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!"
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,
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. 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. "Excelsior" was printed in Supplement to the Courant, Connecticut Courant, vol. VII no. 2, January 22, 1841.
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.
- Remember the youth 'mid snow and ice
- Who bore the banner with the strange device,
- 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! 
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.
- Calhoun, Charles C. (2005). Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life, Beacon Press, 140. ISBN 0-8070-7039-4.
- 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.
- 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.
- "Bullwinkle's Corner - Excelsior," YouTube
- 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.
|Wikisource has original text related to this article:|
-  Thomas R. Lounsbury, ed. (1838–1915). Yale Book of American Verse. 1912.
-  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
-  "On Your Toes," lyrics by Lorenz Hart, 1936.