”The sailor looks up from the page. He looks up, out of the oily coin of candlelight lying on the page…”
The sailor looks up from the book. He looks up, out of the oily coin of candlelight lying on the page. He can still hear the shore crowd at Greenhithe, even though they have long since sailed from there. The cheers and shouts of the thousands who mobbed the docks to see them off have been replaced by the groans and creaks of the timbers as the heavily laden Erebus struggles up the east coast of England.
He is not meant to be reading, not now, not yet. The sailor looks down at the lines of poetry on the page, up at the shelves of books in the Great Cabin—over 1,200 volumes in this shipboard library, as many again in the companion ship, Terror. How many will he read during the voyage through the Northwest Passage?
There’s a crash from up on deck. Sails being changed or trimmed, cargo being shifted. He cannot hide here much longer. When the sailor looks back down at the page in front of him, he can’t remember a word of what he’s been reading. All there is to do is to close the book. He does this. He closes the book, and he goes up on deck.
In this story there’s a fall from heaven. A casting down of a great man. A kingdom lost. There is rage and sorrow, and a beautiful woman with hair like moonlight, who might be able to lead the fallen man out of his despair. He asks her to raise her bowed head from where she kneels before him, to look upon her face so he can see his defeat mirrored there. Doom, is what he says. Our doom.
The king is not used to defeat. He doesn’t know himself in this state. He wants to make himself another kingdom, another chaos, and he is led off into the forest by the woman/moonlight.
The sailor leans up against the shelves of books in the Great Cabin. He can feel the shudder through the body of the Erebus as she is towed from Stromness Harbour, their last landfall in England. He runs one hand over the books, feeling the cool reassurance of their leather spines stutter under his fingertips. In his other hand he holds the copy of the book of Keats’ poems he is reading.
They have left the well-wishers waving from their fishing boats in Orkney. Now they are settling in for the month-long sail across the cold north Atlantic.
The sailor looks at the dull colours of the leather that covers the books. A red like the blood of an ox spilled to earth. A brown like the earth itself. A green like the dull colour of moss, deep in the woods on a sunless day. Deep in the woods at night. These are all colours of the world they are leaving behind. There will be no colours to match these in the white world they are sailing into. He opens the book that he is carrying, holds it in the palm of his hand and looks down at the white pages, at the lines of type running across them like black waves on a white sea, like lines of small figures disappearing into walls of snow.
The empire of the sun has been unsettled by the battles that have swept the king from his throne. The keeper of the sun can see only darkness on the earth and he is too shaken to restore the dawn. He lies his radiance down on the line between heaven and earth, full of sorrow, and he will not move until his father persuades him to drop to earth and help the fallen king, his brother.
There must have been many fallen kings, for the sailor has seen this mantle of light lying above the earth many times. It is often there in the evenings, glowing in a welt across the western sky, all red and purple, with a plumpness that is airy and soft, the way lips are, or the coil of smoke lifting from a chimney. The sailor has not thought before that it was the shape of a man, but he can see now how that could be true. A man lying on his side. His body propping up the dark sky, absorbing the fading light from the earth below, so that he is the place where the two states meet and marry. His limbs are cords of light, and his torso is thick with darkness. Everything begins and ends with his very body, with his mortal flesh.
The sailor stands at the railing on the deck of the Erebus. During the crossing of the Atlantic there is not as much to do and he has moments where he can stand like this, watching the horizon and the plunge and churn of the ship through the ocean swells. A half-mile distant the Terror makes the same passage, shows the sailor by its movement on the water what is happening with the ship he is on.
The waves are the same and different from each other, and at night that thick smudge of orange on the horizon could be the figure of a man lying down on his side. A man weary of battle. Sorrowful.
It is not that cold yet. For the sailor this voyage does not yet feel different from other voyages he has made. The pitch of the ship is familiar. The ocean looks the same. It is only the thought of what is coming that makes the difference. And even that wouldn’t be so bad if he knew what to expect, if he could imagine all that ice and snow and cold.
The sailor has joined this expedition because men on discovery voyages are paid twice as much as those on ordinary passage, and his family can live for a year alone on the advance he received before sailing.
The most snow the sailor has ever seen are the few inches that fall every winter on his small London house. It looks pretty from the window, that snow. Snow that falls in the night and melts the following morning.
In the same moment Hyperion, the sun god, descends to earth, the fallen king and the moonlight woman arrive at the cave where the outcast Titans huddle in mournful agony. Some are wounded. All are defeated. Being sorrowful together is adding to the sorrow, not lessening it. They are accumulating woe, sitting on the cold stone of the cave floor, indulging in their despair.
