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

Writers usually play god most of the time—sometimes they may know that their creation will be impactful, but most of the time, they don’t.

Should we say that whoever came up with the phrase “ships that pass in the night” knew that it would live for hundreds of years after his demise?

Probably not, but, anyway, which writer coined the phrase “ships that pass in the night?” What’s the story behind it?

Well, read on to find out not only the name of the writer who came up with that phrase but also their life story (which, I should add, contains a bit of tragedy at a certain point).

Let’s get started.

Which Writer Coined The Phrase “Ships That Pass In The Night”?

The phrase “ships that pass in the night” was coined by the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It appears in his poem “The Theologian’s Tale,” which was first published on November 23, 1863, in a collection of poems called Tales of a Wayside Inn.

“Tales of a Wayside Inn” is a collection of poems, each told by a different person at the Wayside Inn located in Sudbury, Massachusetts. 

The Theologian’s Tale is told from Elizabeth Haddon’s point of view, and it’s mostly about her life in the New World. 

Here’s an excerpt (a stanza) from the poem:

“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.”

What Does it Mean?

It is a metaphoric expression that refers to two things or people that are briefly close to each other or share brief moments before moving on, never to meet again. It is also used metaphorically to describe people who are rarely in the same place at the same time. The phrase suggests a sense of missed opportunity or regret as two people or things pass by each other without ever sufficiently connecting or bonding.

Who is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

who is henry wadsworth longfellow
Who is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was an American poet and educator. He was born in Portland, Maine, on February 27, 1807, and died at the age of 75 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on March 24, 1882. He was the second son of Stephen Longfellow, a lawyer, and Zilpah Wadsworth Longfellow, the daughter of Peleg Wadsworth (a prominent military officer). 

Henry Longfellow was enrolled in a dame school before going to the private Portland Academy, where he earned a reputation for being a “very studious” student. 

He then, at the age of 15, and his brother, Stephen, attended Bowdoin College, an institution founded by his grandfather, one of whose trustees was Henry’s father. While at Bowdoin College, Henry Longfellow joined a literary society called the Peucinian Society (Pinos Loquentes Semper Habemus) and he wrote to his father, telling him about his future in literature. 

After that, he focused on his career objectives and, with the encouragement of Professor Thomas Cogswell Upham, submitted poetry and prose to several newspapers and magazines. From early 1824 on, Longfellow published about four dozen poems before his graduation in 1825. 

Shortly after graduating in 1825, Bowdoin College offered him a job as a professor of modern languages. The job was given to him on the condition that he would travel to Europe to study French, Spanish, and Italian.

So, he spent several years studying and traveling in Europe, where he learned several languages and became interested in literature and poetry. He went to France, Spain, Italy, and Germany, then back to France. He later went to England before traveling back to the United States in 1829.

In 1835, he went back to Europe, where he studied German, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Finnish, and Icelandic. He had gone there because the president of Harvard College had offered him the Smith Professorship of Modern Languages, which required him to spend a year or so abroad. Sadly, his wife, Mary Storer Potter, died there as a result of a miscarriage she had six months into her pregnancy. She was only 22 years old.

Afterward, Longfellow wrote some poems in her memory before returning to the U.S. in 1836 to take up the promised professorship at Harvard.

In 1839, Longfellow began to publish his work, which included his debut poetry book, Voices of the Night. He later published Ballads and Other Poems in 1841. He became friends with several famous names, including a statesman named Charles Sumner, who would become his closest friend for over three decades.


The writer who coined the phrase “ships that pass in the night” was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, an American poet and educator. 

Although he died on March 24, 1882, more than 140 years ago, he remains relevant today, and his phrase is still relatable in the modern world.

Some of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s most famous works include “Paul Revere’s Ride,” “The Song of Hiawatha,” and “Evangeline.” He was also a professor at Bowdoin College and later at Harvard University.

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Jessica started off as an avid book reader. After reading one too many romance novels (really... is it ever really enough?), she decided to jump to the other side and started writing her own stories. She now shares what she has learned (the good and the not so good) here at When You Write, hoping she can inspire more up and coming wordsmiths to take the leap and share their own stories with the world.