Saturday, September 10, 2016

Reflections on Norman's Woe

Norman's Woe as seen from
Hammond Castle
I don't remember what grade I was in when we first learned the poem The Wreck of the Hesperus by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, but I'll always remember the imagery in my head of the captain's daughter lashed to a mast. The poem says:

At daybreak on the bleak sea beach
A fisherman stood aghast,
To see the form of a maiden fair
Float by on a drifting mast.

The salt sea was frozen on her breast,
The salt tears in her eyes;
And her streaming hair, like the brown sea-weed,
On the waves did fall and rise.

Such was the wreck of the Hesperus,
In the midnight and the snow!
Oh! save us all from a death like this,
On the reef of 'Norman's Woe'.

The Captain of the Hesperus  lashing his daughter to a mast
I found that a haunting image and it has stayed with me throughout my life. I had not been living in Massachusetts long when I made my first visit to Hammond Castle in Manchester-by-the-Sea. I toured the castle with a group and I remember our guide pausing for us to appreciate the view of the Atlantic Ocean from the castle. “See that reef,” she said, pointing out rocks jutting up out of the water, “that's Norman's Woe. Nobody knows how many ships have crashed on that reef in storms. That's where Longfellow's Hesperus was supposed to have been wrecked.”

I was fascinated and amazed. The reef is located about 500 feet off shore and, at its peak is 23 feet above water but at high tide much of it is submerged. This no doubt accounts for the many shipwrecks on it. These days there is a bell buoy about 1000 feet from it, but there was a time when it was a voracious eater of sailing ships.

Hammond Castle seen from sea with Norman's Woe in the foreground
Nobody knows how Norman's Woe got its name. Legend tells us that a man named Norman was stranded there and died. Others say it was named for a man whose last name was Norman who owned land along the coast. But the history of shipwrecks are quite frightening. In 1823 the Rebecca Ann wrecked there and ten crew members were swept out to sea. One man survived by clinging to a rock. In 1839 the Favorite, out of Wiscasset, Maine, was lost and twenty bodies washed ashore, one of them a woman lashed to part of a mast.

Lashing people to masts during storms was a common practice. Seafaring literature is full of stories of captains who lashed themselves to the wheel of their ships to keep from being washed over board.

Norman's Woe by Fitz Henry Lane
Throughout the years Norman's Woe has been a popular subject for painters. Gloucester's Fitz Henry Lane painted it in a dreamy, mysterious style that captures some of the elusive fascination of the place. It's interesting that it is Lane who did this because, as a painter, he is nearly as mysterious as Norman's Woe. Many of his paintings survive and are on display in the Cape Ann Museum but Lane did not keep a diary nor did he write many letters. His paintings embody the transcendental philosophy of his contemporaries—like Longfellow—but his thought process remains a mystery.

Norman's Woe on a lovely day. It looks so innocent.
Hammond Castle and the North Shore play a big role in my novel, Depraved Heart. Every time I have occasion to drive down Hesperus Avenue here in Gloucester, I cannot help looking for Norman's Woe. It looks so innocent—just a pile of rocks. But they are rocks that have eaten ships, claimed lives, and inspired art.

Thanks for reading.


18 comments:

  1. Norman's Woe is such a poetic name for a place. I always enjoy your place posts.

    @mirymom1 from
    Balancing Act

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    1. Thanks, Samantha. I think I should write about Hammond Castle sometime, too.

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  2. Hi, Kathleen!

    I'm in the dog house. Mrs. Shady has been hounding me to take her on a cruise. I booked us on Deadliest Catch. :) Just a little maritime humor there.

    How treacherous those ship eating rocks of Norman's Woe! I can't imagine being lashed to a mast or tied to the ship's helm during a raging storm at sea. I'd freak out!

    Questions come to mind. Given the number of shipwrecks on that reef over a period of centuries, why did they wait so long to install a bell buoy to warn sailors? Why didn't they erect a lighthouse or a tall post with a flag or sign rising up from the rocks?

    I enjoyed the artwork and photography showing Norman's Woe from varying perspectives.

    Thank you very much for another interesting article, dear friend Kathleen!

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    1. I dunno, Shady, you might regret that--there are some pretty hunky guys on Deadliest Catch!

      What I have learned since living here is that it is often difficult to know what to erect as warnings. The conditions in some of these areas are not conducive to much in the way of construction. However, the bell buoy seems to be doing the job.

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  3. 'eaten ships, claimed lives, and inspired art'. which is not uncommon. So many artists are drawn to the deadly, and show us a different perspective. For which I am grateful.

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    1. I think there is a natural desire to make sense out of what seems senseless. That's what makes us artists and writers.

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  4. Pretty, but I can see why they'd be dangerous.

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    1. Exactly. It's lovely until the wind starts to blow.

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  5. Hi Kathleen - reefs and rocky outcrops are so dangerous ... I hadn't heard of Norman's Woe - but can quite believe the story ... and a poor girl being tied to the mast by her father ... then both meeting their fate.

    The second verse was very descriptive ... loved it - but not the thought ...

    I always remember JMW Turner's "Snowstorm" (1842) ... and how he had himself attached to the upper part of the mast in a snowstorm ... so he could understand the wave action etc ... he'd recently seen Mary Somerville's iron filing experiments ...

    Love the sea - but most definitely respect it ... cheers Hilary

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    1. Yes, that is a great story about Turner! Thanks for visiting.

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  6. When I first read of the maiden lashed to the mast, I thought, "How barbaric!" I didn't know it was an attempt to save her life in a storm. But now it makes sense, and how sad. Those rocks do make an inspiring (for books, painting, and poetry) setting.

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    1. I felt the same way until I understood it. It was done a lot!

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  7. Wow - that is so fascinating! I live on a sailboat which is a wonderful way to explore places on the water, but there is always that element of danger to remind you that Mother Nature is one powerful lady. Hopefully, I never get in a position where we have to be tied to a mast or abandon our boat.

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    1. I so admire your adventurousness! I also hope you never get into such a situation!!!

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  8. This is certainly a setting that could call forth the dark and dramatic from all writers. I've always loved Longfellow's poetry, and The Wreck of the Hesperus is a very vivid one.

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    1. I am not a big appreciator of poetry but I must say that one impacted me when I was a kid.

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  9. Truly haunting. Thank you for sharing the poem. I'm impacted by it as an adult, for sure. Be well!

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