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

By Behrisch, Erika | Victorian Poetry, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

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


Behrisch, Erika, Victorian Poetry


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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.