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The AmE idiomatic expression “sail into the sunset” meaning

to resolve or conclude things in a neat, happy, and satisfactory fashion. (The Free Dictionary)

appears to be used mainly in a sarcastic, humorous way. I guess that’s the usage Elon Musk had in mind when he recently said:

“it’s time for Trump to ‘sail into the sunset’” (the wrap.com)

The saying appears to refer to classic Hollywood movies where the final scene of the characters traveling into the sunset suggested an happy ending.

I think I’ve seen quite a few classic Hollywood movies in the past but I can’t remember these iconic “sunset” scenes. Does the expression really come from those movies? Who first used it and is it used in BrE also?

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The original sense of the expression may be tied to a Christianized association of the mythical Greek Fortunate Islands or Isles of the Blessed, said to lie in the extreme west of the Atlantic Ocean—toward the sunset. The Greek Mythology Link page for "Isles of the Blest, Elysium, White Isle" offers these notes (with quotations from Strabo):

The Islands of the Blest

The Islands of the Blest is a place where the virtuous dwell after death, retaining their faculties and enjoying a life free of care. This is probably the last abode of the righteous soul (and no reincarnation seems to affect those living in these islands).

According to some, the Islands of the Blest were by the western limits of Libya, that is, beyond the pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar) in the Atlantic Ocean, or as Strabo says:

"… even calling by name certain Isles of the Blest, which, as we know, are still now pointed out, not very far from the headlands of Maurusia that lie opposite to Gades (now Cádiz)." (Strabo, Geography 3.2.13).

Above all these islands were a place "untouched by sorrow", where a blessed life could be lived after death. They were thus associated or identified with Elysium (the Elysian Plain, also called Elysian Fields), which was "at the ends of the earth". According to Strabo, this expression refers to the West:

"For both the pure air and the gentle breezes of Zephyrus properly belong to this country, since the country is not only in the west but also warm; and the phrase 'at the ends of the earth' properly belongs to it, where Hades has been 'mythically placed,' as we say." (Strabo, Geography 3.2.13).

Encyclopedia.com has this brief entry for "Islands of the Blessed":

Islands of the Blessed (in classical mythology) a land, traditionally located near the place where the sun sets, to which the souls of the good were taken to enjoy a life of eternal bliss.

Sailing westward toward a setting sun and hoped-for admission to a blessed destination thus became a metaphor for the inescapable end of life and for the possibility of heaven and immortality.

That may help explain instances such as this one from Edwin Hood, "That Rest.---Aspects of Death," in Dark Sayings on a Harp; and Other Sermons on Some of the Dark Questions of Human Life (1865):

I think the difference between souls is greatly in this, the want and need of Sabbath occasions and Sabbath hours; we long during the week for the Sabbath, and then we look forward to the hour

"When the Master of Life shall call us / To the land of light and morning, / When our evening sun descending / We shall sail into the sunset, / Sail into the dusk of evening, / To the islands of the blessed, / To the kingdom of the Father, / To the land of the hereafter,

And enjoy that rest.

And likewise, from "Remarks of Augusta Cooper Bristol at the Spiritualist Convention Held at Lempster, N.H., Aug. 4th," in the [Toledo, Ohio] Index (September 16, 1871):

The Free Religionist appeals to science for the final answer to that question which the anxious heart of Humanity is forever asking—"Is the soul of man immortal?" And should universal Reason decide that Spiritualism yields no affirmation to this interrogation, then the very heart of Man can do no better than return to its old plaintive hymn of hope and faith, and sail into the sunset with all life's patient agony wrought into that song of death.

Even earlier is the closing scene from Henry Longfellow, The Song of Hiawatha (1855):

And the evening sun descending / Set the clouds on fire with redness / Burned the broad sky, like a prairie, / Left upon the level water / One long track and trail of splendor, / Down whose stream, as down a river, / Westward, westward Hiawatha / Sailed into the fiery sunset, / Sailed into the purple vapors, / Sailed into the dusk of evening.

...

Thus departed Hiawatha, / Hiawatha the Beloved, / In the glory of the sunset, / In the purple mists of evening, / To the regions of the home-wind, / Of the Northwest wind Keewaydin, / To the Islands of the Blessed, / To the Kingdom of Ponemah, / To the land of the Hereafter!

