Which Writer Coined the Phrase, “Ships That Pass in the Night”?

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Which writer coined the phrase, “ships that pass in the night”?

The phrase, “ships that pass in the night” was coined by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a famous American poet and writer. This line comes from the poem, “The Theologian’s Tale” in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Tales of a Wayside Inn.

This article will explore who coined this phrase, what this phrase means, and how to use it. We will also go briefly into some of the background information about Longfellow himself.

Since the poem, “The Theologian’s Tale” is in the public domain, I have included it in it’s entirety at the end of this article. Enjoy!

Ship with sails in the sunset for my article, "Which writer coined the phrase, "Ships that pass at night"?
Image by author via Canva—Which writer coined the phrase, “Ships that pass in the night”?

Who Is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow?

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born on the 27th of February, 1807. He was an American poet and educator.

Longfellow published many popular poems including, “The Song of Hiawatha” (1855) which remains to this day a part of the standard children’s literature curriculum in elementary schools across America.

For more than two centuries, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow has been one of America’s most important writers, read by generations for his mastery of verse forms ranging from sonnets and ballads to free verse narratives like “Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie” (which tells the story honoring those exiled during the Great Upheaval).

His work is also found in textbooks around the globe because it reflects themes universal to understanding our humanity.

What was his childhood like?

As a child, Longfellow was a precocious reader, and he loved the outdoors. He also had some health problems which prevented him from working with his hands as much as other boys did.

What are Longfellow’s most famous poems?

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is best known for writing “The Song of Hiawatha” (1855 ), which is a poem about Native American life, “Paul Revere’s Ride” (1860), and the “Wreck of the Hesperus” (1842).

Where did Longfellow go to school?

He attended Bowdoin College in 1825. One of his classmates was famous author, Nathaniel Hawthorne. He transferred to Harvard in 1827. After graduating from college, he went on to teach at Bowdoin.

Interesting facts about Longfellow

  • He was the first American to receive an honorary degree from Oxford University.
  • His poetry sometimes makes use of a device called “Kakemono,” which is Japanese for hanging scroll. These poems are written in free verse and have no regular rhyme or rhythm, like haiku.
  • He was married twice.
  • His second, and last, wife died tragically when the clothes she was wearing burst into flames.
  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow died on March 24th, 1882, and was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery.

What Is the Context of the Phrase?

This line comes from Part IV of the poem “The Theologian’s Tale” in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Tales of a Wayside Inn.

In context, the phrase reads:

“Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, only a signal shown, and a distant voice in the darkness; So on the ocean of life, we pass and speak one another, only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.”

—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The full text of the poem is provided at the end of this article. It’s a really cool work of literature, so check it out.

What Is the Meaning of “Ships That Pass in the Night”?

In a sentence: Ships that pass in the night refers to two ships that are passing each other but never meet up or communicate with one another.

It is often used in reference to lost love, or when two people never meet because they are on different paths. Ships that pass in the night can symbolize missed opportunities or regretful decisions. The phrase can also refer to any instance where someone has loved someone and then lost them.

In penning the popular phrase, Longfellow borrowed a nautical analogy that describes two ships in the same vicinity, but that never see or speak to one another.

How Did the Phrase Come To Be?

Henry Longfellow coined the phrase that has been used by generations of writers to describe the fleeting nature of human relationships: “ships that pass in the night.” The line comes from his poem, “The Theologian’s Tale.”

The poem is one of several that make up the Tales of a Wayside Inn. The poetry collection is narrated in the voices of a group of people at the literal Wayside Inn, a real place. The narrators are not identified but the poems clearly point to friends and associates of Longfellow.

The Theologian’s Tale is written from the point of view of Elizabeth Haddon (1680-1762). She traveled alone to the United States from England in 1701. After she arrived, she proposed to John Estaugh, and they were married in 1702. The story of their courtship is told in “The Theologian’s Tale.”

