“The Wreck of the Hesperus” is a narrative poem by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, first published in Ballads and Other Poems in 1842. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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.
From the blog The London Dead:
“Rhine Refused them, Thames would ruin them” The Wreck of the Deutschland, St Patricks Catholic Cemetery, Leytonstone:
“Pray for the Souls of Barbara Hultenschmidt, Henrica Fassbender (not found), Norberta Reinkober, Aurea Badziura, Brigitta Damhorst.
Franciscan Nuns from Germany who were Drowned near Harwich in the wreck of the Deutschland Dec 7th 1875. Four of whom were interred here Decr. 13th. RIP”
“On Saturday sailed from Bremen,
Take settler and seamen, tell men with women,
Two hundred souls in the round”
Gerard Manley Hopkins – The Wreck of the Deutschland
“We last week reported the stranding and wreck, on the Kentish Knock, some 25 miles from Harwich, of the North German Lloyd Steamer Deutschland, bound from Bremerhaven to New York. The Official Gazette of the German Empire publishes the list persons saved and missing, both of the crew and passengers. Forty-eight male passengers, women and children, and 86 of the crew were saved. Forty-four passengers are missing, including the bodies landed, but not yet identified. It is estimated that of the crew twenty perished.”
Chelmsford Chronicle – Friday 17 December 1875
In December 1875 the Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was studying at St Beuno’s, near St Asaph in North Wales. He had given up writing poetry when his religious superior asked him to write a poem to commemorate the loss of 5 nuns from Salzkotten in the foundering of the German ship the SS Deutschland. The nuns were fleeing religious persecution in Germany to begin a new life in the United States in the Saint Boniface Hospital in Carondelet, a town in Missouri south of St. Louis, where nineteen sisters of their order were already working as nurses. Hopkins dedicated his famous (and difficult) poem to “to the happy memory of five Franciscan Nuns, exiles by the Falk Laws, drowned between midnight and morning of Dec. 7th, 1875,” and based many details in his ode on incidents described in the newspapers. Before being buried together in St. Patricks Cemetery, Leytonstone, the bodies of the nuns were taken to the church of St Francis of Assisi on the Grove in Stratford. Hopkins had grown up living across the road from the church, at number 87.”