“Build me straight, O Worthy Master!”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow/Courtesy Brooklyn Museum

 By the 1850’s, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was one of the most popular American poets of his day. By 1850, he was widely published with over six collections, including Voices of the Night, Ballards and Other Poems, and The Seaside and the Fireside. Published in 1839, Voices of the Night, included two of my favorite poems;  “The Light of Stars” and “Flowers”. Two other beloved poems, “The Bridge” and “The Building of a Ship” are included in the collections entitled A Belfry of Brugs and Other Poems, and The Seaside and the Fireside, respectively. A 1866 collection of Longfellow poems called Flower-De-Luce includes a poem that became a popular Christmas Carol, “Christmas Bells”, better known as ‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day’.  

He is by far my favorite nineteenth century poet. The four poems I find most inspirational are:  Flowers (1824); The Light of Stars (1824); The Arrow and the Song (c. 1845); and The Bridge (c. 1845). Longfellow is also the favorite poet of Elena Ashby Wellington (the protagonist) in my historical novel Tryst with Fate

Excerpts from each poem make a cameo appearance through several pivotal scenes of Tryst with Fate. The gift of a poetry book and recitation of The Light of Stars from Elena’s father on her tenth birthday; four stanzas from Flowers are copied and tied around a nosegay and presented to Elena as a gift; Elena reads The Arrow and the Song to her dearest friend Abigail as they sit under a Koa tree at the home Abigail’s parents’ home in Lahaina, Maui; and four closing stanzas from The Bridge are recited romantically to Elena by her new beau William. 

Elena’s father, captain of the Albion out of Stonington, CT is also a fan of Longfellow’s. During the height of whaling, the village of Mystic, also referred to as Greenmanville, was one of the leading ship-building centers in CT. Certainly a whaling master or ship-wright would find Longfellow’s “The Building of a Ship” inspirational and reassuring, especially during a storm at sea.

Build me straight, O worthy Master! Stanch and strong, a goodly vessel, That shall laugh at all disaster, And with wave and whirlwind wrestle!…Sail forth into the sea, O ship! Through wind and wave, right onward steer!…Sail forth into the sea of life, … Prevail o’er angry wave and gust; And in the wreck of noble lives something immortal still survives!…Fear not each sudden sound and shock, ‘T is of the wave and not the rock; ‘T is but the flapping of the sail, And not a rent made by the gale! In spite of rock and tempest roar, In spite of false lights on the shore, Sail on, nor fear to breast the sea! Our hearts, our hopes, are all with thee, Our hearts, our hopes, our prayers, our tears, Our faith’s triumphant o’er our fears, Are all with thee, — are all with thee! 

Two of the four poems mentioned above were published in a volume simply titled, Poems by Longfellow and include many of Longfellow’s collections from Voices of the Night, Ballards and Other Poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The inside cover of Poems by Longfellow is inscribed by Carrie Shields to Frank Maxwell, Class of [18]88. Chapters in the book include, Voices of the Night, Earlier Poems, Translations, Ballards and Other Poems, and Miscellaneous. 

The publication pictured above includes The Arrow and the Song first printed in The Belfry of Brugs and Other Poems. He wrote this specific poem on 16th of October, 1845 before church. He notes, “It came into my mind as I stood with my back to the fire, and glanced on to the paper with arrow’s speed. Literally, an improvisation.” 

I shot an arrow into the air, It fell to earth, I knew not where; For, so swiftly it flew, the sight could not follow it in its flight.  I breathed a song into the air, It fell to earth I knew not where; For who has sight so keen and strong, That it can follow the flight of song?  Long, long afterward, in an oak I found the arrow, still unbroke; And the song, from beginning to end, I found in the heart of a friend.

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Responses

  1. Hurrah for Mr Longfellow! “The Building of a Ship” is one of my favorites.

    • Yes, I know – and I was thinking of you and “Abby” when I decided to add it to this post and change the title of the post/page.

  2. Here is the Longfellow website at the Maine Historical Society:
    http://www.hwlongfellow.org/
    It has a virtual tour of the Wadsworth-Longfellow house and a lot of background material on his family, life, and works. Enjoy!

  3. Oops, I see that your link is already set to the Maine Historical Society page. Sorry about that! I understand that they do Christmas tours.

  4. Nice article…

    I’ve been absent for some time, but now I remember why I used to love this blog. Thank you, I will try and check back more often. How frequently do you update your site?…

    • I make daily posts – up to four per day. Updates are completed every few months. However, when I do update, I edit and/or add to what is already posted; I rarely delete because every day, new folks are finding my blog and I don’t want them to miss anything. Karlee


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