Longfellow writes, “The eternal traveler still is sped; / The dust falls in the path behind. And what is life? The flash of a firefly in the night.”

These haunting lines show that Longfellow uses his poem to emphasize how human relationships seem as transient as ships passing each other at sea during the night. He also invites us to ponder how our time on earth is too short to explore every possibility.

Longfellow also used a similar concept in his other writings.

In 1849, Longfellow wrote a poem titled “Evangeline,” which tells the story of two lovers separated from each other after they are forcibly taken away from their homes during a tragic event in history. They try desperately to find each other again but never succeed.

Shift in the ocean near shore
Image by Author via Canva—Which writer coined the phrase, “Ships that pass in the night”?

How To Use the Phrase, “Ships That Pass in the Night”?

This is a quote that is usually found in poetry or used in everyday speech.

It refers to two lovers who meet once by chance, or strangers who speak for a while. The love they share may not have any deep meaning because they will soon separate from one another and never see each other again. Or, it may mean everything.

Remembering nothing else about the person, you are left thinking of them as part of something temporary and insignificant like raindrops sliding down your windowpane.

One example of its use as an analogy for missed opportunities is found in Toni Morrison’s novel, Song of Solomon, where Milkman thinks, “He had passed his father up like ships passing in the night.”

Here are other ways you might use this phrase in writing, speaking, and everyday life:

  • In writing, you might use the phrase in a poem or letter to describe two people who are destined not to meet again.
  • In speaking, it may be used as an introduction for someone you just met but will never see again afterward.
  • You might also say this when parting with someone else at the end of your day.
  • Trivia answers!

This question is actually a popular literary trivia question, so it’s a good idea to stash it away in your memory. Just think about how impressed your friends, partner, and English professor will be!

Other Variations of the Phrase

There are several other variations of the phrase. You can consider these phrases, “Ships that pass in the night” synonyms.

Some of these variations include:

  • Ships in the night
  • Two ships passing in the night
  • Ships passing in the night
  • Ships that pass in the night

All of these phrases mean essentially the same thing: to pass without meeting or interacting at all.

The Theologian’s Tale (The Complete Poem)

To provide context for the phrase, “Ships that pass in the night,” I thought it would be helpful to include the entire poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I also bolded the phrase in question so that you could find it easier. This poem is available in the public domain.

Part I

“Ah, how short are the days! How soon the night overtakes us!
In the old country the twilight is longer; but here in the forest
Suddenly comes the dark, with hardly a pause in its coming,
Hardly a moment between the two lights, the day and the lamplight;
Yet how grand is the winter! How spotless the snow is, and perfect!”

Thus spake Elizabeth Haddon at nightfall to Hannah the housemaid,
As in the farm-house kitchen, that served for kitchen and parlor,
By the window she sat with her work, and looked on a landscape
White as the great white sheet that Peter saw in his vision,
By the four corners let down and descending out of the heavens.
Covered with snow were the forests of pine, and the fields and the meadows.
Nothing was dark but the sky, and the distant Delaware flowing
Down from its native hills, a peaceful and bountiful river.

Then with a smile on her lips made answer Hannah the housemaid:
“Beautiful winter! yea, the winter is beautiful, surely,
If one could only walk like a fly with one’s feet on the ceiling.
But the great Delaware River is not like the Thames, as we saw it
Out of our upper windows in Rotherhithe Street in the Borough,
Crowded with masts and sails of vessels coming and going;
Here there is nothing but pines, with patches of snow on their branches.
There is snow in the air, and see! it is falling already;

All the roads will be blocked, and I pity Joseph to-morrow,
Breaking his way through the drifts, with his sled and oxen; and then, too,
How in all the world shall we get to Meeting on First-Day?”

But Elizabeth checked her, and answered, mildly reproving:
“Surely the Lord will provide; for unto the snow he sayeth,
Be thou on the earth, the good Lord sayeth; He is it
Giveth snow like wool, like ashes scatters the hoar-frost.”
So she folded her work and laid it away in her basket.

