Excelsior (Longfellow)

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Longfellow's poem was originally printed in the 1841 edition of Ballads and Other Poems, which also included other well-known poems such as The Wreck of the Hesperus

Excelsior is a brief poem written and published in 1841 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The famous Sam Loyd chess problem, Excelsior, was named after this poem.

Synopsis[edit]

The poem describes a young man passing through a mountain village. He bears the banner "Excelsior" (translated from Latin as "ever higher", also loosely but more widely as "onward and upward"), ignoring all warnings, climbing higher until inevitably, "lifeless, but beautiful" he is found by the "faithful hound" half-buried in the snow, "still clasping in his hands of ice that banner with the strange device, Excelsior!"

Text of poem[edit]

The shades of night were falling fast,
As through an Alpine village passed
A youth, who bore, 'mid snow and ice,
A banner with the strange device,
Excelsior!
His brow was sad; his eye beneath,
Flashed like a falchion from its sheath,
And like a silver clarion rung
The accents of that unknown tongue,
Excelsior!
In happy homes he saw the light
Of household fires gleam warm and bright;
Above, the spectral glaciers shone,
And from his lips escaped a groan,
Excelsior!
"Try not the Pass!" the old man said:
"Dark lowers the tempest overhead,
The roaring torrent is deep and wide!"
And loud that clarion voice replied,
Excelsior!
"Oh stay," the maiden said, "and rest
Thy weary head upon this breast!"
A tear stood in his bright blue eye,
But still he answered, with a sigh,
Excelsior!
"Beware the pine-tree's withered branch!
Beware the awful avalanche!"
This was the peasant's last Good-night,
A voice replied, far up the height,
Excelsior!
At break of day, as heavenward
The pious monks of Saint Bernard
Uttered the oft-repeated prayer,
A voice cried through the startled air,
Excelsior!
A traveller, by the faithful hound,
Half-buried in the snow was found,
Still grasping in his hand of ice
That banner with the strange device,
Excelsior!
There in the twilight cold and gray,
Lifeless, but beautiful, he lay,
And from the sky, serene and far,
A voice fell, like a falling star,
Excelsior! [1]

Related matters[edit]

The poem was a staple of American readers for many years, and A Plea for Old Cap Collier by Irvin S. Cobb, satirized it. His description is partly based on an illustration used in the readers. The words quoted are Longfellow's:

The shades of night were falling fast,
As through an Alpine village passed
A youth, who bore, 'mid snow and ice,
A banner with the strange device,
Excelsior!

The title of Excelsior was reportedly inspired by the state seal of New York, which bears the Latin motto Excelsior. Longfellow had seen it earlier on a scrap of newspaper.[2] Longfellow's first draft, now in the Harvard University Library, notes that he finished the poem at three o'clock in the morning on September 28, 1841.[3] "Excelsior" was printed in Supplement to the Courant, Connecticut Courant, vol. VII no. 2, January 22, 1841.[4]

James Thurber (1894–1961) illustrated the poem in The Thurber Carnival in 1945.

There is a Lancashire version or parody, Uppards, written by Marriott Edgar one hundred years later in 1941.

The poem was set to music as a duet for tenor and baritone by the Irish composer Michael William Balfe, and was a staple of Victorian and Edwardian drawing rooms.

Lorenz Hart alludes to Longfellow's poem in the title song of the musical On Your Toes:

Remember the youth 'mid snow and ice
Who bore the banner with the strange device,
Excelsior!
This motto applies to folks who dwell
In Richmond Hill or in New Rochelle,
In Chelsea or
In Sutton Place.

"Excelsior" also became a trade name for wood shavings used as packing material or furniture stuffing. In Bullwinkle's Corner, Bullwinkle the Moose parodies the poem in Season 2 Episode 18 (1960–61) of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show:

The answer came both quick and blunt:
It's just a advertising stunt.
I represent Smith, Jones, & Jakes,
A lumber company that makes...
Excelsior! [5]

The poem is the base for the motto of Wynberg Allen School in Mussorie, India. It is also the name and motto for the Brampton, Ontario, Canada box lacrosse teams. In 1871 Mr. George Lee, a Brampton High School teacher introduced lacrosse to the town. He proposed the name "Excelsior", which he took from Longfellow's poem. In 1883 the Brampton Excelsiors Lacrosse Club was officially formed. The name has been used for all levels of box lacrosse in Brampton ever since.

In Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, the entire action of the play happens in a fictitious New Jersey town with the name "Excelsior". Longfellow is also directly mentioned with a fictitious poem towards the end of Act I.[6]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/hwlongfellow/bl-hwl-excelsior.htm
  2. ^ Calhoun, Charles C. (2005). Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life, Beacon Press, 140. ISBN 0-8070-7039-4.
  3. ^ Cahoon, Herbert; Lange, Thomas V.; Ryskamp, Charles (1977). American Literary Autographs, from Washington Irving to Henry James, Courier Dover Publications, 34. ISBN 0-486-23548-3.
  4. ^ Vol. VII No. 1 and No. 2 of Jan 8 and 22 were issued with wrong year of 1841 on the masthead of the Courant Supplement.
  5. ^ "Bullwinkle's Corner - Excelsior," YouTube
  6. ^ Wilder, Thornton. "The Skin of Our Teeth: Act I." Three plays: Our town, The skin of our teeth, The matchmaker. New York, NY: Harper and Brothers, 1957. 164. Print.

External links[edit]

  • [1] Thomas R. Lounsbury, ed. (1838–1915). Yale Book of American Verse. 1912.
  • [2] Cobb, Irvin S., "A Plea for Old Cap Collier," George H. Doran Company, New York. 1921 (see 40-49) Clean copy, PDF, pp. 40-50
  • [3] "On Your Toes," lyrics by Lorenz Hart, 1936.