About the poem:“Excelsior” is a brief poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published in 1841 as part of his poetry collection entitled Ballads and Other Songs.The word “Excelsior” is translated from Latin as “ever higher”, and also loosely but more widely as “onward and upward”. The title of “Excelsior” was reportedly inspired by the state seal of New York, which bears the Latin motto Excelsior. Longfellow’s first draft, which is now stored in the Harvard University Library, notes that he finished the poem at three o’clock in the morning on 28th September 1840. “Excelsior” was printed in Supplement to the Courant, an additional part of the newspaper entitled Connecticut Courant, vol. VII no. 2, dated 22nd January 1841.
James Thurber is said to have illustrated the poem in The Thurber Carnival in 1945. The poem was set to music as a duet for tenor and baritone by the Irish composer Michael William Balfe, and was a staple of Victorian and Edwardian drawing rooms.
Setting of the poem: This poem is set in the Alps somewhere near the famous monastery at Saint Bernard. There is a village at the foot of the mountains, and passes leading up to a great height. A young man is on his way up the mountains when he passes through the village. He is tempted to stay behind, but as his banner exhorts, he must keep going onwards on his journey. Thus the setting is both harsh and beautiful.
Excelsior Summary by H.W. Longfellow
The shades of night were falling fast,
As through an Alpine village passed
A youth, who bore, ‘mid snow and ice,
A banner with the strange device,
In this stanza, the poet shows how night was descending fast on the Alps. In a Swiss village, a young man was walking through the snow and in his hands was a banner saying the word “Excelsior”.
His brow was sad; his eye beneath,
Flashed like a falchion from its sheath,
And like a silver clarion rung
The accents of that unknown tongue,
In this stanza, the poet describes how the young man had a sad look on his face. However, his eye was sparkling with the same kind of gleam that is seen on a falchion sword when it is taken out of its sheath. He spoke out in his own language and his voice was heard as clearly as that of a clarion that is rung to announce the start of a war.
In happy homes he saw the light
Of household fires gleam warm and bright;
Above, the spectral glaciers shone,
And from his lips escaped a groan,
In this stanza, the poet describes how the young man was passing by merry households on his way up the Alps. He saw that many families were sitting by the fireside and were warm and comfortable unlike himself. Up in the mountains, the white glaciers appeared to be ghostly. The young man could not help but groan, for his as his banner said, he had to go on and could not stop mid-way on his journey.
“Try not the Pass!” the old man said;
“Dark lowers the tempest overhead,
The roaring torrent is deep and wide!”
And loud that clarion voice replied,
In this stanza, the poet describes how the Swiss youth came upon an old man who advised him not to travel by the mountain pass, for a storm was on its way. The sky was becoming dark and clouded, and the waters of the mountain streams were overflowing as they rushed at great speed downwards. In the middle of all this, the young man’s voice was still as clearly heard as that of a clarion.
“Oh stay,” the maiden said, “and rest
Thy weary head upon this breast! “
A tear stood in his bright blue eye,
But still he answered, with a sigh,
In this stanza, the poet describes the next person whom the young man passed by. This was a lovely maiden and she entreated the youth to stay behind with her and rest his tired head on her chest so that she may comfort him. The young man cried a single tear for he was very tempted but he knew that he could not stay back at any cost.
“Beware the pine-tree’s withered branch!
Beware the awful avalanche!”
This was the peasant’s last Good-night,
A voice replied, far up the height,
In this stanza, the poet describes the third and final person that the young man met on his upward journey. This was a peasant who advised the youth to look out for the withered branch of a pine tree that was growing in his path, and also to make sure that he does not face an avalanche. After offering this advice, the peasant bid the youth farewell. The young man continued on his way with his familiar cry of “Excelsior”.
At break of day, as heavenward
The pious monks of Saint Bernard
Uttered the oft-repeated prayer,
A voice cried through the startled air,
In this stanza, the poet explains what happened the next day. As the sun was rising, the monks of the nearby Saint Bernard were engrossed in their prayer. Suddenly they heard a voice saying “Excelsior”.
A traveller, by the faithful hound,
Half-buried in the snow was found,
Still grasping in his hand of ice
That banner with the strange device,
In this stanza, the poet describes how the Saint Bernard dogs found the body of the young man that had been buried in the avalanche of snow. However, his frozen hand was still gripped tightly around the banner he had been carrying.
There in the twilight cold and gray,
Lifeless, but beautiful, he lay,
And from the sky, serene and far,
A voice fell like a falling star,
In this stanza, the poet shows us that while the sun had not yet risen and the sky was still gray, the corpse of the young man still appeared to be beautiful. His voice could still be heard coming down from the sky like a falling star and it said the same thing as always – “Excelsior”. Read more: Excelsior Analysis by H.W. Longfellow