"A Banner With The Strange Device, Excelsior!"

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Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 218

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Context: The motto on the New York State shield inspired the poem "Excelsior," which means "higher." The poem, said Poe, "depicts the ear nest upward impulse of the soul,–an impulse not to be subdued even in death." Longfellow said that his purpose was "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." The man shuns romantic love and formal religion in his struggle "ever higher." He leaves the "household fires" of "happy homes" in order to climb the "spectral glaciers" of life. He dies "without having reached the perfection he longed for"; but "from the sky, serene and far,/ A voice fell, like a falling star,/ Excelsior!" In the first stanzas, the man "passes through the Alpine village–through the rough, cold paths of the world–where the peasants cannot understand him, and where his watchword is an 'unknown tongue'":

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, Excelsior!