Tracing One Discontinuous Line through the Poetry of the Northwest Passage
By I.S. MacLaren
In his essay "The Scotchman’s Return," Hugh MacLennan mentions the impression that comes over southern Canadians who venture north. Once they pass beyond the Canadian baseland, they quickly gain the impression that only God has been there before (7). He offers this observation as a contrast to the emptiness felt in the Highlands of Scotland, where "everyone who ever mattered is dead and gone." Nothing, he concludes, "was more in the life-style of the Highlander than Alexander Mackenzie’s feat in searching for the Northwest Passage in a canoe. After an achievement of incredible boldness and endurance, what, after all, did this Highlander find but nothing?" (7-8). If Canada has grown a great deal since (and because of) Mackenzie’s voyages two centuries ago, and if our attitude towards exploration and discovery is less likely than MacLennan’s to make an independent hero of Mackenzie ("Spanning"), it remains the case to a profound degree for most southern Canadians that the North evokes nothing of its own so much as silence and emptiness.1 Onto this emptiness and silence have been projected images and voices, first imperial, then national, then individual.
Unpopulated as it seems from a southern perspective, the North appears untapped, unexploited, unspent; thereby, it promises us and our children a strong future, albeit a less certain future than seemed the case in the 1950s, when "all we hear[d] about the Northland [was] the money it [was] going to make for industry" (MacLennan, "Searchers" 11), but strong nonetheless. In 1908, Justice Robert Stanley Weir projected an image of the hinterland North as overarching the baseland South in the second verse of his English and very loose translation of Judge Adolph-Basile Routhier’s national anthem. After the nation’s individual components—pines, maples, prairies, and rivers—comes "Thou True North, strong and free" (300), tying them together in virile virtue. The last line, an echo from Tennyson’s "To the Queen" (III 562), by repeating a line in the far better known first verse, might imply that the broad "dominion from sea to sea" (Psalm 72: KJV) is sanctified, justified, and amplified by the virtue, strength, and freedom of a North that endures right across the "broad domain."2
This notional North is stitched together by another thin line—the Northwest Passage. It serves synecdochally for the entire continental mainland and archipelago. Remote, serene, and inaccessible to most Canadians, it lies above us in latitude, in virtue, in fortitude. Most Canadians cannot imagine that Canada is less than one thousand kilometres shy of being square, or that Canadian territory extends to 83° N. latitude, another thirty-five degrees north from Edmonton (the same distance south from the forty-ninth parallel would take one past Guatemala and into Honduras or Nicaragua). However, we can try to grasp it by the one line across it that the history of white presence in the North gives us; as Stan Rogers’s famous chantey and near folk anthem puts it, the Northwest Passage appears to permit the tracing of "one warm line"—a human line, a white line—"through a land so wide and savage" (Songs 86).3
A portion of the passage lies above us wherever in the South we are (as a portion of the transcontinental railway runs through the baseland where most of us live); thus, the passage can collapse space by time into the history of exploration for a route to Cathay— a history that, beginning with westward expeditions like Martin Frobisher’s but also including eastern ones by Cook and Vancouver, traces a mythical identity of a northern nation. Such a history did not serve the same role for Europe’s theoretical cartographers who found North America an obstacle to the realization of their myth of concern, the Strait of Anian, but it is regularly re-enacted by southerners, who, incarnating their dreams ("‘if we can dream it ... we can do it’" [MacInnis 1]), and perhaps ours, make recreational forays by customized motor boat (Bockstoce) or catamaran (MacInnis) through a portion of the passage each summer until successive summers produce an entire voyage. The passage thus serves as a venue for the testing of individuals’ physical and spiritual mettle, which is also an incarnation of desire. No matter that the path is tortuous to sail—how could such a profound symbol prove to be, of all things, shallow? No matter that its exact route was disputed from the start and still has variants, that navigations of it by Canadian ships, the St Roch (1940-42, 1944) and the Labrador (1944), are known to fewer Canadians than are its sailings by a Norwegian ship, theGjøa (1903-06), and by an American supertanker, the Manhattan (1969), and icebreaker, Polar Sea (1986). The imaginative factor outweighs all these incidental facts, and so does another: the Northwest Passage is entirely a white construct. Whereas most explorers by land or canoe were led to their discoveries by natives, the passage was a European creation, as was its eventual navigation by Roald Amundsen (although he certainly relied on the Inuit of King William Island during his enforced stay in 1904 at Gjøa Haven). The point was to do it unaided; to rely on natives, as John Ross did in his remarkable expedition of survival in 1829-33, was somehow or other to cheat. Success on qualified terms was not worth the candle.
It might even be suggested that such an independence has its legacy in the passion among more than a few southern Canadians, including myself, for arctic canoe trips. Following in the wake of Eric Morse, and furnished with our nation’s institutional definitions of the North—government maps and aerial photos—and by reports from previous trips by other southerners, we voyage the North alone (chiefly only in summer) and thereby keep alive the idea that only God—or some secular version of Him—inhabits it. Long after the popularity of institutionalized worship has dwindled, this exercise continues to be regarded with a certain reverence, for it is seen as a personally strengthening experience. What MacLennan wrote three decades ago stands up well enough today: "all of us ... envy those who can have that supreme Canadian experience [of going north] when they are young" ("Searchers" 12).4
This preamble will have introduced some of the paradoxes that the North, and in particular the Northwest Passage, represents for southern Canadians. It is empty, desolate, and silent, yet lines have been drawn across it, lines full of promise—promise for spiritual rebirth, for technological innovation, for the realization of national, corporate, and personal desire; its illusiveness yielded a passage that is not much of a passage at all; there is an ocean, but it is frozen. It is the testing ground for and the graveyard of independence. Confronted by its vastness, the individual often responds personally. Similarly, paradox abounds in poetry about the North, which affords the tracing of only a discontinuous line.
Latitude 52° N., or a degree and one-half south of Edmonton, makes an odd place to begin tracing the poetry of the passage, but the environs of Charlton Island, James Bay, the most southerly extension of the Northwest Territories, was the setting for a prayer by its European explorer, Thomas James, in September 1631, a prayer for deliverance from the harrowing nightmare suffered by him and his crew of twenty-one. As the subtitle of Strange and Dangerovs Voyage (1633) states, James (c1593-c1635) had sailed from Bristol "in his intended Discouery of the Northwest Passage into the South Sea." (His voyage was the fourth to survive a winter in the North; it was preceded by those of Henry Hudson [1610-11], Thomas Button [1612-13], and Jens Munk [1619-20]; however, James was the first to publish an account of the experience.) Men with such a pursuit in mind generally found Hudson Bay a cruel joke, and it is no wonder that, having survived an unintentional wintering-over, James demonstrated to the merchants of London and Bristol that the Northwest Passage did not exist, "except possibly at such a high northern latitude that it would have no commercial value" (Kenyon, "Thomas" 328). His discovery thus brought to a halt the Elizabethan and Carolingian periods of arctic exploration, which began with Frobisher in 1756.
But the period did not close without James’s splendid book, full of fancy and imagination and a prose style the like of which the turgid John Franklin would have done well occasionally to emulate. Surely, one of the "philosophicall" "rarities obserued" and alluded to in the full title of Strange and Dangerovs Voyage, which were prompted by James’s excruciating encounters with cold and ice, arose from his contemplations of imminent death, and issued in the form of a verse-prayer.5 On 25 September 1631, James found himself "colder than euer I felt it in England in my life." Conditions five days later were no better:
now we were driuen amongst rocks, shoalds, ouer-falles, and breaches round about vs; that which way to turne, we knew not; but there ride amongst them, in extremitie of distresse. All these perils, made a most hideous and terrible noyse, in the night season: and I hope it will not be accounted ridiculous, if I relate with what meditations I was affected, now and then, amongst my ordinary prayers: which I here affoord the Reader, as I there conceiued them; in these few ragged and teared Rimes.
