'Excelsior' by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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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,

Editor 1 Interpretation

"Excelsior": A Literary Criticism and Interpretation


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Excelsior" is a poem that has captured the imagination of generations. Its simple yet powerful message of the human spirit's quest for excellence and the pursuit of a higher purpose has resonated with readers since its publication in 1841. In this literary criticism and interpretation, we will explore the poem's structure, imagery, themes, and its cultural significance.

Structure and Rhyme Scheme

"Excelsior" is a ballad, a narrative poem that tells a story. It has eight stanzas, each with six lines, which follow the rhyme scheme ABABCC. The meter is iambic tetrameter, with four iambs (unstressed-stressed syllables) in each line. The repetition of the rhyme and meter gives the poem a musical quality that enhances its emotional impact.


One of the most remarkable aspects of "Excelsior" is its vivid and evocative imagery. The poem opens with the image of a young man climbing a mountain, carrying a banner that bears the Latin word "Excelsior" ("Ever upward"). This image immediately sets the tone for the poem, as it suggests the idea of progress and the quest for knowledge and enlightenment. As the young man climbs higher, the imagery becomes more vivid and intense.

Longfellow employs a variety of sensory details to create a rich and immersive experience for the reader. For example, he describes the sound of the "eagle screaming" and the "torrents roaring" in the mountain valleys below. He also uses visual imagery to describe the snow-capped peaks, the "ghastly icy fingers" of the winds, and the "misty summit" that the young man is striving to reach.

The imagery in the poem serves to reinforce the theme of the quest for excellence and the human spirit's desire to transcend its limitations. The mountain serves as a metaphor for the obstacles that we all face in life, and the young man's ascent represents our striving to overcome them.


"Excelsior" is a poem that explores several important themes, including the pursuit of excellence, the nature of heroism, and the tension between tradition and innovation.

The poem's central message is that we should always strive for excellence, that we should never be satisfied with the status quo. The young man's quest to reach the summit of the mountain represents the human spirit's urge to transcend its limitations and to seek higher knowledge and understanding. The banner that he carries, bearing the word "Excelsior," is a symbol of this quest for excellence, and it inspires others to follow in his footsteps.

Another important theme in the poem is the nature of heroism. The young man is a hero not because he is strong or powerful, but because of his determination and his willingness to take risks in pursuit of his goal. He is a hero because he inspires others to follow him, and because he embodies the values of courage, perseverance, and dedication.

Finally, the poem also touches on the tension between tradition and innovation. The young man's quest is seen as a challenge to the established order, as he is defying the customs and conventions of his society. The poem suggests that progress comes from challenging the status quo and embracing new ideas, even if they are unpopular or unconventional.

Cultural Significance

"Excelsior" has had a significant cultural impact since its publication. The poem's message of the quest for excellence and the pursuit of a higher purpose has resonated with readers across time and place. It has become a popular inspirational motto, appearing on everything from university crests to coffee mugs.

The poem has also been the subject of numerous adaptations and parodies. It has been set to music, and it has been referenced in literature and popular culture. The poem's enduring popularity is a testament to its timeless message and its evocative imagery.


In conclusion, "Excelsior" is a poem that continues to inspire and captivate readers today, over 180 years after its initial publication. Its vivid imagery, powerful themes, and cultural significance make it a literary masterpiece that has stood the test of time. As we strive to reach our own summits, we can take comfort in the knowledge that we are following in the footsteps of the young man with the banner, forever climbing ever upward.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry Excelsior: A Masterpiece by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one of the most celebrated poets of the 19th century, wrote a masterpiece that has stood the test of time. His poem, Excelsior, is a classic that has been studied and analyzed by scholars and poetry enthusiasts alike. In this article, we will delve into the depths of this poem and explore its meaning, structure, and significance.

Excelsior is a Latin word that means "ever upward." The poem tells the story of a young man who is on a journey to reach the summit of a mountain. He carries a banner with the word "Excelsior" written on it, which symbolizes his determination to reach greater heights. Along the way, he encounters various obstacles and temptations, but he remains steadfast in his quest.

The poem is structured in six stanzas, each with four lines. The rhyme scheme is ABAB, and the meter is iambic tetrameter. The use of rhyme and meter gives the poem a musical quality, which adds to its emotional impact. The repetition of the word "Excelsior" throughout the poem serves as a refrain, emphasizing the young man's determination and his refusal to be deterred.

The first stanza sets the scene and introduces the young man and his banner. He is described as "a youth, inured to hardship and toil," which suggests that he is no stranger to challenges. The banner he carries is described as "a banner bright, / The motto, 'Excelsior!'" The use of the word "bright" suggests that the banner is a beacon of hope and inspiration.

In the second stanza, the young man encounters an old man who warns him of the dangers of his journey. The old man tells him to "Stay," but the young man is determined to continue. The old man's warning serves as a metaphor for the obstacles and challenges that the young man will face on his journey.

The third stanza introduces the first obstacle that the young man encounters. He comes across a stream that is too deep to cross. The stream represents the challenges that we face in life, and the young man's determination to cross it symbolizes his resilience and perseverance.

In the fourth stanza, the young man encounters a group of travelers who invite him to join them. They offer him food and drink, but he refuses, saying that he must continue on his journey. The travelers represent the distractions and temptations that we encounter in life, and the young man's refusal to be swayed by them symbolizes his focus and determination.

In the fifth stanza, the young man encounters a dark forest. The forest represents the unknown and the fear of the unknown. The young man is undeterred, however, and he continues on his journey, even though he cannot see what lies ahead.

In the final stanza, the young man reaches the summit of the mountain. He raises his banner and cries out "Excelsior!" The use of the exclamation mark emphasizes the young man's triumph and his sense of accomplishment. The final line of the poem, "And from his lips escaped a prayer / That sounded like a sigh," suggests that the young man has achieved his goal, but he is also aware of the sacrifices that he has made along the way.

The poem has several themes that are relevant to our lives today. One of the main themes is the importance of perseverance and determination. The young man's refusal to be deterred by obstacles and distractions serves as a reminder that we must stay focused on our goals, even when the journey is difficult.

Another theme is the importance of taking risks and stepping out of our comfort zones. The young man's journey up the mountain represents the challenges that we face when we try to achieve something great. It is only by taking risks and pushing ourselves that we can reach our full potential.

The poem also highlights the importance of staying true to ourselves and our values. The young man's refusal to be swayed by the temptations of the travelers represents the importance of staying true to our beliefs, even when others try to persuade us otherwise.

In conclusion, Excelsior is a masterpiece of poetry that has stood the test of time. Its themes of perseverance, determination, and staying true to oneself are as relevant today as they were when the poem was first written. Longfellow's use of rhyme, meter, and repetition give the poem a musical quality that adds to its emotional impact. Excelsior is a poem that inspires us to reach for greater heights and to never give up on our dreams.

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