Meanwhile Hannah the housemaid had closed and fastened the shutters,
Spread the cloth, and lighted the lamp on the table, and placed there
Plates and cups from the dresser, the brown rye loaf, and the butter
Fresh from the dairy, and then, protecting her hand with a holder,
Took from the crane in the chimney the steaming and simmering kettle,
Poised it aloft in the air, and filled up the earthen teapot,
Made in Delft, and adorned with quaint and wonderful figures.
Then Elizabeth said, ”Lo! Joseph is long on his errand.

I have sent him away with a hamper of food and of clothing
For the poor in the village. A good lad and cheerful is Joseph;
In the right place is his heart, and his hand is ready and willing.”
Thus in praise of her servant she spake, and Hannah the housemaid
Laughed with her eyes, as she listened, but governed her tongue, and was silent,
While her mistress went on: ”The house is far from the village;
We should be lonely here, were it not for Friends that in passing
Sometimes tarry o’ernight, and make us glad by their coming.”

Thereupon answered Hannah the housemaid, the thrifty, the frugal:
“Yea, they come and they tarry, as if thy house were a tavern;
Open to all are its doors, and they come and go like the pigeons
In and out of the holes of the pigeon-house over the hayloft,
Cooing and smoothing their feathers and basking themselves in the sunshine.”

But in meekness of spirit, and calmly, Elizabeth answered:
“All I have is the Lord’s, not mine to give or withhold it;
I but distribute his gifts to the poor, and to those of his people
Who in journeyings often surrender their lives to his service.
His, not mine, are the gifts, and only so far can I make them
Mine, as in giving I add my heart to whatever is given.

Therefore my excellent father first built this house in the clearing;
Though he came not himself, I came; for the Lord was my guidance,
Leading me here for this service. We must not grudge, then, to others
Ever the cup of cold water, or crumbs that fall from our table.”
Thus rebuked, for a season was silent the penitent housemaid;
And Elizabeth said in tones even sweeter and softer:
“Dost thou remember, Hannah, the great May-Meeting in London,
When I was still a child, how we sat in the silent assembly,
Waiting upon the Lord in patient and passive submission?

No one spake, till at length a young man, a stranger, John Estaugh,
Moved by the Spirit, rose, as if he were John the Apostle,
Speaking such words of power that they bowed our hearts, as a strong wind
Bends the grass of the fields, or grain that is ripe for the sickle.
Thoughts of him to-day have been oft borne inward upon me,
Wherefore I do not know; but strong is the feeling within me
That once more I shall see a face I have never forgotten.”

Part II

First far off, with a dreamy sound and faint in the distance,
Then growing nearer and louder, and turning into the farmyard,
Till it stopped at the door, with sudden creaking of runners.
Then there were voices heard as of two men talking together,
And to herself, as she listened, upbraiding said Hannah the housemaid,
“It is Joseph come back, and I wonder what stranger is with him?”

Down from its nail she took and lighted the great tin lantern
Pierced with holes, and round, and roofed like the top of a lighthouse,
And went forth to receive the coming guest at the doorway,
Casting into the dark a network of glimmer and shadow
Over the falling snow, the yellow sleigh, and the horses,
And the forms of men, snow-covered, looming gigantic.

Then giving Joseph the lantern, she entered the house with the stranger.
Youthful he was and tall, and his cheeks aglow with the night air;
And as he entered, Elizabeth rose, and, going to meet him,
As if an unseen power had announced and preceded his presence,
And he had come as one whose coming had long been expected,
Quietly gave him her hand, and said, ”Thou art welcome, John Estaugh.”

And the stranger replied, with staid and quiet behavior,
“Dost thou remember me still, Elizabeth? After so many
Years have passed, it seemeth a wonderful thing that I find thee.
Surely the hand of the Lord conducted me here to thy threshold.