Faith in technology is implicitly dismissed in these lines by a survivor who has escaped with his life, acknowledged his folly, and, "[b]eing all here arriued [back in Bristol] ... went all to Church, and gaue God thankes for his preseruation of vs amidst so many dangers" (110), thereby affording a precedent for the Ancient Mariner. Jonathan Keates aptly suggests that "Emily Eden’s memorable encapsulation of India as `a dreadfully moralizing place’ might apply with equal justice to the Arctic" (4), but surely because of the presence of the other extreme: an apparent lack of human presence rather than seething humanity. The North as a testing ground—an extreme, stern, and remote one—provides an early and enduring topos. The North offers a locale out of this world where virtue too pure to be assailed can reside but also, somehow, where Satan is unopposed; there, one is closer to God (including farther up on a Mercator projection of the world) but also surrounded by death, as James was by his fallen crew members. It is "dreadfully moralizing," perhaps even for Inuit, whose traditional belief systems are characterized by nothing so much as taboos and superstitions, all of them tied to the land and the water. Through that land and water there lies no escape, only a rite of passage.
It is well known that James was a prayerful man. He began even his will in prayer (qtd. in Christy I: cciv). That James would meditate, pray, and write devotional lines is consistent not only with his character but also with the Carolingian understanding that discoveries involve God’s grace. To rest one’s faith only on technology (a meridian compass [ll. 14-16], in this case) is foolishness. The conceit works especially well because James acknowledges that his "thought to shun a thousand dangers, by / The blind direction" (ll. 17-18) of the compass has only confounded him in his search for a passage—"the tyde / of Satans malice" (ll. 24-5) has the better of him. Those aboard who had not perished considered themselves the unfortunate souls, damned to endure hell in life. A moralizing experience, indeed. An Ultima Thule in Christian, not Virgilian, terms.
James had set sail from Bristol on 3 May 1631. On 2 September, he reached and named Cape Henrietta Maria after his queen; this point distinguishes Hudson and James bays on the west coast. On 29 October, having named Charlton Island for his king, James might well have seemed driven to madness: "he adopted the extraordinary expedient of sinking" (Christy I: clxiii) his seventy-ton ship, the Henrietta Maria, in order to prevent its being crushed by waves and ice during the winter. Somehow he and many of his crew survived; successful in refloating his vessel, he departed Charlton Island on 2 July, and regained Bristol on 22 October 1632. His was a near miss, one that, given Luke Foxe’s relatively straightforward voyage into Hudson Bay in the same year, seems attributable to his poor skills as a navigator. Apart from the sinking of his ship, the voyage offers nothing to compare with the extraordinary narrative of it, which appeared within five months of James’s return and at the behest of Charles I (Christy I: clxxvi). It is a singular work of literature in the vein of adventure; that Coleridge and Milton would have thought well of it cannot be surprising. But the faith in God that characterizes the poem is not the only message it relates about the passage. Another is what the poem contradicts: an obvious and intense interest in the rapidly developing technologies of navigation and in the measurement of space. As singular as the narrative’s conclusion with the explorers going to church is its inclusion of appendixes of "The Names of the seuerall Instruments, I prouided and bought for this Voyage" ([121-22]), and of a description of James’s method of using them ([123-26]). In typical Renaissance fashion, there abide side by side belief in God’s ultimate role in one’s life and death, and fascination with developing means by which to measure life empirically.7 These are not congruities but complementarities. Life and death are similar complementarities in the poem, just as the meditation to his soul marks James’s self-discovery in the midst of his narrative of discovery. It is a fine meditation of its kind; indeed, the Romantic poet Robert Southey wrote that "[t]he circumstances under which [James’s two poems] were written would alone render them curious, even to those persons who cannot pardon the mannerism of that age. But it is hoped there are many readers who are capable of understanding the strain of fine and manly feeling which is breathed in them" (II: 118-19).
In the book’s second poem, an elegy, James salutes those of his crew who perished before the expedition left Charlton Island in the summer of 1632, and "vow[s] to dye, / A Foster-father to [their] memory" (89). "Their liues they spent, to the last drop of blood, / Seeking Gods glory, and their Countries good" (88), writes their captain in a couplet that would not be out of place in a national anthem:
And as a valiant Souldier rather dyes,
Southey considered this "[t]he ... far finer poem" (II: 120), and Ivor James, who regarded The Strange and Dangerovs Voyage as "one of the most remarkable productions in the English language" (76) as well as the source for Coleridge’s "Ancient Mariner," thought this portion of it contained "one of the best of the conceits which distinguished the poetic literature of the early seventeenth century" (79). James seems almost a poet exploring rather than an explorer writing; indeed, his navigational skills have been denounced while his account of hair’s-breadth escapes from certain destruction have been celebrated. As famous a mark as his erecting of a cross on which to leave his letter, the poem sees how the graves erect a "famous marke" of discovery, not of failure. Moreover, James speaks of returning safely from the Northwest Passage; if his failure to discover a passage at lower latitudes convinced the Bristol merchants not to persevere in their search, his book does not leave the impression that one does not exist. In the meantime, his dead crew members have escaped the "dung-hill." Their bravery, having conquered fear, has attained for them an honour beyond the honour of living; they have achieved immortality. In a way that accords with the remoteness and extremity of the North, they have succeeded in the apparent impossibility of outliving life. This startling eulogy leaves the strong impression that one can glimpse beyond life itself "in this Solitary place, where none / Will euer come to breathe a sigh or grone" (89). Thus do the emptiness and silence of the North sequester the best of life. Perhaps exaggerated, James’s response nevertheless counters the alternative, of which, as commander of the expedition, he would have been only too well aware: two decades earlier Henry Hudson’s crew had mutinied. The memory of Hudson, his son, and six of his crew being set adrift to die without ceremony or burial would have been a strong one among James and his men, as would the consequent image of the North as an eternal purgatory. Paying the dead due respect, and paying it in front of his remaining crew (88), was surely a prudent as well as a poetic act. The return of Hudson’s mutinous survivors represented the only mark achieved by his ship, the Discovery (Kenyon, ed. 9); James’s deceased would be the "famous marke" of his voyage’s "Discovery."
From James’s search for a passage in 1631-32 to one undertaken in 1819-20 by the British Navy after the defeat of Napoleon runs a discontinuous line in the annals of exploration for the Northwest Passage. Expeditions continued and narratives were written during the eighteenth century but poetry written in the intervening two hundred years is difficult to find. Of literary note is Jonathan Swift’s apparent and satiric use in Gulliver’s Travels of James Knight’s tragic voyage (see Geiger and Beattie 79). But it would be a mistake to leap from James to the poets of twentieth-century Canada. Comparatively little attention of any sort has focused on expeditions of arctic exploration that met with success. The first voyage into Lancaster Sound, commanded by William Edward Parry in 1819-20, produced what turned out to be the greatest success of any nineteenth-century expedition in terms of a nautical assault on the Northwest Passage, for Parry’s ships, HMS Hecla and Griper, by reaching 110° W. longitude, sailed farther west than any subsequent ships before Amundsen. The voyage is notable as well for its shipboard newspaper, The New Georgia Gazette or Winter Chronicle, the twenty-one weekly numbers of which contain many poems (MacLaren, "Poetry"); the contents of the newspaper generally mark an exception to Al Purdy’s view that the North "was ... untouched except for the mundane prose of explorers and scientists" (Reaching 190) of the sort that he deplores in his review of Franklin’s prose ("Rock Gothic" 93). Especially for a poet, apparently, the idea of explorer-poets seems as foreign as the idea of astronaut-poets. But, notwithstanding Mordecai Richler’s ribald representation of Parry’s officers (50), southern Canadians find less interest in successful expeditions than in "dead sailors" (Purdy, North of Summer [NS] 20).
