Archive for Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Just what is the wreck of Hesprus?

September 19, 2012

Without a doubt, it is one of my wife’s favorite expressions. She will enter a room that is untidy and quickly express “this place looks like the wreck of the Hesprus.” It is an all-purpose expression because when she looks at her hair and it isn’t up to her standards, she utters “I look like the wreck of the Hesprus.”

She’s not alone in comparing a mess to the Hesprus. George Harrison wrote a song in which he claimed that getting older was like the “wreck of the Hesprus.” There is a now defunct Irish rock band that was known as “The Wreck of the Hesprus.” Knowing my opinion of heavy metal music, if I had listened to them I might have thought it was “the wreck of the Hesprus.”

As a kid I remember that it was a popular phrase and it usually meant that it was time to get things cleaned up.

Anyway, I read that it has been a phrase used to describe a disaster which now may be archaic. No one seems to know why the phrase came into popular use except that it described a disaster. Of course, shipwrecks have always been something that caused a morbid curiosity in the public. One source pointed out that the phrase is rarely used anymore since few are familiar with its origin.

What was really illuminating is that no one knows what the wreck of the Hesprus looks like since the Hesprus probably never existed. It comes from an epic poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow about an imaginary naval disaster. I might quickly add that there were a couple of sources that said a ship by that name may have once existed but there was no real evidence to support the claim.

As a student I remember reading about the wreck of the Hesprus in English class. I really don’t remember that it made much of an impression on me at the time. I vaguely remember seeing a movie about the disaster in the late 1940s or early 1950s, but in general, I had very little knowledge about it and no reason to believe that it wasn’t an epic poem about a real event. I doubt that it is taught in school these days and there are very few fans of poetry in modern America.

In all probability, Longfellow got his inspiration from “the great blizzard of 1839.” Apparently, the blizzard struck fast and savagely causing 40 ships to be sunk including the Wiscassel whose sinking and demise is similar to the Hesprus. The poem was published in a volume in the early 1840s entitled “Ballad and Other Poems.” Longfellow used real landmarks such as reef “Norman’s Woe” near Gloucester, Mass.

I read the poem and I found it to be fascinating and to contain a great lesson in human nature. The Hesprus was a clipper ship at a time when the maritime industry was extremely important. If you remember in the 1830s, railroads were just coming into use to transport people and goods. The road systems weren’t very good and, in short, the fastest way to travel, if available, was by water. Despite it being a hard life, a sailor was a charismatic character and many young men on the coasts wanted a nautical career. The sea offered a way out of the humdrum existence of rural America and a way to see new worlds while earning a small salary.

As is the case in most 19th century poetry, there is a lesson. The captain of the schooner decided to make a winter voyage which was extremely dangerous in those days. Being a bit arrogant, he does not heed the advice of an experienced seaman who warms him that he thinks a serious storm is coming. One of the lessons is not to be so self-assured that you don’t heed the advice of others. In addition, the captain takes his young daughter along for company.

Of course, a serious storm hits with icy rain, extremely cold temperatures, along with rough seas struck the ship. To protect his daughter, he wraps her in his heavy coat and lashes her to the mast head. Much of the poem is the little girl asking questions of her father, but he doesn’t answer because he is dead. The ship strikes the rocks at Norman’s Woe and breaks apart. The next day a fisherman discovers the girls’s body and the poem ends with a prayer that others not strike the reef. Probably Longfellow got his inspiration for the fate of the child since after the 1839 storm the body of a young woman, lashed to a mast head washed up on shore. Certainly, it is a fascinating tale, but since it is an epic poem would probably not interest readers today.

So what about the phrase that a mess looks like “the wreck of the Hesprus.” Well, I would image that within a few years it will be another obsolete phrase joining many others that represent a time long gone on the dusty shelves of a changing language.

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