Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882). Complete Poetical Works. 1893.

Ballads and Other Poems


  • The original manuscript of Excelsior, showing the several drafts and interlineations, is preserved in the library of Harvard University. It was written on the back of a note from Mr. Sumner, and is dated at the close: “September 28, 1841. Half past 3 o’clock, morning. Now to bed.” The suggestion of the poem came to Mr. Longfellow from a scrap of newspaper, a part of the heading of one of the New York journals, bearing the seal of the State,—a shield, with a rising sun, and the motto Excelsior. The intention of the poem was intimated in a letter from Mr. Longfellow written some time after to Mr. C. K. Tuckerman:—
  • “I have had the pleasure of receiving your note in regard to the poem Excelsior and very willingly give you my intention in writing it. This was no more than to display, in a series of pictures, the life of a man of genius, resisting all temptations, laying aside all fears, heedless of all warnings, and pressing right on to accomplish his purpose. His motto is Excelsior—‘higher.’ He passes through the Alpine village—through the rough, cold paths of the world—where the peasants cannot understand him, and where his watch-word is in an ‘unknown tongue.’ He disregards the happiness of domestic peace and sees the glaciers—his fate—before him. He disregards the warning of the old man’s wisdom and the fascinations of woman’s love. He answers to all, ‘Higher yet!’ The monks of St. Bernard are the representatives of religious forms and ceremonies and with their oft-repeated prayer mingles the sound of his voice, telling them there is something higher than forms and ceremonies. Filled with these aspirations, he perishes; without having reached the perfection he longed for; and the voice heard in the air is the promise of immortality and progress ever upward. You will perceive that Excelsior, an adjective of the comparative degree, is used adverbially; a use justified by the best Latin writers.” This he afterwards found to be a mistake, and explained excelsior as the last word of the phrase Scopus meus est excelsior.
  • Five years after writing this poem, Mr. Longfellow made the following entry in his diary: “December 8, 1846. Looking over Brainard’s poems, I find, in a piece called The Mocking-Bird, this passage:—
  • Now his note
  • Mounts to the play-ground of the lark, high up
  • Quite to the sky. And then again it falls
  • As a lost star falls down into the marsh.
  • Now, when in Excelsior I said,
  • A voice fell, like a falling star,
  • Brainard’s poem was not in my mind, nor had I in all probability ever read it. Felton said at the time that the same image was in Euripides, or Pindar, I forget which. Of a truth, one cannot strike a spade into the soil of Parnassus, without disturbing the bones of some dead poet.”
  • Dr. Holmes remarks of Excelsior that “the repetition of the aspiring exclamation which gives its name to the poem, lifts every stanza a step higher than the one which preceded it.”

  • 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,


    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 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,


    “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,


    “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,


    “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,


    At break of day, as heavenward

    The pious monks of Saint Bernard

    Uttered the oft-repeated prayer,

    A voice cried through the startled air,


    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,


    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,