It seems fairly clear that Hood, a British cleric writing in England in 1865, was repackaging Longfellow's lines from ten years earlier, giving them a more explicitly religious cast and omitting the "purple vapors." In any event, it may well be that the adoption of the idiom "sailing into the sunset" in the United States is ultimately attributable to its occurrence in Longfellow's hugely popular poem.

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OED provides the earliest citation from 1909 for the figurative idiom. I believe the earlier usages are more literal; and the phrase has gained an idiomatic usage as an allusion to the conventional ending scenes of Western films. As a reference, the first films (a series of short silents) in Western genre is from 1894 and the earliest known Western narrative film (a British short film) is from 1899 per Wikipedia.

Here is the definition of the idiomatic phrase from OED and the first usage from 1909:

Originally U.S. to ride (go, sail, etc.) (off) into the sunset: to make a new start, begin a new phase of life, often implying (sometimes ironically) a bright future.
Chiefly with reference to a stock ending of many films, esp. Westerns, in which the hero is seen riding away towards the setting sun.

The range rider who..flooded the world with gold, has gone on the last prospect tour, into the sunset.
Fort Wayne (Indiana) Sentinel 11 Aug. 3/2

The idiomatic phrase is used in British English also; and OED's last citation from 2016 is from a British publication (Scottish newspaper The Herald), in Brexit context:

And so Nigel Farage rides off into the sunset, the latest Brexit politician to depart the scene after causing maximum chaos.
Herald (Glasgow) (Nexis) 5 July 15

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The sunset (or setting sun) has long been synonymous with the west, as well as with the setting of the sun and the coming of darkness. Both sailing and riding appear common ways of disappearing into the sunset, although you can also disappear just by sitting and waiting until it gets dark (the last is not an example of the trope).

A search of Google Books suggests that heading off into the sunset became a thing in the 19th century. This may be a genuine phenomenon or just a reflection of the availability of books, the rise of popular literature, or the specific phrases I searched for. (I won't include links for Google Books, because they don't always work for other people/internationally, but I will specify the source and you can easily search).

In the novel Orphans: a chapter in a life, by the Scottish historical novelist Margaret Oliphant, 1858, we find a description of a woman on horseback: "Miss Polly stalked away silently into the sunset"

The Locomotive Firemen's Monthly Magazine, Volume 5, 1881 has the vaguer: "Weary and worn and old and gray / Into the sunset away - away."

The first reference to sailing into the sunset at the end of a story that I could find is in The Open Question: A Tale of Two Temperaments by American novelist Elizabeth Robins (aka C. E. Raimond) in 1898 (Project Gutenberg text). This ends with characters in a boat:

"Where shall we go?" said Ethan.

"I think I'll steer for the sunset," she answered, in the same level voice.

As The Critic wrote (Volume 34, 1899, Google Books): "When one closes the book he feels that Miss Robins herself has sailed with her hero and heroine into the sunset too."

This is definitely an example of the trope; whether it's the original is less clear.

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The sun sets in the West. From the British point of view, people on a ship that sails into the sunset may be sailing to the Americas, to a new emigrant life, to new opportunity. It also takes them away from those who remain in Britain, away from influence, friends, power and the any role in British life. So to sail into the sunset is to leave all that was familiar and influential, and to enter on a new life, whatever it may be.

By analogy, Musk is suggesting that Mr Trump has no future in his previous political life and roles and should now embark on some different adventure.

Similarly, once the main story has reached a conclusion, a movie character’s work is finished and they head into the sunset to a new and undefined future.

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    TV Tropes gives ride off into the sunset, which one imagines might be a more typical American usage. Commented Jul 12, 2022 at 8:23
  • @KateBunting Also one of the ways to get to Tir Na Nog, the paradisial Island of Youth in Celtic myth, was sail for three days down the golden path created on the sea by the setting sun. Perhaps this myth was either the origin of or fed into the expression "sail off into the sunset".
    – BoldBen
    Commented Jul 12, 2022 at 9:04
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    Thanks, so where did the expression originate? In American movies or from British travelers going west? Its first or early usages might help also.
    – user 66974
    Commented Jul 12, 2022 at 9:13
  • Another answer deals well with what is found in Google ngram. I have nothing to add to that.
    – Anton
    Commented Jul 12, 2022 at 13:22

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