In this particular voyage under Parry’s command, the imperial dimension stands out, for no contact with native people occurred once the discovery of Lancaster Sound had been made (his next voyage, to Igloolik, would provide extended periods of contact with Inuit). The sailors were on their own, constructing a passage and living out a dream. As Edward Struzik (87-9) has noted, Parry’s success, achieved without adapting many standard naval practices to northern conditions, made imminent the disaster a quarter-century later of Franklin’s ships, whose officers, trained in the Parry School, sought a passage with no aid and few concessions to the high latitudes.8 One poem among many written during the winter of 1819-20, when the ships were moored at Winter Harbour, Melville Island, catches that dream literally in mid-passage, as the officers and crew, having endured three months of darkness, now awaited the summer thaw of ice to continue progress westward to Bering Strait. In the newspaper’s last number, after saluting the officers for their good will in taking on male and female roles in plays produced for the Theatre Royal, Cyrus Wakeham, clerk aboard the Griper, continues his "Farewell Address, spoken at the close of the Theatre Royal, New Georgia, March 16th 1820" by initiating an epic simile that compares the besieged and desperately outnumbered soldier to the icebound mariner. As the hero of the battlefield at last "bursts indignant on the embattled foe," Wakeham and his fellows "[h]ear in the blast that sweeps the frozen Sea / The friendly sound that soon shall set us free" (Sabine 132; MacLaren, "Poetry" 57) to get on with sailing the passage to their and their nation’s greater glory. First Providence and then national pride are regarded as the sources of further westward progress. As to the first, clear allusions are made to one of the Collects of Thanksgiving from the "Forms of Prayer to be used as Sea," in the Book of Common Prayer of the national church (MacLaren, "Poetry" 59). Then the patriotic theme receives a loud and long fanfare as the poem and the newspaper come to an end. Concluding with an allusion to Cato, by their renowned countryman Joseph Addison, a play that also found favour with the British garrison in Quebec in the early nineteenth century (Lacelle 49), serves as a climax to this encomium, one aimed to buck up the men’s spirits by having them imagine themselves continuing a long line of British heroism. The Northwest Passage thereby furnishes the setting, the "path" (l. 74), by which to pursue and obtain "Glory," and an "Honor" to be conferred upon their return to the imperial centre and "native soil" (l. 72).
Parry’s had been one prong of a two-pronged assault on the passage in 1819. The other was the Arctic Land Expedition, under the command of John Franklin. Also known as the first Franklin expedition, it began in September 1819 from York Factory, Hudson Bay. Franklin, John Richardson, and midshipmen Robert Hood and George Back followed fur trade canoe routes to Great Slave Lake, and then headed north up the Yellowknife River and down the Coppermine River to the ocean at Coronation Gulf. In the summer of 1821, and before the expedition’s tragic attempt to return to its previous winter’s camp by walking across the tundra in an early winter, it covered the northern continental coastline east from the mouth of the Coppermine to Kent Peninsula.
Rashly, the expedition coasted eastward during July and August 1821 in two birch-bark canoes, ten men to a canoe. Courting disaster, the canoes nevertheless charted an extensive stretch of coastline, which, had it not descended into the depths of Bathurst Inlet before resuming an eastward trending, would have taken the explorers as far east as the longitudes of Hudson Bay (Boothia Peninsula having yet to be discovered). In his poem, entitled "Recollections" (Back 318-22), Back assigns four (7-10) of his fifteen cross-rhymed quatrain stanzas to the ocean-going portion of the expedition. In these, he conveys a very different view of the Arctic than do the poems written by his colleagues during the winter of 1819-20. True, the note to stanza seven shares with poems of the New Georgia Gazette an "unspeakable and boundless joy" at the sailors’ arrival, after many months, at their "Native element - old Oceans surge" (320), but, thereafter, rashness (in contrast to the optimism of the shipboard officers up on the islands) dominates Back’s presentation of exploration in the high North. However, Back has the option, which he seizes, of ascribing fear to the Canadiens who paddled him. Explaining that they had never before seen the ocean, he has them look on the situation with an understandable terror—a terror to which, as an experienced seaman even in ice-laden waters, he himself does not bow. Still, bravery seems only rashness in light of all the facts, which the note to stanza eight delineates: "The Sea was covered with Ice—and we had but 10 days of very bad provision to take us to Churchill—these circumstances and the weakness of the Canoes to withstand the dangers they must inevitably undergo—as well as the natural gloominess of the spot all tended to extinguish the only remaining spark of emulation which had till this moment existed in the minds of the Men" (320). The officers are not exempt from any of these circumstances, and none of the circumstances is exaggerated or misrepresented; thus, the idea of exploration for the passage, as it seldom does elsewhere and perhaps only because it can plead for poetic licence as its excuse, makes plain that trespassing over the line between courage and rashness is a part of exploration at its worst.
Still, this rashness, which issued in the crossing of a deep bay, also yielded a memorable metaphor—"Raising their foamy heads —high curling waves / Break furiously against our weak Canoes / Then opening deep—present wide yawning graves / At once to terminate—our unhappy woes"—and a memorable simile in Back’s prose note to this stanza: "We were crossing a Bay which was 21 Miles broad—and when about one third of the distance were overtaken by a squall that soon became a Gale—the Sea was heavy and the sides of our Canoes had for some time past been secured by lashings—to prevent them from falling flat like a sheet of Paper." At last, they gained the opposite shore, "though not untill we had witnessed an awful Scene which was that of my Canoe’s "broaching to"—at which time we were in immediate danger of perishing" (321). Back seems almost giddy in his rehearsal of a near-death experience. Nevertheless, one must allow for the strong possibility that he used the poem both to direct at Franklin an implicit castigation of his exceptionable command and to escape behind poetic licence from the charge of insubordination. The simile of a bark canoe "falling flat like a sheet of paper" wonderfully images the danger of the men’s predicament in attempting to cross a stretch of gelid ocean as wide as the English Channel. Nor is the foreshadowing, furnished adventitiously by subsequent history, lost on present-day readers: that the troughs between waves "present wide yawning graves" anticipates to a degree Back could never guess the fate of the Erebus and Terror (at least in one version of events; see Woodman 217-20, 248-50), and of Franklin’s own burial at sea in particular. Moreover, the image contests ironically with one deployed by Wakeham farther north seventeenth months earlier: "for Providential Mercies open wide / And shew that favouring Heaven has been our guide" (ll. 45-6).
The poem’s tenth stanza seems to all but undercut the heroism that Back aims to realize: "Unfortunately there—no sustenance is found / To crown our prospects and our future fame" (321) rather baldly sets out Back’s own desire. In the post-Napoleonic British Navy of half-pay disappointments and inaction, his ambition for an opportunity to distinguish himself virtually washes over his effort to dramatize this catastrophe in the making. Back never published his poem, and it was likely better for his career that he did not. Still, his urges anticipate in an interesting way those of modern-day travellers (MacInnis; Moss) to distinguish themselves by catamaran or vigorous exertion.
