Excelsior Analysis by H.W. Longfellow: 2022

This poem tells a simple story, but its message is very inspiring. The young man upholds his beliefs both on his banner and in his own journey. The journey is through a very harsh terrain, yet he does not stop. He is tempted to stop by the warm fires of the houses in the village and by the lovely maiden who invites him to rest his tired head on her chest. However, he does not give up. He is also warned about the dangers that might befall him on his way. The old man tells him of the storm that is coming, and the peasant of the avalanche he might face.

Even then he is not discouraged to keep going on his path. The journey undertaken by this young man is a metaphor for life itself. In life, we face many difficult situations. We are tempted to take the easy way out. Often we are scared of what will happen in the future. However, such situations should not discourage us. No matter what happens, we must keep living. No man can escape death, for man is a mortal creature. But that should not stop us from embracing all that life has to offer to us. We must conquer our fear of death, and continue on the journey of life with courage in our hearts. This is the message that Longfellow wants to give us through this poem.

Excelsior Analysis and Criticla Appreciation by H.W. Longfellow

Poetic Devices:

Rhyme scheme:

Each of the stanzas in this poem follows the same rhyme scheme, that is, AABBC.

Rhetorical devices:

Simile: This rhetorical device is used when an overt comparison is made between two different things. In this poem, the poet uses the device of simile in the 1st and 2nd lines of the 2nd stanza when he compares the young man’s eye with a falchion sword, since both are shining brightly, and also uses the word “like” while making this comparison. He again uses this device in the same way in the 3rd and 4th lines of the 2nd stanza when he compares the voice of the young man speaking in Swiss with the sound of a clarion blown in wartime. He uses it for the last time in the 5th line of the 9th stanza when he compares the falling of the young man’s voice with that of a falling star.

Metaphor: This rhetorical device is used when a covert comparison is made between two different things or ideas. In this poem, the poet uses the device of metaphor in the 3rd line of the 3rd stanza when he compares the white colour of a glacier with that of a ghost.

Transposed sentence: Poets often change the sequence of words in their lines in order to maintain the rhyme scheme chosen by them for that particular poem. In this poem, the poet uses the device of transposed sentence in the 2nd line of the 4th stanza when he writes “Dark lowers the tempest overhead” instead of writing “The tempest lowers overhead darkly”, the latter being the more grammatically correct of the two. He again uses it in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd lines of the 7th stanza when he writes “as heavenward/The pious monks of Saint Bernard/Uttered the oft-repeated prayer” instead of writing “As the pious monks of saint Bernard uttered the oft-repeated prayer heavenward”. He uses it for the last time in the 1st and 2nd lines of the 8th stanza when he writes “A traveller, by the faithful hound/Half-buried in the snow was found” instead of writing “A traveller was found half-buried in the snow by the faithful hound”.

Central Idea of Excelsior

A young man is journeying through the Swiss Alps. He has in his hand a banner with the slogan “Excelsior”. He is tempted to discontinue his journey when he sees the happy families keeping warm at their fireside, and also when a lovely maiden invites him to rest his tired head on her breast. An old man warns him that a storm is coming, and a peasant tells him to beware of an avalanche that might happen at any time. However, he continues on his journey crying out “Excelsior”. The next day, his body is discovered half-buried in snow, but his voice can still be heard clearly as it is coming down from the sky.

Themes in Excelsior

“Excelsior” as a ballad: As we know, the poem “Excelsior” is derived from one of Longfellow’s poetry collections entitled Ballads and Other Songs. Its inclusion in this volume is very apt since it is also a ballad. A ballad generally consists of a simple tale whose plot is taken from folk stories and legends. It is easy to believe that “Excelsior” could very well have as its source an old story told by Swiss parents to their children, or one that is popular among the monks of the Saint Bernard monastery. A ballad also has a very simple rhyme scheme. “Excelsior” is no different. Its rhyme scheme of AABBC is as simple as it gets, and such simple rhyme schemes are a staple of Longfellow’s poetry. Lastly, a ballad generally has a moral as well. “Excelsior” teaches us never to give up even when we are faced with temptations and adversity.

Symbolism: “Excelsior” has a surface meaning and a deeper meaning. At a superficial level, it is just the story of a young man’s journey through the Alps. At a deeper level though, this entire journey is a symbol for life itself. It is not unusual in English poetry to find life represented through the image of an upward climb. Temptation also often takes the shape of a woman. However, temptation is also represented through another symbol here – that of the image of a happy family around the fireside. What this shows is that temptation is always in the form of what we lack. The young man lacks companionship and warmth, so the image of these things tempt him. Often, in life, we are forewarned of potentially dangerous situations by a Good Samaritan or the other. This is symbolized through the images of the old man and the peasant. The young man himself symbolizes the human race as a whole. All of us face adversities in life, but that does not mean that we give up. We may be afraid of life, but that does not stop us from living. Even after death, our soul lives on, just as the voice of the young man is still heard after his corpse has been discovered.

Tone of the Poem Excelsior

The tone of this poem is one of resilience. The young man does not let anything stop him on his way. He sticks to the message his banner spells out, and continues on his journey despite all obstacles. Read more: Excelsior Summary by H.W. Longfellow


“Excelsior” is a delightful poem. Its rhyme scheme is uncomplicated, and its subject matter is inspirational. That is perhaps why it is one of the most anthologized poems by Longfellow.

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