The sailor stands on deck watching the hms Rattler sail away from the Erebus and Terror, back toward England. The steam frigate had been accompanying them partway across the north Atlantic.
The sailor has the poem in his hands, had meant to read up here on deck in the perpetual northern light that is so much brighter than the dim glow below decks. He had meant to read here, but he stands against the railing with the book dangling from his hand, unopened. The Rattler is a small, dark island moving slowly away from him. He watches it until it dips over the horizon and is gone.
They are sailing westward and are north of Iceland. The air is cool and dry, not unpleasant, but laced with the taste of its potential. It is cold enough now that the sailor can imagine colder. He can see the very breath that leaves his body hang in a foggy sack above the rail, and then that too is gone.
There is a part of the story where everyone talks and not much happens. The fallen king gives a speech. The god of the sea gives a speech. The king tries to rouse the Titans. The sea god wants the king to accept that the defeat has occurred. The sailor supposes this is because the sea is the same and different with every wave, that it chases itself and repeats itself, that change does not mean something unrecognizable to the sea.
The sailor watches the iceberg off the port bow. It is like a small mountain adrift in the sea. The littering of icebergs around the ship is like exactly that, a mountain range that has flooded and splintered apart into individual pieces.
The supply ship, the Barretto Junior, which has sailed with them into the coastal waters off Greenland, and then right into Disko Bay, is offloading the remainder of the cargo before heading back to England. It is taking four men from the expedition back with it; four men who have fallen sick and will be an impediment to their progress through the ice. The sailor almost wishes he were taking the place of one of the men. His first sight of the ice that awaits them in the passage has spooked him rather than filled him with a vanquishing confidence.
The oxen that have sailed with the expedition from England have been slaughtered and butchered now that the supply ship is leaving. It was thought they could be loaded alive into the Erebus and the Terror, but there is no room to keep so large an animal as an ox below decks. The small ships are already crammed to the gunwales with food and coal and expedition equipment. The sailor watches the great slabs of butchered meat being loaded into a small boat to be rowed across to the Erebus. The dying animals made a terrible noise in this cold place. The red of the meat they’ve become set against the stark white of the ice looks almost beautiful. The sailor struggles for the word he wants, the word that matches his feeling at seeing the slaughtered ox being gently lowered into the skiff; the high cliff of an iceberg a white curtain behind the little scene. Tender, he thinks—the blood of the ox has sung the ice a tender red.
After the sea god has his speech, there’s a speech by a woman about how sad she is that all happiness is gone and has been replaced by sorrow. She fears that this will be a permanent condition, and the sailor supposes that perhaps, after death, this is the most that is to be feared.
The sled dogs are chained together on the slope above the beach. Each dog is tethered to the next by a short length of rusted chain. The dog at the top of the slope is attached to an iron stake driven into the dirt, so the fluid rope of dog behind him can loop left or right, but must always swing back to anchor.
At first it seems as though all the dogs are sleeping, balled into scruffy fists of fur and bone, lying in the shallow hollows they’ve clawed from the hillside. But no. The second-last dog in the line of dogs has a raven balanced on a rung of its laddery ribs. The sailor watches as the bird hunches over and hauls a rope of intestine from the hole it has made in the side of the dead dog.
Landfall has been possible in Greenland, while the sailors wait for all the supplies to be transferred over from the Barretto Junior. But the men are nervous of the Esquimaux who live in these parts, don’t do more than stumble up and down the beach, never out of sight of the ships.
The beach is crunchy with bones. The bones of dogs and seals and narwhals and birds. At first the sailor tries to avoid treading on them as he picks his way along the beach, but it is impossible not to disturb their brittle vocabulary. There are just too many of them to negotiate. The bones have unsettled the sailor. So has the carcass of the narwhal bobbing in the brine against the shingle, a blunt red badge of flesh where its unicorn tusk used to be.
The land behind the beach rises slowly into black cliffs. The rock has great claw marks scraped into its surface from the glaciers that have scoured across it. Other parts are worn smooth by the ice of each repeating year, by the frozen weight and shift of each long winter.
