In December 1839 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem The Wreck of The Hesperus about a schooner that crashed on a reef off the Massachusetts coast. Since then, there has been much speculation as to whether it was one particular incident which provided the inspiration for the poem; or if it drew upon several such wrecks. In addition, the title of the poem, seemingly cast adrift from the content, has become somewhat proverbial.
The Wreck in Verse
The poem is formed of 22 four-line stanzas, of which the second and fourth lines of each rhyme. Longfellow remarked that it was an incredibly easy poem to write, in that it came to him in whole stanzas rather than words or lines.
The poem relates the tale of an over-confident ship's captain, who took his young daughter out on the ocean one winter's day. At some point in the trip, an old seaman warns that a storm is on the way, and suggests a return to land. However, the captain is sure that his boat can withstand any weather, and laughs at the idea. Once the storm hits, that certainty soon fades. In order to protect his daughter the captain ties her to the mast - the most secure point of the ship. They sail through the night, trying to keep the ship steady and free from danger. The captain then ties himself to the helm while his daughter asks him questions about the things she could see and hear. Her last question goes unanswered - her father had died. By the morning she was washed up on a beach, also dead, with salt tears in her eyes, and her hair looking like seaweed. She is still tied to the mast, though the rest of the ship lies elsewhere, having been wrecked upon the Norman's Woe reef, with all hands lost. The final stanza of the poem bemoans this terrible fate, and leaves us with the implication that it could all have been avoided if the captain had not been over-confident.
The Wreck in History
The descriptions and imagery in the poem are so vivid that there has been much speculation as to whether there was an actual Hesperus that provided the inspiration for Longfellow. It seems that there were a series of great and sudden storms around the Massachusetts coast in December, 1839, in which many ships were wrecked and several lives lost. On the 17th, Longfellow wrote in his journal:
News of shipwrecks horrible, on the coast. Forty bodies washed ashore near Gloucester, one lashed to a piece of the wreck. There is a reef called Norman's Woe, where many of these took place; among others the schooner Hesperus.
So it seems that there was a real Hesperus which came to grief on Norman's Woe, though the rest of the detail from the poem may be pieced together from the reports of several ships. Rumours persist that the schooner Favorite, wrecked during one of the December storms, is the basis of the Hesperus, possibly because a woman is reported to have been on board at the time. Another ship, the Deposit was said also to have a woman on board during the storms, however she survived, while her husband, the ship's captain, did not. Other reports exist of a woman that was found tied to a mast following one storm, in a similar situation to that in which Longfellow puts the little girl. The problem is that such reports are necessarily hazy, having been made in situations when people were more concerned with staying alive than with accurate recording of details, so it's difficult to claim anything with certainty.
Perversely, the one claim that we can be certain about, in that it is certainly wrong, is also the most popular. The schooner Helen Eliza was wrecked on Peaks Island during one storm. It is often claimed that Longfellow wrote Hesperus after visiting the site of the wreck. However, as he wrote the poem in 1839 and the Helen Eliza was wrecked in 1869 - 30 years later - it seems somewhat unlikely.
The Wreck in Idiom
The phrase 'I look like the wreck of the Hesperus' has similar connotations to having been 'pulled through a hedge backwards', in that the individual claims to look a dishevelled mess. It seems to have little to do with the poem or the Hesperus itself. The greatest similarity may possibly be with the unkempt state in which the deceased daughter of the poem was found, though whether anyone would want to claim to look that bad is rather doubtful.