The naval documents found in the cairns on King William Island constitute the entire official account of the Franklin expedition of 1845; they are the "only two written records of the expedition’s fate that have ever been found" (Holland 251). Two other passages may be added to the total if regarded as found poetry. At Beechey Island are to be found the headboards marking the graves of the three sailors, John Torrington (d. 1 Jan. 1846), John Hartnell (d. 4 Jan. 1846), and William Braine (d. 3 Apr. 1846) (see Beattie and Geiger).9 While the headboard of the first grave bears the inscription, "Sacred to the memory of," the others each bear an epitaph. Into the headboard of John Hartnell’s is chiselled the text of Haggai 1:7: "Thus saith the Lord of hosts; Consider your ways" (KJV); the headboard of Braine’s bears a portion of the text of Joshua 24:15: "choose you this day whom ye will serve" (KJV). Any modern effort to come to terms with the explorers’ motives, including how they would have understood death, must understand how centrally God figured in their lives. Dead sailors they are, but Hartnell and Braine might well have been surprised to find that history has seized on their deaths almost to the exclusion of all else about them. The great test awaiting these men was not likely the extreme conditions that their Maker had created in the high North, but their Maker Himself. Both biblical passages, elevated to verse in this commemorative occasion, speak eloquently and sternly of the upcoming test. These are reminiscent of some of the meditations on mortality written by Wakeham aboard the Hecla and Griper a quarter-century earlier. One may trace these found poems in a line back to Edward Parry’s own poem of consolation, "Reflections occasioned by seeing the Sun set for a period of three months, November 1819." Although the end of the poem conventionally struggles toward hope in "th’immortal part of man," intermediate verses steer one’s attention toward mutability:
In yon departing Orb methinks I see
The natural conditions conspire against the English-speaking Christian, for whom the homonyms of Sun and Son are crucial. The disappearance for ninety days of the natural expression of spiritual certainty cannot help but suggest the onset of what, more than two centuries earlier, James had called "the tyde / Of Satans malice." The biblical adjurations of the grave markers, both in the imperative ("consider," "choose") and both directly focused on their readers, one spoken by a prophet and the other by a people’s leader, leave no question of the value of this life in contrast to the next. This is the occasion not for elegy but for exhortation, both then and now: even more than the poems of Parry’s voyage, these found poems of the Northwest Passage are situated on the passage for all to choose to see and consider.
Margaret Atwood ("Concerning") took as the title for one of her Clarendon lectures on Canadian literature a line from "Lord Franklin," an anonymous traditional song dating from the search for the voyagers aboard HMS Erebus and Terror. That song, it needs to be pointed out, if regarded in its totality, is not just the ballad that Atwood calls it (21) but also a dream vision:
It was homeward bound one night on the deep
Awaking from the dream, the sailor mourns the loss. To see the voyagers alive again, he would give the entire reward which was offered by the British government for either the rescue or the discovery of the fate of Franklin. This reward was claimed by Dr John Rae, and was awarded to him grudgingly (because he had had the temerity to report the Inuit observation of signs of cannibalism by the voyagers). The simple pairs of rhyming couplets in each quatrain link the searching sailor with those who have disappeared. Waking ("And now" ) from the dream and feeling the burden that the memory of it imposes effectively convey the startling sadness with which the tragedy was greeted in Britain. Moreover, by ending with the sailor unrelieved of the burden, the song extends the mourning that Britain felt for more than a decade, as it waited for news to refute what imaginations feared: either that the passage had swallowed the men utterly, leaving no trace, or, at the very least, that the men had not received Christian burials.
Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins’s play, The Frozen Deep, played first at Tavistock on 6 January 1857 (Brannan 6), then several other times that month. Performed before Queen Victoria on 4 July, at public venues in London in the summer, and in Manchester later in the year, it created a sensation during tension-filled years in England. Rae had alarmed the populace in October 1854 with his report (Rae) of cannibalism; once the Crimean War concluded, attention refocused on the answer to the question: how did the expedition disappear? On 2 July 1857, Francis Leopold McClintock left on the voyage that, on 21 September 1859, would bring news back to England of discoveries of the cairns on King William Island. Even before he left, and in the first year of his absence, The Frozen Deep buoyed British spirits by means of sentimentalism. The play offers melodramatically romantic, at times nearly antic, portraits of the gallant officers and crew, and the adventure is domesticated by the presence of their Penelopean sweethearts who first await their return beside "an English hearth and Devon’s waving trees," but who eventually go to meet them at, of all locations, a "Cavern on the Coast of Newfoundland" (Brannan 145). The whole is driven inexorably by an imperial point of view. The chief tropes are the first act’s setting, "in the pretty drawing-room of a country house, having one of those sweet picturesque views so thoroughly English, with a village church and spire in the distance," and the second act’s shift to "a hut in the Arctic regions, all bare, dreary, and grim. ... In this scene of desolation there is one warm, vivid colour, speaking of home and hope. It is the British ensign" (qtd. in Brannan 75-6). Lest the fiction be detached from the public’s concern about its lost voyagers, Dickens’s prologue makes the connection explicit10:
One savage footprint on the lonely shore,
Dickens’s first use of a protagonist, Richard Wardour, to represent how one can be driven by extremes to the "last resource," resolves the tension at play’s end by "affirm[ing] the faith in the power of the British hero to endure" (Brannan 86), but does not shy away from presenting the trials faced in extreme conditions, including, as the possible allusion of "savage footprint" to Robinson Crusoe suggests, those known from earlier literary landscapes. These trials elicit a "disordered state of strong passions which have temporarily overpowered or `frozen’ the noble sentiments" (Brannan 87). Nevertheless, nobility wins out after a severe testing in the realms of stern morality, and the hero dies triumphant, his honour intact. Thus does he, in a way analogous to the aims of Parry’s shipboard newspaper and theatre, make "a garden of the desert wide." However, the English audiences of 1857 were quick to accept art that was directly related to their near hysteria over the fate of Franklin. Perhaps a more balanced indication of the play’s artistic merit is the fact that when it was presented again nine years later it was jeered off the stage.
To move to a consideration of Al Purdy’s two poems about the Northwest Passage is to trace but a dotted line across more than one hundred years. Following this route, which leaves God behind and considers the men on their own, brings one into contact with a few of Earle Birney’s poems, in particular two from his volume The Strait of Anian (SA) (1948)—"Atlantic Door" (1946; SA 3) and "Pacific Door" (1947; SA 37)—and another, "Captain Cook" (1961, 1962), all of which made revised appearances in Selected Poems (SP 4, 96, 142) in 1966, a year before Purdy’s arctic poems appeared. Birney’s pair of poems, which share several lines, stand at the thresholds of the passage. "Atlantic Door" evokes "the simple unhuman truth of this ocean" (1947; SA 3), which later regresses to the conventional "simple unhuman truth of this emptiness" (SP 96); "Pacific Door" (1947) contained the latter from its inception. Of course, different explorers are listed in the two poems, but, from the start, both end by dwelling "down deep below" on the "bleak and forever capacious tombs of the sea." Neither poem extends far past the doorway, but "Pacific Door" rehearses a "problem" that the desire of Wakeham’s poem (apparently and regrettably unknown to Birney) phrases as an opportunity for fame:
the problem that is ours and yours,
In the North, every man is an island entire of itself. The chimera of the strait, its folkloric creation, and sustained cartographical theorization lend themselves to Birney’s portrayal of it as a problem and as a symbol of absence; thereby, the North implicitly frustrates the attainment of human desire; the door opens only out, on to "unhuman truth of this emptiness," or down, into the "forever capacious tombs of the sea."
