It was, alas, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem most often used as the punchline of a joke. You can just imagine the poor guy, already a noted poet, slaving away in the corner somewhere, coming up with the story of exertion against an unforgiving world:
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,
The poem’s name was, of course, “Excelsior,” (no exclamation point), the story of a young man going out and doing something, or, more to the point, getting something done - and carrying a banner claiming the goal of accomplishment. It was written in 1841.
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,
The word, that word, “Excelsior,” meant to press on, to strive. In 1841 America was unfolding on itself, indeed, as was the world. The American Civil War was still 20 years off and Queen Victoria - a fan of Longfellow - was on the throne, introducing the world to such new-fangled things as Christmas cards, or for that matter Christmas celebration.
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,
Van Buren County’s first cotton gin had been in operation less than a year, Clinton wouldn’t be incorporated for a few years to go yet.
“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,
Eggheads, oh okay, “scholars,” suit yourself, have spent years, and gallons of ink, working out what “Excelsior” represented in Longfellow’s poem. Generally it’s come to be understood as “Onward and upward.” It was a poem of its time, by the poet of his time, back when to be a poet meant something, when recorded music was still a while off but by the light of the fire you could read a poem and feel the rhythm of its cadence, a song where you wrote the music to join the lyrics you were reading.
“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,
Antibiotics were still decades away. Youth, energy really, was something to be celebrated, embraced, cherished, a commodity. It wasn’t that life was cheap, it was that life was expensive and few had the resources on hand to see it through.
“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,
Imagine what it was like to be in Van Buren County back in those days, long before hospitals and paved roads where everything was a danger. All one could do, end of the day, was press onward and upward.
At break of day, as heavenward
The pious monks of Saint Bernard
Uttered the oft-repeated prayer,
A voice cried through the startled air,
But still, the kid pressed on, onward and upward. Poor kid; tough kid.
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,
Or was it a poor kid? Was it not a young time? Was it not the youth, not of the people, but of the era, straining ever upward and onward? Snakebites, dirt roads, floods, wagon wheels, tough times, tough people?
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,
You ring a bell, it makes a sound. If the frequency’s right, if the bell’s well made and you used it as the maker intended, the tone, the sound, the ring, extends past that moment when it was rung. The tone goes onward, upward.