibly easy poem to write, in that it came to him in whole stanzas rather than words or lines. The poem relates the tale of an over-confident ship's captain, who took his young daughter out on the ocean one winter's day. At some point in the trip, an old seaman warns that a storm is on the way, and suggests a return to land. However, the captain is sure that his boat can withstand any weather, and laughs at the idea.

Once the storm hits, that certainty soon fades. In order to protect his daughter the captain ties her to the mast - the most secure point of the ship. They sail through the night, trying to keep the ship steady and free from danger. The captain then ties himself to the helm while his daughter asks him questions about the things she could see and hear. Her last question goes unanswered - her father had died. By the morning she was washed up on a beach, also dead, with salt tears in her eyes, and her hair looking like seaweed. She is still tied to the mast, though the rest of the ship lies elsewhere, having been wrecked upon the Norman's Woe reef, with all hands lost. The final stanza of the poem bemoans this terrible fate, and leaves us with the implication that it could all have been avoided if the captain had not been over-confident.

The Wreck in History

The descriptions and imagery in the poem are so vivid that there has been much speculation as to whether there was an actual Hesperus that provided the inspiration for Longfellow. It seems that there were a series of great and sudden storms around the Massachusetts coast in December, 1839, in which many ships were wrecked and several lives lost. On the 17th, Longfellow wrote in his journal: News of shipwrecks horrible, on the coast. Forty bodies washed ashore near Gloucester, one lashed to a piece of the wreck. There is a reef called Norman's Woe, where many of these took place; among others the schooner Hesperus. So it seems that there was a real Hesperus which came to grief on Norman's Woe, though the rest of the detail from the poem may be pieced together from the reports of several ships. Rumours persist that the schooner Favorite, wrecked during one of the December storms, is the basis of the Hesperus, possibly because a woman is reported to have been on board at the time. Another ship, the Deposit was said also to have a woman on board during the storms, however she survived, while her husband, the ship's captain, did not. Other reports exist of a woman that was found tied to a mast following one storm, in a similar situation to that in which Longfellow puts the little girl. The problem is that such reports are necessarily hazy, having been made in situations when people were more concerned with staying alive than with accurate recording of details, so it's difficult to claim anything with certainty. Perversely, the one claim that we can be certain about, in that it is certainly wrong, is also the most popular. The schooner Helen Eliza was wrecked on Peaks Island during one storm. It is often claimed that Longfellow wrote Hesperus after visiting the site of the wreck. However, as he wrote the poem in 1839 and the Helen Eliza was wrecked in 1869 - 30 years later - it seems somewhat unlikely.

The Wreck in Idiom

The phrase 'I look like the wreck of the Hesperus' has similar connotations to having been 'pulled through a hedge backwards', in that the individual claims to look a dishevelled mess. It seems to have little to do with the poem or the Hesperus itself. The greatest similarity may possibly be with the unkempt state in which the deceased daughter of the poem was found, though whether anyone would want to claim to look that bad is rather doubtful. Further Reading Read the poem at Project Gutenberg.

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