The Wreck of the Hesperus

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Illustration by John Gilbert

"The Wreck of the Hesperus" is a narrative poem by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, first published in Ballads and Other Poems in 1842.[1] It is a story that presents the tragic consequences of a skipper's pride. On an ill-fated voyage in winter, he brings his daughter aboard ship for company. The skipper ignores the advice of one of his experienced men, who fears that a hurricane is approaching. When the storm arrives, the skipper ties his daughter to the mast to prevent her from being swept overboard. She calls out to her dying father as she hears the surf beating on the shore, then prays to Christ to calm the seas. The ship crashes onto the reef of Norman's Woe and sinks; the next morning a horrified fisherman finds the daughter's body, still tied to the mast and drifting in the surf. The poem ends with a prayer that all be spared such a fate "on the reef of Norman's Woe."

The poem was published in the New World, edited by Park Benjamin, which appeared on January 10, 1840. Longfellow was paid $25 for it, equivalent to $654 in 2015.[2]


Longfellow combined fact and fiction to create this poem. His inspiration was the great blizzard of 1839, which ravaged the north-east coast of the United States for 12 hours starting January 6, 1839, destroying 20 ships with a loss of 40 lives.[3] The poem appears to combine two events. Longfellow probably drew for the specifics on the destruction of the Favorite, a ship from Wiscasset, Maine, on the reef of Norman's Woe off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts. All aboard were lost, one a woman, who reportedly floated to shore dead but still tied to the mast.[4] The name used in the poem is that of another vessel, lost near Boston. The poem is so well known that the loop road leading close to Norman’s Woe from Route 127 is named Hesperus Ave.[5]

In December 1839, Longfellow wrote in his diary about the writing of "The Wreck of the Hesperus":

...suddenly it came into my mind to write, which I accordingly did. Then I went to bed, but could not sleep. New thoughts were running in my mind, and I got up to add them to the ballad. It was three by the clock. I then went to bed and fell asleep. I feel pleased with the ballad. It hardly cost me an effort. It did not come into my mind by lines, but by stanzas.[6]


"The Wreck of the Hesperus" was adapted into films of the same name in 1927[7] and 1948.[8]

Colloquial usage[edit]

The title phrase is sometimes used colloquially to indicate a disheveled appearance. For example, in the film The Big Circus (1959), one character tells another: "I didn't bring the rain, and you're beginning to look like the wreck of the Hesperus".

In the popular TV series — Homeland (2011 - 2020), in Season 2 Episode 7, Chris Brody son of Nicholas Brody recalls his mother saying about his father's workshop as — The Wreck of Hesperus to Mike Faber.


The poem has inspired titles in various media.

It was the inspiration for a 1944 Mighty Mouse cartoon of the same name.

Wreck of the Hesperus is the name of an Irish doom/drone metal band.

The Pleasure Island amusement park in Wakefield, Massachusetts (1958–1970), 18 miles south-west of the site where the fictional Hesperus sank, featured a ride named "The Wreck of the Hesperus".[9]

The rock band Procol Harum included their song "The Wreck of the Hesperus" on their album A Salty Dog (1969).

George Harrison included a song titled "Wreck of the Hesperus" on his 1987 album Cloud Nine.

The English poet Roger McGough recited a one-minute version of the poem, complete with sound effects, on the album Miniatures produced by Morgan Fisher in 1980.

Mad magazine parodied the poem in issue #16 (October 1954). Outlandish illustrations by Wallace Wood included a pint-sized captain and a hideous, tall daughter, who survives the storms and strides away still tied to the mast.

The Wreck of the Hesperus is the name of one of the challenges Homer Simpson must undergo in order to join The Stonecutters in the season 6 episode "Homer the Great" of The Simpsons.


  1. ^ Calhoun, Charles C. Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004: 138. ISBN 0-8070-7026-2.
  2. ^ "1840 Dollars in 2015".
  3. ^ Fitzgerald, Donal, "The Night of the Big Wind," Ice, Gales and Moving Bogs. [1] Ballingeary Cumann Staire History Society Journal.
  4. ^ North Shore Community College, "Norman's Woe (Gloucester Harbor) Location, History, and Legends," Poetry of Places in Essex County, [2]
  5. ^ "Henry Wadsworth Longfellow".
  6. ^ Calhoun, Charles C. Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004: 139. ISBN 0-8070-7026-2.
  7. ^ The Wreck of the Hesperus on IMDb
  8. ^ The Wreck of the Hesperus on IMDb
  9. ^ Robert McLaughlin (2009). Pleasure Island. Arcadia Publishing. pp. 66, 83, 99. ISBN 978-0-7385-6460-9.

Smart Money 1931

External links[edit]