Captain Cook did open several Pacific doors but not the Arctic one. He named Asia’s eastern and North America’s western extremities, and continued in 1778 as far as Icy Cape, where he met the polar ice pack on 17 August. Only then would he turn back, but he would not give up the possibility of there being a Strait of Anian (it remained for Vancouver, his junior officer on the third voyage, to disprove its existence fifteen years after Cook’s death). With help from Swift, Birney casts a weird spell on Cook’s refusal to give up the dream. He shows him sailing north "to where nothing was certain on the maps / except that pike-straight giants’ channel / cleaving the continent / from Brobdingnag to Hudson’s Bay and home" (1961). Only desire has made that channel a certainty; Birney’s Cook encounters "a coast coldly smouldering" and "drowned peaks"; the land is a "meaningless tramping of trees," and, "[w]hen it halted, the glaciers took over." Then, "[o]n the northernest rock / by the keening gulls and the furious emptiness," Birney’s Cook plays his imperial role in a way that renders human effort in the North pathetic: "he left a bottle / with six silver tuppennies George III 1772." Paradoxes abound beyond the door: Swift’s fiction is certain ("cleaving") but maps are not; icebergs look like drowned peaks while land renders itself meaningless; the coast smoulders, but coldly; the emptiness is furious. All the activity—cleaving, writhing, smouldering, heaving, tramping, pacing ... halting—is deafening in the emptiness. The bottle and coins and king mean as much as the keening of mere gulls. But the enticement of the invitation beyond the doorway is palpable; the chance to write desire onto emptiness irresistible.11
Purdy dedicated North of Summer to Frank Scott. Unless he had access to unpublished material, he would have known only two of Scott’s ten "Letters from the Mackenzie River," which appeared together only in 1973 (The Dance 55-69). Not only did "Flying to Fort Smith" and "Mackenzie River" appear in 1964 (Signature 26, 27-8), a year before Purdy’s trip north, but both were also published again a year after Purdy’s trip but prior to his own book’s publication, in Scott’s Selected Poems (31; 32-3). As well, "Flying to Fort Smith" had appeared in a different form in 1958 ("Flying"), two years after Scott made his trip north. The principal difference between this earlier version of "Flying" and the subsequent ones is the use of the past tense, which Scott did well to change, for the present is more evocative. However, both versions published prior to 1965, the year of Purdy’s six-week summer tour of Baffin Island, contain the stereotype of the North: "Everywhere / A huge nowhere / ... An arena / Large as Europe / Silent / Waiting the contest." The virginal North, uniform, about to be exploited in ways that Scott, in "Laurentian Shield" especially, regards positively, is a southerner’s view. The emptiness pertains as well to the population. In a sense, like the Modernism of the Group of Seven, Scott’s Modernism works most effectively when the canvas is unpopulated. The empty North affords an unrestrained opportunity for abstraction. Moreover, even when that emptiness bears signs of an implicit human presence, it only serves to emphasize how little there is: "In land so bleak and bare / a single plume of smoke / is a scroll of history" ("Mackenzie River," Signature 37).
Purdy, however, may be reacting against that stereotype. John Moss states that "Purdy said: I needed something to write about so I went north—the Arctic, semiotic; the Arctic as context" (138), but Purdy’s most recently published correspondence qualifies that, presumably public, statement. In a letter of 22 August 1967 to Margaret Laurence, in reply to her positive response to his arctic volume, he provides a much more specific explanation than Moss heard: "I had the idea when I went north, that no book I’d read had given me the feeling of what it was like to be there, the colour, smells etc., just the reality. ... I like indulgently to think that I did something re. the north that hadn’t been done (other than by Robert Service who is so different from me), treat the north as a real place with real, tho different people. This is pretty egotistic on my part, but what the hell" (Lennox 43-4). Yet another piece of evidence gives one pause about accepting this claim and dismissing the remark quoted by Moss. On 19 August 1965, two years before writing to Laurence, while still in the North, and perhaps before his travels had constellated into the vision of a book of poems, Purdy wrote to Charles Bukowski:
Ya, 6 weeks in the Arctic. 24 poems, about 10,000
words of prose I hope to work into an article for coin of the realm ...
Right now I’m sick to death of the Arctic, but can’t get out. ...
It is not uncommon to register different views of the same material to different correspondents, and it is important in this case to note that Purdy wrote to Bukowski during his trip—indeed, near the end of it, perhaps while still suffering from a "fever" sufficiently severe to require quinine (Reaching 195)—while he wrote to Laurence only after the book had appeared and he had received an apparently positive response to it from her. His claim to Laurence is a stronger version of a similar statement in the Postscript to his poem (NS 81), whereas the frankness expressed to Bukowski is a directly contradictory one: "I enjoyed myself tremendously" (NS 81); "sick to death of the Arctic." What is instructive for the purposes of reading his two poems about the Northwest Passage in the context of North of Summer is that Purdy arrived in the North well read in the history of arctic exploration;12 however, neither that reading nor his own experience quite prepared him. In his customary manner, he looks at what he sees, then writes poems, a poem every day. Inclined to proceed to another poem rather than work repeatedly at the same one, Purdy can be, at his worst, a notional poet. When he is, and when he does not connect with what he sees, the voice of the "phony reporter" must haunt him. That is a risk that this poet runs and usually avoids. But the North made him feel the disjunction between himself and the objects of his study. Six weeks in and around the same settlements, six weeks with no beer, must have driven him to distraction (local dogs come to figure almost as prominently in North of Summer as they do in Under the Volcano).
W.J. Keith writes of the presence in many of Purdy’s poems of two voices, "joshing Al" and "learned Alfred" (97). In "The North West Passage" of North of Summer, however, the learned Alfred, whose extensive reading about Elizabethan, Georgian, and Victorian explorers yields a trail of allusions that mix with Greek mythology and astronomy, does not complement the laconic and colloquial Al who muses over a map spread out on his bed, as, with more boredom than hunger, he awaits dinner. History is neither ennobled nor animated by the mock-epic list of allusions; the contemporary references to jet travel and intercontinental ballistic missiles do not succeed in ironically juxtaposing or complementing the past with the present; and the incapacity of Lady Franklin to answer the telephone offers a lame, ineffective anachronism. He collapses the space of the passage in jet time. Although the Ubi Sunt? theme so common in his poems, as Peter Stevens (23) and, more recently, D.G. Jones (37) have noted, is present still, the linearity and extent of the passage are obliterated by a technology that can’t excite the modern man even while he commandeers it and remains ambivalent about doing so. Unlike "Trees at the Arctic Circle" or "The Cariboo Horses," poems that Keith (and most readers of Purdy) considers effective examples of "unexpected juxtaposition" leading to "some of Purdy’s best effects" (97), this version of "The North West Passage" instances "awkwardness." Other poems capture far better the sights and smells of the present-day Arctic—the unique achievement which he claims for the volume in his letter to Laurence—but this one remains merely studied. In an attempt to make "The North West Passage" cohere, and to make it coherent with the others in the volume, he fastens on individuals—Frobisher running down the beach, James leaving his letter on Charlton Island, and so forth— but he seems uncertain about what to do with them. Like many southern Canadians who nevertheless are not reticent about speaking on the North, he may simply not know passage history in sufficient detail to make living people out of historical figures and place them beside his portraits of the Inuit of Pangnirtung, the Kikastan Islands, and Iqaluit in the other poems.
If Purdy’s "special sense of history and place" has deserted him, it may be that he did not see the passage and so is still trying in the poem to get at it merely from the government map. Purdy has been called a journalist more than once (see Gervais in Purdy, Bursting into Song ), and volunteered a description of the poetic process, both to Bukowski and to Laurence, by referring first to seeing and then to writing what he sees. In this case, being far from it physically and having only Frobisher nearby historically, he has to imagine the passage. Without the journalist’s essential on-the-spot experience, which is what informs almost every other poem in North of Summer, Purdy loses the source of his insight and power. Thus, in "The North West Passage," the recitation of history does not liberate the past and the jet trip and missiles of the mid-1960s remain far overhead, failing effectively to penetrate the plane of history. The poem begins summarily: "The North West Passage / is found" (NS 20). The fact is so bald that the poem’s title might as well double as part of the statement; let’s get it over with, the tone of ennui seems to be saying. Then the poem can explore, search for a third dimension in the map spread out across the bed of his cabin. He himself is a latecomer, an after-the-fact explorer, but he cannot find a breakthrough to that dimension. Perhaps it is not surprising that the poem did not reappear in any of Purdy’s selections, Selected Poems (1972), The Poems of Al Purdy (1976), Being Alive (1978), or Bursting into Song (1982). Only with The Collected Poems (1986) did it come back into print (79-80).
