"Far as the Eye Can Reach": Scientific Exploration and Explorers' Poetry in the Arctic, 1832-1852

Article excerpt

WHEN CAPTAIN JOHN ROSS BURIED A HANDWRITTEN POEM UNDER A CAIRN on Leopold Island in the winter of 1832, he was also suppressing an impulse common among nineteenth-century British Arctic explorers. (1) From 1818 to 1860, the British Admiralty sent numerous expeditions over land and sea to map the far north and discover a Northwest Passage. (2) Narratives of these expeditions were published to popular acclaim, and the science of Arctic exploration became a common topic for discussion in England, being "of a nature to excite public attention and to engage a large share of general conversation." (3) Arctic explorers themselves became national icons, and their scientific narratives reflected and celebrated the rationality, determination, and logic of the Victorian mind. (4) The dominance of scientific discourse in Arctic narrative, however, did not preclude the existence of other modes of expression on these expeditions. Poetry also flourished on Arctic expeditions, and the subject matter of these poems both comp lemented and contrasted with the foci of the official scientific narratives. (5) This paper argues that the detailed demands of scientific enquiry encouraged a poetic imagination and form of expression, but that poetic expression aboard these expeditions was also a form of discursive protest against the rigors of scientific discovery. While scientific discourse called for detailed descriptions of, and unquenchable curiosity for, exploring the surrounding world, it elided the individuality of the observer, as well as the emotion inherent in the experience of discovery, in favor of a series of "objective" observations. Though unsanctioned as an "official" language of Arctic exploration, poetry repositioned the observer in the center of experience, emphasizing the interaction between explorer and landscape and giving precedence to subjective perception.

A minor episode in George Lyon's 1825 narrative of his voyage to Repulse Bay (on the eastern shore of Hudson's Bay) exemplifies the tension between scientific and poetic language on Arctic expeditions. (6) While exploring a deserted Inuit village, Lyon and his men obey their scientific (ethnographic) curiosity and uncover the grave of an Inuit child. The men examine the contents of the grave, and Lyon records all faithfully in his journal. When the grave is fully exposed, however, a small bird's "neatly built nest [is] found placed on the neck of the child" (p. 68). Lyon succinctly describes the absent snow bunting, erstwhile owner of the nest, through an artistic comparison: he defines the bird as "the robin of these dreary wilds, [with] its lively chirp and fearless confidence," bringing English domestic nostalgia (the robin), the sublime (the dreary wilds), and concepts of heroism (fearless confidence) to bear in his brief statement (p. 69). However, though this statement implies a personal and poetic con nection with the bird, Lyon feels unauthorized to express it: "I could not on this occasion view its little nest, placed on the breast of infancy, without wishing that I possessed the power of poetically expressing the feelings it excited" (p. 69). The ambiguity in Lyon's use of the term "power" underlines the discursive difficulty of his position. In Lyon's succinct and subtle description of the nest and skeleton, it is clear that he does indeed possess the ability of poetic expression. However, as a scientific observer, he lacks the "power" to use it: Lyon is authorized to speak only scientifically of the discoveries and observations he makes, and his personal or poetic impressions have no purchase in his official Admiralty narrative.

Lyon's poetic self-restraint in 1825 had historical precedent; like other explorers before and after him, he followed the example set by his employers. The discursive boundaries on Arctic expeditions were established by Admiralty manuals on the subject, designed to aid explorers not only in their search for discoveries, but also in their narrative productions. …