Excelsior! Inspirational verse, the Victorian working-class poet, and the case of Longfellow

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Abstract

In Stiefvater's popular young adult fantasy sequence, The Raven Cycle (2012-2016), 'Excelsior' is a catch-phrase used repeatedly and superstitiously by the protagonist, Richard Gansey III, whose quest for a lost Welsh king buried in rural Virginia shapes the four-book narrative. 'Excelsior,' roughly meaning 'ever higher,' was a term popularized in the nineteenth century by Longfellow's eponymous poem, in which a mysterious youth climbs onwards and upwards into the Alps, ignoring various warnings, and is then found frozen to death in the final stanza. For Gansey to cite it at the outset of new adventures or when entering a magical location is entirely appropriate. Like Longfellow's hero, he is on a lonely, self-appointed and grimly determined mission, likely to end in his death. In addition, Gansey’s 'Excelsior' is a signifier of his excessive white male privilege. His elite private education, his wealth, his family's standing, are thematically central to the series. That he is familiar with a poem by Longfellow, a highly-educated, cosmopolitan, white male Harvard professor with a love of all things European (while Blue, a working-class woman, is unfamiliar with it) is not at all surprising. 'Excelsior' signals Gansey's resolve to venture into the unknown and strength to keep going in the face of danger and despair. However, since none of the other characters in The Raven Quartet recognize the allusion, referencing Longfellow also signifies something unusual for the twenty-first century; a young American hero who not only knows his poetic canon but is in many ways attuned to perceived nineteenth-century ideals of duty and perseverance.
Original languageEnglish
JournalVictorian Poetry
Volume59
Issue number1
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 24 Feb 2021

Keywords

  • excelsior
  • The Raven Cycle
  • Victorial poetry
  • Longfellow

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