It seems to the sailor as though this is a landscape of grief; that rock made from ice is somehow, in spirit perhaps, still carrying the memory of the heaviness of the glaciers. And perhaps, rock made by ice is somehow still a form of ice, has the remoteness and remove of ice. The sailor knows that to say this landscape is one of grief is to impose his own grief upon it. But landscape also calls forth emotion, and the sailor feels the sad power of this place. Perhaps it’s because it is an unbroken landform and that is somehow more moving—the undulations of the rock, everything exposed. Or perhaps it’s the idea that there has not been a single obvious change to this landscape in centuries, and the years of accumulated sadness, of spent emotion, have become as visible as the rocks themselves.
The final speech in the second part of the poem is by a Titan who says that Hyperion hasn’t been defeated and in that there is still hope. And then Hyperion himself appears. Even in sorrow he can’t hide his light and the Titan cave glows with his arrival. Even the Titans who want to wallow in their suffering seem glad to see him drop down from the cliffs above, calling his brother’s name.
The sailor stands at the railing of the ship. All around him is the grey water of Baffin Bay, bucking and buckling against the wooden hull of the Erebus. This is all there is now, the sea.
The sailor thinks of the books he read before boarding the ship, all the tales of Arctic exploration he stoked himself with to work up a head of enthusiasm for the adventure. They all talked about the ice—endless descriptions of pack ice and hummocky ice, of the bergs and frozen rivers, of fields and fissures and chasms and pans. There was very little comment on the water that needed to be crossed in order to get to the ice, or the water that itself became the ice. What is fluid can be ignored. What is fixed is what men test themselves against.
The sailor had not expected to hate the icebergs. He had read all the exultations, all the words used to describe them—cath-edrals, kingdoms, holy places. He had im-agined them as beautiful, lit through with the sun behind them.
Ice is not water. This is what he thinks now. Ice was never water, is its own kind of landform. The icebergs that have calved off the glacier in Disko Bay are huge and blue—a blank sort of blue, pretty and vacant at the same time. Weaving among them in the Erebus they became great icy walls rising out of the sea. Cold air shushed off them, and even the birds avoided them, preferring to bob about in the cold sea rather than perch on those cliffs of death. No, not death exactly, but an absence of life. The icebergs aren’t inhuman so much as they’re unhuman. They are not of this world. They are ancient pieces of this frozen place, entirely remote from the sailors and their human experience.
Ice is not water, but ice can become water, and perhaps ice can remember water, perhaps there is the memory of movement within the frozen vault of it, within this mausoleum to movement. Perhaps it is the link between these two states, and the tension in that connection that makes ice so terrifying. There is the desire for ice to be water again, for what is solid to become fluid, for what has been impenetrable to yield a passage for the voyage out.
The Erebus and Terror are fastened in the ice now, frozen in the sheltered bay between Beechey and Devon islands. This is to be their winter harbour. Everything has gone well. This immobility is all part of the plan, and yet it makes the sailor nervous to hear the groans of the ship as the ice constricts around her girth, and to gaze out over a whitening horizon. Soon the decks themselves will be closed in, draped with tarpaulins to try and prevent snow from burying the ships and to attempt to trap some of the heat from the coal fires burning below.
What troubles the sailor is that the fear he feels within himself, for his survival, for the real existence of a passage through the north, is entirely matched by the landscape around the ships. There is no difference now between what is inside him and what is outside of him. What is the place, and what is the man?
The poem ends in a kind of raving. It leaves the story, leaves the Titans arguing and resigned to their fate, leaves at the entrance of Hyperion. After following the ordeal of the Titans for so long the poet suddenly tires of them, tells the reader that there are many more like them, there are many fallen kings and defeated realms, and he begs take leave of that dark cave and rush off into the light of poetry and music.
The sailor stands at the graveside on Beechey Island. His Bible is open, the thin pages bristling in the cold wind that scours across the beach. All around him is the murmur of the prayer spoken by the other men. They hold their Bibles in one hand and lanterns in the other. At their feet is the grave of one of the young stokers from the Terror, John Torrington. The coffin lies in the bottom of the hole. The grave was hard to dig, all rock and frozen ground, the dark cold of the winter polar night. The labour of digging it has exhausted the men who plunged their shovels and axes into the Arctic beach.
The recitation of the prayer is barely louder than the shriek of the wind and the cries of the ivory gulls floating like ghosts near the edge of the sandstone cliffs that rise up from the snow on the beach. The sailor watches one of the birds for a moment, looks up from the words of consolation and death, to the white bird wheeling against the dark walls of Beechey Island.