Purdy should perhaps be saluted simply for the effort, however flawed its poetic result, of going north and trying to articulate space, history, and people "in the idiom of a later twentieth-century human being who grew up in Canada" (Dennis Lee, in Winkler). Cultural memory is a goal of this poem, and the failure to quicken it does not offer grounds for dismissing the attempt. Purdy had hit his stride in 1965 when The Cariboo Horses won the Governor General’s Literary Award. "The Country North of Belleville," one of the poems in that volume, supremely captures history, makes it live amidst, speak to, and prompt the concerns of the contemporary Canadian. Simultaneously and with aching poignancy, the disintegration of history is brought to the reader’s awareness. At its most forceful that theme renders Purdy’s poetry elegiac, as Jones (41) and Atwood (Winkler) have noted. In this particular case, however, the history of the Northwest Passage is Purdy’s history only by virtue of that tenuous link of nationhood. Acquired by Canada over an eleven-year period, 1870 to 1880, the North was not Canada’s during much of the period in which the exploration for a passage and the search for Franklin’s voyage of 1845 occurred. Purdy has less a soul’s than a citizen’s interest invested in that history. Unless he is posturing disingenuously in his letter to Bukowski, his complaint to the American that the material has not come to him naturally calls attention to an inability to find a connection as immediate as he could find in "The Cariboo Horses," "The Country North of Belleville," "Roblin’s Mills," and other poems from The Cariboo Horses. For a poet for whom, as Russell Brown has put it, "time is a continuum that permits a commerce of dead with living, of living with dead" (Collected Poems 376), and whose poems, in John Lye’s view, not only "continually implicate, appeal to, draw in the past, but [also] pose a theory of the continuum of history and a metaphysic of the continued existence of individuals" (247), the collapsing of the vastness of arctic space into time by means of history has not yielded a commerce /continuum with the past this time. It is as if Purdy made only an indifferent effort to establish the line of communication; he telephoned, but "poor old Lady Franklin well / she doesn’t answer the phone" (NS 21).
Purdy’s best poems were written, even if their subject matter lies elsewhere, out of what George Woodcock called the "omphalos" (311), and what D.M.R. Bentley would likely call Purdy’s baseland, of Ameliasburg. Woodcock identifies a "double role" in the poems, that of the lyrical poet in Ameliasburgh, and that of the traveller bringing a strong human focus to bear on all parts of the country and various places in the world. For his part, Purdy agreed that his poetry, at least that portion of it written by 1969, "is strongest when it is attached to images from [his] own landscape" (Geddes 67). Certainly, under the traveller’s pen, the North has now been treated as a "real place" (Lennox 44) and not the "nowhere" that it was for Frank Scott in the 1950s. But, among the poems of North of Summer, "Trees at the Arctic Circle" and "Arctic Rhododendrons"13 get Purdy on the ground, immersed, and focused in a way that musing over the map in "The North West Passage" does not. He cannot find the guide to the map so the map forms a textual obstacle to his understanding. That state of paralysis might just adumbrate the ultimate incapacity in the white man’s view of the North; the text is unavailing, and no one is forthcoming to guide him as did Jonahsie, the Inuk who saved Purdy from himself in 1965, who guided him through his own northwest passage. Purdy’s geographical destination was the Kikastan Islands, but getting there involved passage through the moment of panic that any northern traveller feels en route to essential arctic truths and truths about oneself. For a poet, that panic may take the form of fear that he makes no sense. Like the Ancient Mariner, Purdy has told his story many times of that passage through panic. One rendition includes the following: "It made me a little nervous: was I being kidnapped and forced to read William Blake to a northern audience, the way Evelyn Waugh’s hero read Dickens inA Handful of Dust?" (Collected Poems xv).14
A keen understanding of the human cost of exploration is missing because Purdy fails to characterize the explorers to any degree. Unlike the attention accorded the dwarf willows, the Dorset, or the settlers of the country north of Belleville, the list of names in his "North West Passage" does not take life. It may be, as John van Rhys has argued, that "Purdy repeatedly models his own journey on the centuries long search for the Northwest Passage" (4), but, by poem’s end, the "break-thru" (NS 21) remains only a possibility, a lame one in the view of Lorraine York (48); like Frank Scott’s aerial perspective (see Bentley 215), that of the poet musing over the map while awaiting his plane effects only a general survey of the individuals and their ships, without touching down. The "meter" does not register "‘alive’ / when a living man remembers them" (NS 20). It leaves Purdy, as other poems in the volume surely do not, fearing the phoneyness to which he refers in his letter to Bukowski, and to which he refers in a subsequent statement of his life-long poetic effort: "How do I want to be remembered? I think that I would like to be thought of as, shall we say, a good writer, not a phoney, a writer who used everything he had, all equipment, whatever it may be; who didn’t back away from too many things" ("Al Purdy"). Because he backs away into the certainties of names on maps and in books, this first passage poem offers no marked improvement on what he had already read, which, he "began to realize ... amounted to a mere collection of statistics. Like staying in a small room, reading newspapers and encyclopedias to discover the nature of the world outside" ("North of Summer" 26).15
The second poem bearing the title "The North West Passage" was published twice in 1968, first in a periodical (North), then in Wild Grape Wine (56-60), which was dedicated to Birney. Purdy had written a thousand poems by 1986 and had seven hundred of them published (Collected Poems 396) because, as has been noted, rather than labouring over a poem, when he feels he has caught his idea, he moves on to another one. In the case of "The North West Passage," he moved to another poem to try the subject one more time. Some of its lines, the ones quoted by Margaret Atwood in Survival (109), yield a memorable insight into the quest mentality: "and the thing was really inside / themselves all the time / what they were searching for / But not with aneroid and compass / is it possible for a man / to explore himself" (North 26; Wild 57). The essence of what John Moss tries so awkwardly to convey about the North in Enduring Dreams is summed up in these lines, which make an enduring effort to understand why men would go exploring. The quest is understandable, if limiting, for Purdy, who believes in observing as much as possible about life without interpreting it through a specific belief system. Instead, he redirects the search, and stops short of suggesting that what many of those explorers would have found inside them was God.
In this second "North West Passage," Purdy also begins by looking to a list of historical names in an attempt to gain his bearings. More successful, this attempt employs dialogue and, in section III, enters into the Victorian sailors’ secular minds in order to understand what the search might have amounted to for men who had signed on for the job and pay alone. Although not all readers will find in the poem’s voyage back into time, as Dennis Duffy does (21), a skill that matches Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, they will concur that its four-part structure presents a panorama of, not early arctic, but Victorian arctic explorers. Especially effective for its time is Purdy’s juxtaposition of two views of exploration: that of Victorian sailors repeatedly realizing "[w]e shall never go home" (North 26; Wild 58-9), and that of late- sixties "acidheads" "discovering new colours in the spectrum / as the gates of perception open inward" (North 27; Wild 60). The ice mountains loom literally and figuratively outside the small ships, which, like ones in bottles, go nowhere. Dreams are arrested, "[b]ut occasionally something / (it should be mentioned) / inside their heads or bodies / inside their souls or guts or penis / matches the ice mountains and they know / there is a Kingdom." A male thing, exploration. (Would Melville have populated the Pequod other than with men when sending it off in quest of America’s "white mammoth" [North 27; Wild 60]?) Whereas an acidhead might have found the quest for the kingdom visceral and priapic, as well as spiritually solipsistic, a patriotic tar might have found it alluring but fatal, as well as spiritually overwhelming; but whether or not Purdy is correct in his surmise, his contemplation represents one of the more intriguing tracings of one warm line through male desire.