For as I journeyed along, and pondered alone and in silence
On his ways, that are past finding out, I saw in the snow-mist,
Seemingly weary with travel, a wayfarer, who by the wayside
Paused and waited. Forthwith I remembered Queen Candace’s eunuch,
How on the way that goes down from Jerusalem unto Gaza,
Reading Esaias the Prophet, he journeyed, and spake unto Philip,
Praying him to come up and sit in his chariot with him.

So I greeted the man, and he mounted the sledge beside me,
And as we talked on the way he told me of thee and thy homestead,
How, being led by the light of the Spirit, that never deceiveth,
Full of zeal for the work of the Lord, thou hadst come to this country.
And I remembered thy name, and thy father and mother in England,
And on my journey have stopped to see thee, Elizabeth Haddon.
Wishing to strengthen thy hand in the labors of love thou art doing.”

And Elizabeth answered with confident voice, and serenely
Looking into his face with her innocent eyes as she answered,
“Surely the hand of the Lord is in it; his Spirit hath led thee
Out of the darkness and storm to the light and peace of my fireside.”

Then, with stamping of feet, the door was opened, and Joseph
Entered, bearing the lantern, and, carefully blowing the light out,
Hung it up on its nail, and all sat down to their supper;
For underneath that roof was no distinction of persons,
But one family only, one heart, one hearth and one household.

When the supper was ended they drew their chairs to the fireplace,
Spacious, open-hearted, profuse of flame and of firewood,
Lord of forests unfelled, and not a gleaner of fagots,
Spreading its arms to embrace with inexhaustible bounty
All who fled from the cold, exultant, laughing at winter!
Only Hannah the housemaid was busy in clearing the table,
Coming and going, and hustling about in closet and chamber.

Then Elizabeth told her story again to John Estaugh,
Going far back to the past, to the early days of her childhood;
How she had waited and watched, in all her doubts and besetments
Comforted with the extendings and holy, sweet inflowings
Of the spirit of love, till the voice imperative sounded,
And she obeyed the voice, and cast in her lot with her people
Here in the desert land, and God would provide for the issue.

Meanwhile Joseph sat with folded hands, and demurely
Listened, or seemed to listen, and in the silence that followed
Nothing was heard for a while but the step of Hannah the housemaid
Walking the floor overhead, and setting the chambers in order.
And Elizabeth said, with a smile of compassion, ”The maiden
Hath a light heart in her breast, but her feet are heavy and awkward.”
Inwardly Joseph laughed, but governed his tongue, and was silent.

Then came the hour of sleep, death’s counterfeit, nightly rehearsal
Of the great Silent Assembly, the Meeting of shadows, where no man
Speaketh, but all are still, and the peace and rest are unbroken!
Silently over that house the blessing of slumber descended.

But when the morning dawned, and the sun uprose in his splendor,
Breaking his way through clouds that encumbered his path in the heavens,
Joseph was seen with his sled and oxen breaking a pathway
Through the drifts of snow; the horses already were harnessed,
And John Estaugh was standing and taking leave at the threshold,

Saying that he should return at the Meeting in May; while above
them Hannah the housemaid, the homely, was looking out of the attic,
Laughing aloud at Joseph, then suddenly closing the casement,
As the bird in a cuckoo-clock peeps out of its window,
Then disappears again, and closes the shutter behind it.

Part III

Now was the winter gone, and the snow; and Robin the Redbreast
Boasted on bush and tree it was he, it was he and no other
That had covered with leaves the Babes in the Wood, and blithely
All the birds sang with him, and little cared for his boasting,
Or for his Babes in the Wood, or the Cruel Uncle, and only
Sang for the mates they had chosen, and cared for the nests they were building.

With them, but more sedately and meekly, Elizabeth Haddon
Sang in her inmost heart, but her lips were silent and songless.
Thus came the lovely spring with a rush of blossoms and music,
Flooding the earth with flowers, and the air with melodies vernal.

Then it came to pass, one pleasant morning, that slowly
Up the road there came a cavalcade, as of pilgrims
Men and women, wending their way to the Quarterly Meeting
In the neighboring town; and with them came riding John Estaugh.