John Torrington had the cough in his lungs and died of that. And even though the sailor knows this, what he really believes is that now that they’ve settled their ships into the frozen grip of the ice off Beechey Island, now that they’re here for the winter, the ice has begun to stalk them. It was all right when they were moving. But now that they’re to remain frozen in until next summer they are sitting victims for the hunger of the ice.
John Torrington was a stoker. There is nothing here to keep him warm. He lived, these past months, feeding a mouth of fire, and now he is extinguished in this cold mouth of earth. It makes a certain kind of sense that the ice would want to lay claim first to those who are made of fire.
The sailor looks back down at the page of the bible where the words are lifting from. First the ice will take the men of fire, he thinks. And then it will come for the rest of us.
The two shipboard libraries were the only common spaces on board the Terror and Erebus, and even though each library measured just twelve feet by twenty-four feet, the luxury of this must be compared to the only private space allowed the sailors—the width of fourteen inches that each man was allotted for his hammock.
Franklin’s library consisted of 2,900 volumes. Of the books in the library there would have been at least a few hundred devoted to religion. There were Bibles for every man on board the Terror and Erebus, in English, Welsh, and Irish. There were copies of the magazine Punch, and tracts with titles such as “Advice to a Patient,” “ Duties of the Sick,” “Anxious Enquiries,” and “ Dying Thoughts.”
The full contents of Franklin’s library are unknown, but it can be assumed that there would have been a certain overlap with other nautical libraries. Lord Nelson’s library, for instance, is well-documented, and it is not unreasonable to believe that some of what Lord Nelson carried on his ships would have been duplicated on Franklin’s ships.
Nelson carried educational books on Latin, mathematics, mechanics, chemistry. He had a book of Christmas carols and a series of books entitled Lessons Derived from the Animal World, which included lessons given by the dog, the spider, the elephant, and the bee. He had Labourers’ Useful Hints and Instructions in Household Matters. There was a book on insect architecture and another called Deaf and Dumb Boy. And since Lord Nelson would have had young boys on his ships as members of his crew, there were children’s books such as Little Reading Book for Young Children and Little Mountaineer.
Franklin’s library would have been stocked with maps and narratives of other Arctic voyages. He would have had navigational books and books on the natural history of the region, books on the mechanics of the steam locomotive engines that powered his ships. And most certainly he would have had the following books that made up “The Seaman’s Library,” a library that was required to be carried on all Her Majesty’s ships:
Common Prayer without Psalms
Life of Nelson
Watson’s Apology for the Bible
Keith’s Evidence of Prophecy
Book of Nature
Anecdotes of Providence
Travels in the Arctic Regions
Voyages to the Pacific Ocean
Joyce’s Seamen’s Hymns
Manners of the Israelites
Discovery of America
History of Useful Arts
Voyages to the North Pacific
Shipwreck of the Alceste
Pinnock’s Modern Geography
Gleig’s History of England
Loss of the Kent
Hort’s School Dictionary
Wonders of the World
Working Man’s Companion
Lennie’s English Grammar
Two Years Before the Mast
Wrangle’s Expedition to the Polar Sea
Barrow’s Life of Sir Francis Drake
Scenes and Sketches from English History
Paley’s Natural Theology
Lardner on the Steam Engine
Vicar of Wakefield
Jesse’s Gleanings in Natural History
Life and Voyages of Columbus
Lander’s Expedition to the Niger
Adventures of British Seamen
Bathing and Personal Cleanliness
Book of Birds
Book of Fishes
Book of Shells
Health Made Easy
Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle
Charles Dickens was one of the most popular writers of the day and probably his books were also very popular with the library users on the Terror and Erebus. After the Franklin expedition failed to return from the maze of north, Dickens became obsessed with the various rescue missions sent after them and he co-wrote a play based on the disaster called The Frozen Deep. The first performances of the play were in his house, and he took the lead role of a missing explorer, which he apparently played with such passion that the audiences were often in tears.
Captain Francis Leopold McClintock journeyed to the Arctic in 1857 to discover the fate of Franklin. McClintock was successful in finding some remnants of the doomed voyage, including a small boat crudely fashioned into a sledge that Franklin’s men had been pushing over the ice toward Great Fish River. Inside the boat were two skeletons, silverware, some tea and chocolate, assorted clothing, five watches, and a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield.
26 the piazza di spagna, rome:
It is a long climb up the stairs of number twenty-six the Piazza di Spagna, to the two small rooms and the tiny terrace let to John Keats in the autumn of 1820.
