Canada has been celebrating the discovery of Captain Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated ship, the Erebus, since early September. Along with the Terror, captained by Francis Crozier, this ship carried Franklin and his crew on their fatal quest for the Northwest Passage, which lasted three years (1845-1848). For most of that time, Franklin was stranded, a prisoner of the arctic ice. When finally his ships sank, the crew was forced to go overland on foot. They all eventually met their end, through cold and starvation.
This latest–and first successful–search for Franklin’s Lost Expedition was the last of six made since 2008, according to Tom Spears from Postmedia (“Shipwreck”). But many other expeditions to recover the ships were undertaken during the twentieth and nineteenth centuries–including that of Knud Rasmussen who visited the region from 1921-1924. He was also the first European to cross the Passage by dogsled.
So, you may ask, What does all this have to do with a mythopoeic Canadian poet who was active during the ’60s and ’70s and is now regrettably out-of-print?
Gwendolyn MacEwen’s volume of poetry Afterworlds contains a narrative long poem based on Rasmussen’s search for the Franklin Expedition, entitled “Terror and Erebus.” It takes the form of a fictional dialogue between Rasmussen and Franklin, the historical past conversing–or failing to converse–with the narrative present. Rasmussen follows the explorer through the same unforgiving landscape, his only advantage being the comforts of more advanced technology. Decades and Franklin’s watery grave separate them from each other, but the present nonetheless strives to connect to the past.
MacEwen also deals with history in King of Egypt, King of Dreams, The T.E. Lawrence Poems, and, to a lesser extent, Julian the Magician. “Terror and Erebus” is a fusion of history and fantasy–that is to say, her own mystical reflections projected onto the past. She balances her historical, documentary subject matter with her impeccable poetic sensibility. The Arctic landscape becomes a wasteland where the self loses itself, faced with the harshness of the cosmos. These are some, at times, terrifying verses. The staggered lines recall the jagged fjords of ice that Captain Franklin would have had to traverse on his miserable voyage, his existential journey. Now, with the discovery of the Terror, it is a timely moment to reflect on Franklin’s terror at finding himself in this frigid, blank landscape.
MacEwen’s long poem opens with the following mood-setting lines:
King William Island . . . latitude unmentionable.
But I’m not the first here.
They preceded me, they marked the way
………………. .with bones
White as this ice is, whiter maybe,
The white of death,
………………. .of purity” (41).
Rasmussen attempts to interpret the signs that mark the trail of the expedition. He has the impression that Franklin “created the Passage / By willing it to be” (42). Furthermore, Franklin’s quest is interpreted as his search for “a passage from imagination to reality” (42). In this respect, “Terror and Erebus” explores the dividing line between reality and fantasy in way that can be compared to Julian’s illusion-spinning in Julian the Magician.
Franklin responds to Rasmussen, or at least it seems that way. His voice never really does reach Rasmussen, although the reader can see how Franklin ‘responds’ to Rasmussen’s speech, in a way. “I brought them here, a hundred and twenty-nine men, / Led them into this bottleneck, / This white asylum,” remarks Franklin. “My ships, the Terror, the Erebus / Are learning the meaning of their / names” (43). Erebus is a personification of darkness, a god born from Chaos in Greek mythology. The irony of the ship’s name is appropriate; the ship is surrounded desperately by endless white, but the history Rasmussen is trying to unravel is full of darkness.
MacEwen’s interests in dualities, psychology, and archetypes appear throughout the poem, adding depth to the existential situation in which Franklin and Rasmussen both find themselves alone. Although Franklin did not necessarily think these thoughts, they are all a part of the poet’s reflection on his subjection to the landscape. Franklin asks the captain of the Terror:
“Crozier, what laws govern
This final tug of war
between life and death,
the human polarities?
………………. . The ice
Is its own argument” (46).
After a harsh winter, Franklin abandons his ships struck in an ice flow that is “drifting south / Itself, like a ship” (47). He does so “in a kind of horrible birth, / a forced expulsion / From those two wombs” (47). Later, punning off Crozier’s name, which refers to a bishop’s staff containing a cross, the overland march becomes a walk towards crucifixion on Good Friday, “April 21, 1848” in the log (48).
The geography of the Arctic is alien, and the metaphysical truths Franklin believes in hold no more reality when he has sailed beyond Ultima Thule:
“Whoever said that Hell was darkness?
What fool said that light was good
………………. .and darkness evil?
In extremes all things reverse themselves” (49).
One of the most memorable images, in my reading, is of the ivory visors Rasmussen remarks upon, the kind with narrow slits that Inuit wear to keep away the snow glare. Existentially overwhelmed in the sheer vastness of the Arctic, the expedition can only protect their naked eyes with “those ridiculous / instruments / That keep the cosmos out” (50).
With no food to eat, the Franklin expedition may have resorted to cannibalism. MacEwen depicts this horrific likelihood with a series of startling images:
“the snow turns red, there are sounds
………………. .of men puking, and sounds
Of knives scraping bone.
They are eating
………………. .one of their dead” (50).
Now that the expedition has fallen so far beyond what is considered human and reasonable, Rasmussen remarks, “Now Crozier, now you’ve come / To the end of science” (52). Wishing for their salvation is futile. Crozier asks, “What magnet do I know of / That will pull us south?” (53)
Franklin’s crew were all doomed. Scarce traces of the expedition survived, though there was one cairn containing a message supposedly left behind by the survivors. Part of what enabled the 2014 expedition to finally discover the Erebus at the bottom of the sea, however, was the testimony of Inuit oral history. Rasmussen uncovers this testimony in the poem from the Inuit Qaqortingneq, who says, “I remember the day / When our fathers found a ship” (54). The Inuit, like Rasmussen, are faced with a mystery: what to make of the strange, foreign ship they find captured in the ice floe. Unfamiliar with European technologies, “they went aboard the great ship / As though into another world / Understanding nothing” (54).
The poem concludes with a return to Rasmussen’s conviction that Franklin, though he failed to find it, was nonetheless utterly convinced of the Northwest Passage’s existence. In the end, there is a difference between this absolute certainty and the fact that we “cannot know […] where the passage lies /Between conjecture and reality” (57). Frankin had deduced that the Northwest Passage did exist, yet he died trying to find it. Certainty is not the same as discovering the reality behind that certainty. That was the tragedy of the Franklin Expedition, and it is also what makes uncovering the past so difficult–indeed, it is essentially impossible.
In our day, light has been shone onto the Erebus, the god of darkness’s ship. Our knowledge of Franklin’s tragedy will become fuller in due time. Just as Rasmussen attempts to recover the Terror and Erebus , our age can look back upon MacEwen’s “Terror and Erebus,” and her potent reflections on the sacrifices involved in exploration.
MacEwen, Gwendolyn. “Erebus and Terror.” Afterworlds. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1987. 41-57.
Spears, Tom. “Shipwreck identified as Franklin’s flagship.” Montreal Gazette. 2 Oct. 2014. A2