The Wreck of the Hesperus


I look like the wreck of the Hesperus!

I grew up around women who look in the mirror, or walk into a party and make this pronouncement.  To which, by the way, the appropriate response is to say, No you do not – you look marvelous!  At which point the woman in question will either a) regard you with grateful relief and whisper confidentially, God love you for a liar! or b) insist as though her life depends upon it that I do! I do!  I look just like the wreck of the Hesperus!

 I always assumed that the Hesperus was a reference that anyone with a liberal arts education would get automatically – that the Hesperus was perhaps a ship out of The Iliad, or The Odyssey, or some well-known ancient myth.  My forestry school education didn’t cover the ancient myths, but I could picture it.

My image of the wreck was a tall ship— masts splintered like toothpicks, tattered sails flapping uselessly from the yardarms— listing badly to port after a battle at sea, or tossed up against some shallow reef.  I’ve looked like that often enough to earn the use of that expression.

There are other famous wrecks, but no one goes around saying, “I look like the wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald,” or “I look like the wreck of the Titanic,” (the latter always referred to as a sinking, rather than a wreck).  For one thing, no one knows what the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald looks like.  The ship “might have broke up, or she might have capsized,” as Gordon Lightfoot was good enough to inform us.  No one knows, but one way or another, she sank, “and all that remains are the faces and the names of the wives and the sons and the daughters.”  So who can say with authority that they look like the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald?    No one.

The Titanic, on the other hand, had plenty of eye witnesses, mostly wealthy survivors, who watched from lifeboats as the most extravagant ocean liner ever built slid into the dark depths of the North Atlantic.  By all accounts, the ship sank as magnificently as it sailed, slipping beneath the surface, lights still glowing under water, as the band played famously on.

No. To say that you look like the wreck of the Titanic would imply that you are strikingly beautiful. So breathtaking in fact, that you could mindlessly overlook small details like how many lifeboats you might need if you happened to hit a large iceberg.

So what exactly do I look like when I say that I look like the wreck of the Hesperus?  I decided to find out.  It was Google to the rescue and numerous sites popped up.  I clicked on a New England historical site and found to my surprise that the ship that inspired the expression was not a ship of ancient myth.  It was, in fact, a real vessel that sailed in the mid 1800’s (although its name was likely not the Hesperus – that came later).  Reported in the newspapers of the day, the discovery of the wreck was so disturbing that it was memorialized in a poem (The Wreck of the Hesperus) by none other than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

The captain had set sail, carrying his beloved daughter along on the voyage.  The frigid seas grew so rough that he lashed her to the mast to keep her from washing overboard.  For her, it was six of one, half-a dozen of the other.  The ship was found the next day, battered against the rock-bound coast of Maine.  Searchers were met with the girl’s frosty visage, hair like seaweed frozen across her white face, her lifeless body still bound to the broken mast.

Now I look in the mirror and think…   not that bad!