This is the room where John Keats died. There is a narrow bed, the view out the window of the Spanish Steps. In the room there are white daisies embossed on the pale blue ceiling, a marble fireplace. When Keats was in this room there would have been the easel and brushes of his friend Joseph Severn, and perhaps, sometimes, vases bristling with flowers, the smell of coffee, the sounds of church bells from outside.
At the bottom of the Spanish Steps is a marble fountain in the shape of a sinking boat. The middle of the boat is underwater, the two broken ends sticking out from the pool almost at right angles so that it seems the boat has snapped amidships. As the day begins and the people of Rome start to move the city from slumber, it seems that the men and women climbing the long flight up from the fountain to the church at the top of the steps are ascending out of the wreckage, walking up from the water and the ruined boat, up toward salvation.
When Keats came to Rome in 1820 with Severn, he felt he was already dead. His great love, Fanny Brawne, had refused his offer of marriage, and he felt it would be too painful to continue contact with her while he lay dying, so he forbade her to write or visit him. Those final weeks in Rome were what he called his “posthumous life.” I have already died, he said, when he left England and the love of Fanny Brawne.
After Keats died, the rooms and furniture were scrubbed down to erase any lingering traces of the TB that had killed him. Now there’s his death mask by the bed, a lock of his wheaten hair under glass. There’s a page in his own hand, also under glass, and miraculous really in its intactness because Severn destroyed a lot of Keats’ poetry and letters by cutting individual lines out to send to the women who wrote begging for something in his handwriting.
From where Keats lay in his bed he would have looked out the window and seen nothing but sky. A small, square, blue box of sky. It might have changed very slowly, the sky, would have held light or leaked it. The wind might sometimes have rattled the window.
The Spanish Steps were constructed by Francesco de Sanctis in 1723–25. They were intended to broach the steep Pincian Hill and to connect the lower Piazza di Spagna with the upper Piazza Trinitá dei Monti. The staircase was designed on a theatrical scale, with a straight flight of steps flanked by a pair of convex staircases. The design includes broad landings and a series of curving flights of stairs. One can climb straight up via the central staircase, or proceed in a slow, winding promenade to the top, stopping along the way to lean over the balcony railing and gaze down at the fountain below. The staircase is believed to be based on the sweeping moves of a dance—the polonaise.
The Barcaccia fountain at the base of the Spanish Steps was designed by Bernini’s father. He designed this fountain as a sinking boat partly because the water pressure at the place where the fountain was to go was low, and partly because a boat had washed up here once when the Tiber River overflowed.
Keats could not bear to be read to while he was on his deathbed. He did not believe in the comfort of religion, nor did he believe in life after death. He did entertain, sometimes, the romantic fantasy that life was the dream and death would be the awakening from that dream.
In that room where there was no writing and no reading, Severn sketched the dying Keats, made some of the finest drawings of the poet when he was on his deathbed. Perhaps Severn sketching was a comforting presence to Keats. Art, although no longer of urgent relevance to his world, would have been his familiar.
John Keats knew that there is an undeniable lyric truth to life. This is to be found in nature, in gesture, in love. He knew this when he tried to match his line of poetry to the bend of the river grasses, or the song of the nightingale. The sailors on the Erebus and Terror were also men from the romantic age. Most of them were also in their twenties when they died. It does not seem wrong to think that perhaps they had romantic imaginations. They were closer in age and era to John Keats than to our time. Perhaps they weren’t the rugged adventurers they are often made out to be, but instead were sensitive, imaginative men who were journeying to a place that, until they actually got there, was largely fictive. What if our very idea of what a man is has changed so much between their time and ours as to be unrecognizable in ours?
The Spanish Steps are crowded this summer night with people moving up and down the staircase that is the dance. Below the human noises I can hear the shuffle of the fountain as the boat sinks and sinks, and the water empties from between its bones.
When John Keats lay dying in the small rooms at number twenty-six the Piazza di Spagna, his friend, Joseph Severn, afraid that he’d fall asleep one night and that Keats would wake to darkness and think that he had died, devised a system so that the poet would have continuous light. He fastened a piece of thread from the bottom of one candle to the wick of another, so that in its guttering state the dying flame would ignite the thread and travel up it to ignite the wick of the next candle. Any number of candles could be connected by this method.
It is said that John Keats awoke at the exact moment the flame was traveling up the thread from one candle to another, and that, in his excitement at witnessing this spectacle, he woke Severn up to tell him of the success of his invention.
We are all far from home. We are far from home, and what we hope for is that someone will fashion us a light, so that we too will not have to wake in darkness.