In 1957, Hugh MacLennan, in arguing that "[w]e can’t have Christ and Sputnik too," suggested that "we North Americans are schizophrenic because we are attempting to be Christians in one part of our minds and materialists in the other" (102). MacLennan thought logical the fact that Communism had created Sputnik first. He sided with God. But that same year’s building by 25,000 labourers of the twenty-two stations on the 6,000 kms-long Distant Early Warning (DEW) line (Harris 640) suggests that Canadians would project on the North the choice of Sputnik, of, that is, technology. In 1991, Atwood ("Concerning" 24) apparently argues in her discussion of Gwendolyn MacEwen’s verse drama that we can have neither; technology’s dream has failed us, but also the North is not a matter of "The Land that God Forgot" (Spell 11), as Service’s poem suggests, because there is no God to forget. The North reverts to a waste, or, as it is for another critic—Moss—who seems to think there is no God (126), a realm of infinite human consciousness. Whereas exploring the passage, exploring the next life, or exploring the relation of past explorations to one’s own existence were themes in other poems, MacEwen goes beyond elegy. Hers is a drama of nihilism and death, occasional themes for others, an obsession for Atwood.
MacEwen’s "Terror and Erebus" (1974) began as a verse play for CBC Radio in 1965, and has appeared in print three times: in 1974 in The Tamarack Review (TR); in 1978 in Colombo’s Book of Canada (64-9); and in 1987 in MacEwen’s last volume, Afterworlds (A).16 By the time she had revised it for inclusion in Afterworlds, she considered it "unlike my other radio plays of that period—as a long poem in itself" (A 125). Where Purdy adopts the voice of Franklin’s crew members in his second poem, MacEwen takes up the voices of British officers, a later explorer from Greenland / Denmark, and an Inuk. These are Franklin, commander of the 129-man British Naval Northwest Passage Expedition, and of HMS Erebus; Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, the same expedition’s commander of HMS Terror; and Knud Rasmussen, who, as part of the Fifth Thule Expedition of 1921-24, encountered the fourth persona, Qaqortingniq (Qaqortingneq is MacEwen’s variant spelling), a Netsilik from Malerualit on the south coast of King William Island (Barr, Overland 209). From the outset, the voice of Rasmussen, the observer, strikes one as strongest. As it recurs, it grows in strength: to him falls the task of determining the explorers’ tragedy. The evidence does not make empirical sense: "And sometimes I find their bodies / Like shattered compasses, like sciences / Gone mad, pointing in a hundred directions/ at once— / The last whirling graph of their agony" (TR 5; A 41). It is probably just a coincidence, but the simile given to Rasmussen seems to embrace and bring forward into a twentieth-century understanding much of what James meant when rebuking himself for placing his faith in a meridian compass, much of what Birney left implicit in casting up a weird and terrible fate for those who pass into "latitude[s] unmentionable" (TR 5; A 41), more than is suggested by Purdy’s lines about "searching ... / But not with aneroid or compass." The sciences, at least the sciences devoid of God, have no answer; that Rasmussen looked to people—the Netsilik—suggests that MacEwen approves of his approach to understanding. The sciences spell a doom dominated in the poem’s imagery by madness. This way lies Dr Frankenstein.
"Terror and Erebus" does not provide so sustained an energy as is found in Rasmussen’s lines; indeed, MacEwen’s recurrent problems of sustaining a metaphor or symbol before it lapses, or in aligning one metaphor with another, haunt this poem. Having chosen a twentieth-century explanation—madness—for the tragedy of bones that Rasmussen encounters, she renders morality superfluous and psychology dominant. Why, then, is religion a dominant theme? Franklin states flatly that "this is no place / To talk of souls" (TR 9; A 44), and Franklin and Crozier are less convincingly rendered than is the twentieth-century observer because MacEwen offers only the vestiges of religion with little religious understanding of her characters. Traces remain in the imagery, and the date of Good Friday 1848 is duly noted, but the prayers are merely vestigial, "prayers of despair" (Atwood, "Concerning" 24). For a poet who "was reading history, ... reading psychology" (Pearce 66) in the sixties, this dwindling into mere nihilism is disappointing.
MacEwen anticipated Purdy’s imagination of Victorian exploration at least partially as desire. She establishes a female image of the end of virile desire, as projected by the psychologist, Rasmussen, in reply to the patient, Franklin. The latter, enveloped in "darkness" and "sterility," is counselled to "pray the straits would crack / Open, and the dash begin again":
Pray you could drive the ships
Would the prayer be answered? "[P]erhaps she might not yield, / She might not let you enter, / but might grip / And hold you crushed forever in her stubborn / loins, / her horrible house, / Her white asylum in an ugly marriage" (TR 8; A 44). In this memorable projection of a female North, and of a personified and overtly gendered Northwest Passage, the struggle for a geographical discovery becomes for the first time the human struggle between the sexes. The Christian humanism of James is remade in the image of the awareness, bred in the 1960s, of sexuality as the paramount element of existence. Thereby does the phallic exploration of the "passage" become as notable as Northrop Frye’s Christian, oral, and rather incongruous depiction—which also dates from 1965—of a better known dead end: "[t]he traveller from Europe edges into [Canada] like a tiny Jonah entering an inconceivably large whale .... [T]o enter Canada is a matter of being silently swallowed by an alien continent" (824). Both end in death, but for this unreleased Jonah, death of the spirit comes first; for Franklin it is slow death in a "sterile," desperate madness. If Canada is the whale, the Northwest Passage is the frigid maiden. "Sexual in a very sinister way" is Atwood’s observation ("Concerning" 24), and nowhere is this dimension clearer than in MacEwen’s description of the abandonment of the ships: "[y]ou set out from the ships / In a kind of horrible birth, / a forced expulsion / From those two wombs" (TR 12; A 47). But how birth, unless it is a stillbirth, aligns with the foregoing description of the passage’s probable repulsion of the intruders remains a problem for the poem’s logic and reminds one of MacEwen’s statement about her earliest poetry—"I was at times baffled by my own metaphors and images toppling one upon the other" (Pearce 69)—and that of her most attentive critic—"a lack of discipline and control emerges as the single most persistent flaw in MacEwen’s writing" (Bartley 6).
"Terror and Erebus" dilates on that slow death as MacEwen’s personae reach realizations implicit from the start of her poem. Crozier, for example, abandons his compasses and magnets upon seeing that "[t]his is the end of science" (TR 18; A 53). The protracted denouement seems mimetically to represent the agony of a presumably slow death of the 105 men who left the ships in April 1848, but it grows tedious as the images repeat. Interjecting rather than successfully incorporating more historical material, MacEwen prosaically renders the eyewitness accounts which were related to Qaqortingniq by his father, and to Rasmussen by Qaqortingniq (Rasmussen 172-73; 239-40).17 These accounts offered her a source not only for the scene in which "Eskimos ... gave us a seal" (TR 17; A 52), but also for her image of the ship as a "horrible house"; the Inuit, after reaching the ship and hesitating for a time, "ventured also into the houses underneath. Here they found many dead men, lying in the sleeping places there; all dead" (Rasmussen 239-40). MacEwen takes up all the other details of this account and repeats them almost word for word, as if they were found poetry. One such detail is the story of the sinking of the ship after the Inuit bore a hole in the hull below the water line (TR 20; A 55; Rasmussen 239).18 However, the poem ends effectively in Rasmussen’s conclusion from his historical vantage point that "the great passage is open," that it was there all the time but never there until theorized, "invented," and "cracked ... open" (TR 21, 22; A 56, 57). "Finding the relationships between what we call the ‘real’ world and that other world which consists of dream, fantasy and myth" (Colombo, Rhymes 65) was MacEwen’s stated poetic goal; the end of this "poem for voices" (Pearce 71) articulates that goal clearly.