At Elizabeth’s door they stopped to rest, and alighting
Tasted the currant wine, and the bread of rye, and the honey
Brought from the hives, that stood by the sunny wall of the garden;
Then remounted their horses, refreshed, and continued their journey,
And Elizabeth with them, and Joseph, and Hannah the housemaid.

But, as they started, Elizabeth lingered a little, and leaning
Over her horse’s neck, in a whisper said to John Estaugh
“Tarry awhile behind, for I have something to tell thee,
Not to be spoken lightly, nor in the presence of others;
Them it concerneth not, only thee and me it concerneth.”

And they rode slowly along through the woods, conversing together.
It was a pleasure to breathe the fragrant air of the forest;
It was a pleasure to live on that bright and happy May morning!

Then Elizabeth said, though still with a certain reluctance,
As if impelled to reveal a secret she fain would have guarded:
“I will no longer conceal what is laid upon me to tell thee;
I have received from the Lord a charge to love thee, John Estaugh.”

And John Estaugh made answer, surprised by the words she had spoken,
“Pleasant to me are thy converse, thy ways, thy meekness of spirit;
Pleasant thy frankness of speech, and thy soul’s immaculate whiteness,
Love without dissimulation, a holy and inward adorning.

But I have yet no light to lead me, no voice to direct me.
When the Lord’s work is done, and the toil and the labor completed
He hath appointed to me, I will gather into the stillness
Of my own heart awhile, and listen and wait for his guidance.”

Then Elizabeth said, not troubled nor wounded in spirit,
“So is it best, John Estaugh. We will not speak of it further.
It hath been laid upon me to tell thee this, for to-morrow
Thou art going away, across the sea, and I know not
When I shall see thee more; but if the Lord hath decreed it,
Thou wilt return again to seek me here and to find me.”
And they rode onward in silence, and entered the town with the others.

Part IV

Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing,
Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;
So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another,
Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.

Now went on as of old the quiet life of the homestead.
Patient and unrepining Elizabeth labored, in all things
Mindful not of herself, but bearing the burdens of others,
Always thoughtful and kind and untroubled; and Hannah the housemaid
Diligent early and late, and rosy with washing and scouring,

Still as of old disparaged the eminent merits of Joseph,
And was at times reproved for her light and frothy behavior,
For her shy looks, and her careless words, and her evil surmisings,
Being pressed down somewhat like a cart with sheaves overladen,
As she would sometimes say to Joseph, quoting the Scriptures.

Meanwhile John Estaugh departed across the sea, and departing
Carried hid in his heart a secret sacred and precious,
Filling its chambers with fragrance, and seeming to him in its sweetness
Mary’s ointment of spikenard, that filled all the house with its odor.

O lost days of delight, that are wasted in doubting and waiting!
O lost hours and days in which we might have been happy!
But the light shone at last, and guided his wavering footsteps,
And at last came the voice, imperative, questionless, certain.

Then John Estaugh came back o’er the sea for the gift that was offered,
Better than houses and lands, the gift of a woman’s affection.
And on the First-Day that followed, he rose in the Silent Assembly,
Holding in his strong hand a hand that trembled a little,
Promising to be kind and true and faithful in all things.
Such were the marriage rites of John and Elizabeth Estaugh.

And not otherwise Joseph, the honest, the diligent servant,
Sped in his bashful wooing with homely Hannah the housemaid;
For when he asked her the question, she answered, ”Nay”; and then added
“But thee may make believe, and see what will come of it, Joseph.”

Short Summary

The phrase, “Ships that pass in the night” comes from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The poet was describing the fleetingness of life and how people are destined to pass one another without knowing it.

It is often used in reference to lost love, or when two people never meet because they are on different paths. It can also symbolize missed opportunities or regretful decisions.

Final Thoughts

The phrase, “Ships that pass in the night,” reminds us to prioritize and cherish our relationships. I don’t know any better lesson than that.

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