This line originates from the poem The Theologian’s Tale, and is taken from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s collection of poems titled, Tales of a Wayside Inn. The poem reads, “Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, / Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness…”
Here, the passing ships tell the readers about the people who see each other for the first time, and only for a short duration, before parting ways, disappearing into the vastness of the earth. Thus, the poet is telling readers that such people are like two ships, which passing by each other at night and come face to face for a transitory period.
This is a metaphoric expression, which is a very common saying intended to refer to those people who encounter only for a short period, share just a few words, and then separate to continue their way and never see each other again, or simply it tells about the individuals that are hardly in the same place at the same time. It can be used to refer to two things do not have a significant commonality or connection.
This metaphoric phrase is usually found in poetry and in everyday usage. For instance, two lovers meet for the first time in an incidental or transitory manner, and their relationship may not have a lasting significance, as shortly after their encounter, they depart. They may never see one another again. Likewise, you meet a stranger, speak for a while and like him/her; forgetting to catch one another’s names, and then unable to find them again.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow coined this phrase about 150 years ago, in part three of his poem Tales of a Wayside Inn, where it 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.”
(Part III, The Theologian’s Tale: Elizabeth Section IV)
In fact, this poem is about meeting and courtship of a lady, Elizabeth, and John Estaugh who met her during his sailing trip in 1701. Shortly after that, she proposed to him, and they got married in 1702. There are various narrators in the poem, who are probably the author’s friends. It contains three parts, and each one consists of a prelude and a finale; however, this part of the poem is presented in Elizabeth’s voice.
The ocean is a huge place, but nobody knows what it indicates that two ships sail and pass by each other. It probably occurs at night, and they shine lights on each other to acknowledge their presence. This shining of the lights can indicate a greeting, as if two ships are communicating to each other, until they pass by and disappear into complete darkness of night, never to see each other again. Who knows, their paths might cross again someday.
- Metaphorical Reference: The ships reference two individuals, who just meet and say goodbye to each other.
- Allusion: Ships are an allusion of the transitory nature of time.