Purdy wrote that, "[q]ueerly enough I didn’t have the sense of vast and lonely barren distance in the Arctic, even tho it certainly is vast and lonely. Why didn’t I? I’m not sure. Perhaps because I looked at things close up" (NS 82-3). Then he made an assertion which best demonstrates that the epic was not for him: "Besides, you’d have a helluva time shoving vast lonely distance into poems" (83).19 We have seen that Purdy is not comfortable in the heroic mode and that it is of no interest to MacEwen; the mock-heroic, the role of the underdog, suits his temperament better. Bringing the passage into southern Canada’s national consciousness—reiterating a "True North, strong and free"—fell to another poet, as the dedication and title of Purdy’s autobiography, Reaching for the Beaufort Sea, surely acknowledges. Stan Rogers aimed for the continental, epic scale. It may be that the Northwest Passage, the only natural North American transcontinental passage, must be articulated for a southern Canadian on that scale or not at all, as E.J. Pratt found to be the case with the railway. In 1980, Rogers wrote and first performed his now famous and popular song, "The Northwest Passage." From the start it was sunga capella. The lack of instrumentation lends its famous chorus the air of an on-deck crew of sailors, singing in chains like the sea:
Hearing him sing "The Northwest Passage" in Calgary in 1980, one spectator exclaimed that Rogers had re-written the national anthem (Rogers, Songs 86). The remark suggests how inspiring the song’s "heroic aspect" (Atwood, "Concerning" 26) is, at least for white, southern, English-speaking Canadian males—perhaps as inspiring as Gilles Vigneault’s song, "Mon Pays" (1964), became for nationalist Québecois in the 1960s. It also serves to remind us of how national a poem it is and how national poetry based on a tragedy performs "a kind of reclamation" (Atwood, "Concerning" 26).20 Tom Marshall regards Purdy as "the national poet that Pratt set out to be" (97), and George Bowering calls him "the world’s most Canadian poet" (1), but probably no poem by Purdy intends to offer a national voice, unless one agrees with Marshall that the willows in "Trees at the Arctic Circle" "become an image of Canadians’ own persistence and survival in a difficult place" (91). For his part, Rogers had just begun to sing his way beyond his adopted Nova Scotia. With "his strongest characteristic [being] a strong sense of history" (Gudgeon 28), he had just realized that his plans were to become a troubadour of all regions of Canada. His record album, Northwest Passage (1981), assembled western songs based on his tour of Alberta with other musicians as part of the province’s seventy-fifth anniversary in 1980. That experience marked a "turning point in [his] writing"; thereafter, he planned a collection of new songs about the Great Lakes region: "and when I’ve finished this, I’ll tackle the Far North and then improve my lame high school French to the point where I can write an album of songs in both English and French about Quebec. After that I’ll go back to Nova Scotia and start all over again" (Songs 85).
A map of Canada, an oil lamp, a spy-glass, a bottle of rum, and two books—aPrimer of Navigation, and George Malcolm Thomson’s The Search for the Northwest Passage—complete the photograph of Rogers on the album’s front cover, and indicate that if he has changed regions he has not left the sea. The song itself cuts a wide swath, not a thin line, across the country. It is not always remembered that it mentions other explorers than Franklin; indeed, because Rogers came no closer to the passage than roads could take him, the second and third verses drop down to the prairies, which he drove across, as he did the Canol Road in the Yukon, to trace a passage across lower latitudes, latitudes which went by the name of The North West before provincial borders were assigned. Rogers’s vision encompasses greater range by his doing so, a range national in scope and perhaps echoing the imperial scope of Cyrus Wakeham’s poem. "Three centuries thereafter" (9) clearly refers to the explorations inland from Hudson Bay by Henry Kelsey; the name "Kelso" in line 10 is meant to refer to him, the first white man on the northern prairies.21 "Driving hard across the plain," Rogers, who enacts exploration for us, "turn[s] the ordinary in to the heroic" (Gudgeon 183).
Even so, if all Canadian exploration is treated thematically in the more personal and far less well known later stanzas, the associations with Franklin are the song’s strongest for most listeners. Moreover, because at least one portrait of a young John Franklin depicts a balding man, Rogers’s own appearance on the album cover, seated before the captain’s table laden with the assembly of symbolic items, renders his reclamation visually remarkable. Because the song’s associations with maritime lore (and Rogers’s general theme of maritime accidents) do not aptly complement the inland explorations of Kelsey, Mackenzie, Thompson, and Fraser, the figure of Franklin tends to stand alone; the repetition of his name in each rendering of the chorus reinforces that more prominent stature.
Probably for the first time since the expedition’s disappearance in 1846, the life of Franklin, not his death, preoccupy a poet. Incontestably, however, the poignancy of this heroic ballad cum chantey derives in part from the fact that Rogers died within a few years of writing it. The longing expressed in the refrain has, like Rogers’s best songs, taken on a life of its own since his violent and sudden death on 2 June 1983 at the age of thirty-three; the emphasis on making the trip "just one time" and the conditional tense, "I would take the Northwest Passage" (emphasis added), have acquired a memorable and stirring dimension in the song’s posthumous renderings, recordings, and frequent radio airings that they could not have attained during Rogers’s lifetime. Alive, he tapped the epic mystery; dead, he enriches it. Nevertheless, the elegiac quality that one finds in Purdy’s poetry must be read into Rogers’s from the accident of his death.
As stirring as is this coincidence between subject and poet is the stirring pathos that derives from Rogers’s image of Franklin reaching for a portion of the passage which he himself had explored three decades earlier, during the Second Arctic Land Expedition (1825-27). Reaching for the Beaufort Sea involves a reaching round and back, not just forward in the ambition of discovery. This is to say that self-discovery is implicit in the goal that Rogers assigns the explorer. All the more effective, therefore, is the song’s last verse, in which, like the explorers, Rogers himself finds that discovery brings one back to oneself, and that ranging far from one’s "settled life" into the unknown serves, ultimately, to prompt the mind to cast back homewards to all that was forsaken in the name of discovery. In discussing the last quatrain, Ariel Rogers suggested that her husband had in mind, in particular, the famous conceit of the pair of drawing compasses in Donne’s "Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" (which, depending on the source consulted, happens to date from the year of publication of James’s Strange and Dangerovs Voyage). Her suggestion offers one possible interpretation, and songs such as "Lock-Keeper" (see Gudgeon 170-71), written after "Northwest Passage," share this theme. Other interpretations furnished by the song’s evocative last line include the themes of self-recognition and self-discovery, as well as death itself. But the ending of the song is rich for its ambiguity; set against the apparently straightforward message of the cross-rhymed quatrains, the ending offers no completion, no certain discovery. Nor can one dismiss the possibility that Rogers meant chiefly to be self-ironical. In other songs from the Northwest Passage album, such as "California" and "The Idiot," it is clear that irony lies firmly in his grasp; the former chastises his own generation’s lust for Paradise, and the latter offers a response to life that situates itself between Archibald Lampman’s "City of the End of Things" and John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. A maturation is detectable throughout this album, but its most noteworthy instance comes in Rogers’s implicit passing of judgement on himself in the last line of the title song. Perhaps he realized that the time had come to consider his ways and choose whom he would serve.
In Frozen in Time, a movie about the Beechey
Island Scientific Team’s exhumation of the bodies of Hartnell and
Braine in the summer of 1986, the bicentennial of Franklin’s birth,
Rogers’s song is used to accompany footage of Beattie’s trip north
by jet from Edmonton and the arrival by Twin Otter at Beechey Island. In
this edited version of the song, which is probably typical of the use
made of it as accompaniment to other media, only the chorus (twice) and
first verse are heard, so the film’s viewer is reminded only of
Franklin and the Northwest Passage. The effect is interesting; it
transforms Beattie into Rogers, completing Rogers’s passage in his
absence, and transforming Beattie’s scientific team into the Franklin
voyagers: they brave the elements and the bears to exhume the bodies,
thaw them in order to perform autopsies on them, and, thereby, unlock
the mystery of the fate of Franklin. In other words, literally to trace
one warm line back through nearly a century and a half. Brian Spencely,
a descendant of Hartnell in attendance to mark the occasion, confirms
the line of descent. A certain collective desire is thereby consummated,
the whole attended, at least for those unversed in forensic research, by
a disquieting sense of necrophilia.22
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