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"The Wreck of the Hesperus" is a story that presents the tragic consequences of a sea captain's pride. On an ill-fated voyage in winter, he brings his daughter aboard ship for company. The captain ignores the advice of one of his experienced men, who fears that a hurricane is approaching. When the storm arrives, the captain 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."
Longfellow combined fact and fancy to create this, one of his best-known, most macabre, and most enduring poems. His inspiration was the great Blizzard of 1839, which ravaged the northeast coast of the United States for 12 hours starting January 6, 1839, destroying 20 ships with a loss of 40 lives. He probably drew specifically on the destruction of the Favorite, a ship from Wiscasset, Maine, on the reef of Norman's Woe (located off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts); all hands were lost, one of whom was a woman, who reportedly floated to shore dead but still tied to the mast. It is, however, possible that this detail was taken from a different ship that foundered during the same storm.
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 [it], 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.
There is a legend that, in January 1840, Longfellow missed a steamboat embarking upon a voyage from New York City to New England, because he had been discussing the merits of the new poem with a publisher and arrived late at the pier. The steamboat he supposedly missed was the steamship Lexington, which caught fire and sank with the loss of 139 out of 143 passengers and crew on that voyage.
"The Wreck of the Hesperus" was adapted into a 1927 film of the same name.
In its early years, Mad magazine parodied much poetry by presenting the text with little or no change but with bizarre illustration created by a member of its art staff. Wallace Wood took Longfellow's somber poem and illustrated it in a ridiculous manner, with a pint-sized captain and a hideous, tall, buck-toothed daughter. The ship is found wrecked the morning after the storm, with the surviving captain and his daughter walking off along the shore (she is still tied to the broken-off mast), and the fisherman chasing after them with her wig, shouting "Norman! Whoa!"
"The Wreck of the Hesperus" is also referenced in the comic song "Lydia the Tattooed Lady," written by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg and performed by Groucho Marx in the Marx Brothers movie At the Circus (1939). It became one of Groucho's signature tunes. The song is also featured in The Philadelphia Story (1940), sung by Virginia Weidler in her role as "Dinah Lord", and also in The Fisher King (1991) sung by Robin Williams.
Lydia, Oh Lydia, say, have you met Lydia?
Lydia The Tattooed Lady.
She has eyes that folks adore so,
And a torso, even more so.
Lydia, Oh Lydia, that encyclopidia (sic),
Oh Lydia The Queen of Tattoo.
On her back is The Battle of Waterloo.
Beside it "The Wreck of the Hesperus" too.
And proudly above waves the red, white, and blue.
You can learn a lot from Lydia!"
The title phrase has also been used as a colloquial term in the UK and Ireland to mean a "dishevelled appearance," spoken as "You look like the wreck of the Hesperus!" and can also refer to a very untidy room. Its everyday use was greater in the 1950s to 1970s; but its use remains, occasionally. Former Beatle George Harrison referenced this colloquial usage in writing his song "Wreck of the Hesperus," included on his 1987 album Cloud Nine. Likewise, in an episode of Bobby's World, Martha Generic uses the phrase to describe Bobby's messy room and he humorously mistakes her as having said "the wreck of asparagus."
In The Simpsons sixth season episode "Homer the Great", Homer Simpson is repeatedly paddled by the Stonecutters as an initiation prank. Each of the paddlings is given a name, one of them being "The Wreck of the Hesperus."
In Pawn Stars episode 42 the Old Man refers to the back room of the shop as being "Worse than the wreck of the Hesperus".
In Mighty Mouse Season 1, Episode 1, "The Wreck of the Hesperus" (First Aired: February 11, 1944), Mighty Mouse rescues the crew from being eaten by sharks.
In an episode of The Odd Couple, Oscar mentions the poem casually to Felix. In an episode of Laverne and Shirley, Laverne states that Shirley looks like "The Wreck of the Hesperus" because she is on a cruise ship trying to hide from a man by having zinc plastered on her nose, and sunglasses,while trying to hide behind a book.
The rock band Procol Harum included their song "The Wreck of the Hesperus" on their album A Salty Dog, released in 1969. It is the story of a shipwreck in progress, and so harkens back to the original poem. On the American version of the LP, it was the penultimate track on the B side. On the CD release, it is track #7.
Wreck of the Hesperus is the name of an Irish doom/drone metal band.
In Kevin Sullivan's 1985 film of Anne of Green Gables, Amelia Evans, a professional elocutionist, recites "The Wreck of the Hesperus" at the hotel prior to Anne's rousing rendition of "The Highwayman".
In the 1975 Australian film, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Sara, a student of the Appleyard Girl's College, is restricted by the headmistress, Mrs. Appleyard, from going on a School trip with the rest of her schoolmates because she has failed to memorize lines from the "Wreck of the Hesperus".
In the cartoon Popeye "Popeye The Sailor 098 - Child Psykolojiky" (1941), at 4:10 Popeye's father 'Pappy' shoots a picture of a ship at sea titled "The Hesperus" and when the gunshot blast clears the picture depicts a sinking ship and is retitled "The Wreck of the Hesperus".
In the film The Big Circus, Randy Sherman (Red Buttons) says to Jeannie Whirling (Kathryn Crosby, credited as Kathryn Grant), "I didn't bring the rain and you're beginning to look like the wreck of the Hesperus."
An amusement park named Pleasure Island (Massachusetts amusement park) once existed in Wakefield, Massachusetts (1959 - 1969), 18 miles south-west from the site where the fictional Hesparus sunk in the poem, and featured a ride named "The Wreck of the Hesperus".
In Episode six of Season 2 of Homeland, Major Mike Faber (played by Diego Klattenhoff) explains the meaning of the phrase "Like the wreck of the Hesperus" to Chris Brody (played by Jackson Pace). Chris's mother had described his father's unkempt garage using that simile.
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