Friday, August 7, 2009

The Reef off Norman's Woe

Today, the COG and I went on an Audubon program on a boat out of Gloucester (more about that later). On the way out of Gloucester Harbor, we passed The Reef of Norman's Woe, where the real shipwreck that inspired the poem "The Wreck of the Hesperus" took place. I took a picture, but it's not much good, so I found this one, online. The trouble is that the reef is near shore, and it looks like part of the land, unless you see it head on. Our boat, thankfully, did not go at it head on.

You remember The Wreck of the Hesperus, right? Here are the best parts. Meaning, the parts I remember, and some parts I only kind of remember. Oh, and do I need to say that in the actual shipwreck, it was a middle aged woman who was found lashed to a spar the next day, not the Skippers little daughter. Unless he and she were a lot older than we are led to believe.

It was the schooner Hesperus,
That sailed the wintery sea,
And the skipper had taken his little daughter,
To bear him company.

Blue were her eyes as the fairy flax,
Her cheeks like the dawn of day,
Her bosom white as the hawthorn buds,
That ope in the month of May.

(The Skipper notices his pipe smoke is going in all directions, but ignores this sign that Something Bad is Going To Happen and, then, he makes matters worse when he scoffs repeatedly at the Wise Old Seaman who had Sailed The Spanish Main, and who says

'Last night the moon had a golden ring,
And to-night no moon we see'
and that means there's going to be a hurricane, yar, Skipper . (or wtte)

Scoff scoff says the skipper, who is still smoking that pipe for reasons that escape me. But he calls his daughter and says)

"Come hither, come hither, my little daughter
And do not tremble so.
For I can weather the roughest gale
That ever the wind did blow.

(famous last words, Skipper. Did you not have a classical education and learn about Hubris?)

He wrapped her warm in a seaman's coat
against the stinging blast.
He cut a rope from a broken spar
And bound her to the mast.

(She doesn't object because by this time it's pretty clear that the Wise Old Seaman was right.)

O father, I hear the church bells ring,
Oh say, what may it be?
(Oh it's nothing, says the father, pay no attention, or wtte)

O father, I hear the sound of guns,
Oh say, what may it be?
(Oh don't worry about it, says the father, no problem, or wtte)

O father, I see a gleaming light
Oh say, what may it be?
But her father answered nary a word,
A Frozen Corpse was He.

(Not so big-headed now, are you, Skipper?)

(Something something,something
Something that rhymes with Doe)

Like a sheeted ghost, the vessel swept
Towards the Reef off Norman's Woe.

(bad things happen)(if only the skipper had not neglected to study classical tragedy, had not had the poor judgement to ignore Wise Old Seamen, and was not such a tobacco addict that he didn't notice the smoke of his pipe,) Then:

At Daybreak on the bleak sea beach
A fisherman stood Aghast.
To see the form of a maiden fair
Lashed close to a drifting mast.

The salt sea was frozen on her breast,
The salt tears in her eyes,
And he saw her hair, like the brown sea-weed
On the billows fall and rise.

(this last bit bothers me, because clearly the little daughter is a blonde. How many brunettes do you know with eyes blue as fairy flax, cheeks like the dawn of day, and bosom white as hawthorne buds etc.?)

Anyway, finally at the end:

Such was the wreck of the Hesperus,
In the midnight and the snow,
Christ save us all from a death like this
On the reef of Norman's Woe!

(fer sure, Mr. Longfellow. I have no quarrel with that last stanza. But we never find out what happened to that Wise Old Seaman, who had sailed the Spanish Main)(though, probably nothing good)

By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, mostly, with comments by The Bride.


Vivi said...

Impressed, I am, by your memory (as always) and humor. I am not sure I've ever read the Wreck of the Hesperus -- did the middle-aged brunette-blonde daughter survive, or was she frozen too?

And why did they freeze? Was it a snowy winter sea storm?

All these questions...

The Bride said...

Frozen, alas. A bad storm in December of the mid 1800's. The real ship was out of Wiscasset Maine, and foundered on The Reef Off Norman's Woe. Everyone (20 people? ) washed up dead on the beach the next day, including the older woman who was lashed to the mast.

peaceable_tate said...

LOL, Bride. As an older woman, I am sorry to learn that Longfellow had to change the age of the unfortunate woman to increase the sentimental effect.

I suppose the poem would read much differently if the skipper had taken his wife:

"It was the schooner Hesperus,
That sailed the wintery sea;
And the skipper had taken his middle-aged wife,
To bear him company."

...then, "Then up and spake an old Sailor, Had sailed the Spanish Main,
"I pray thee, put into yonder port,
for I fear a hurricane."

"Last night the moon had a golden ring,
And to-night no moon we see!"
The skipper, he blew whiff from his pipe,
And a scornful laugh laughed he."

"Then up and spake the hoary old wife, Had lived with the man twenty year,
"For God's sake, put into yonder port,a hurricane is near."

etc, etc. I can see how the whole ending would be different and not nearly as dramatically satisfying.

"Thus the Hesperus pulled safe into port,
In the midnight and the snow!
Christ thank you for wise middle-aged wives to avoid wrecks on on the reef of Norman's Woe!"

Of course, a real woman was lashed to the mast so I guess she didn't have much influence on the skipper after all. Sad.