Why Franklin’s Ship Matters to Romanticists

I was excited to learn, earlier today, that a Canadian marine expedition has located one of Sir John Franklin’s ships on the Arctic seabed, after a 160-year search for material evidence of the ill-fated Victorian voyage to find, chart, and claim the Northwest Passage. One archaeologist, William Battersby, has described the recent find as “the biggest archaeological discovery the world has seen since the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb almost 100 years ago.” The ship, now resting on the sea floor, seems to have been preserved in fairly good condition, and the searchers hope to find artifacts from the voyage — perhaps even photographs — on board.

Franklin's ship -- either Erebus or Terror -- on the ocean floor (photo: Parks Canada)
Franklin’s ship — [UPDATED: Erebus] — on the ocean floor (photo: Parks Canada)
The Franklin lost expedition occupies a prominent place both in Victorian exploration and in the modern  Canadian national imagination. Franklin’s doomed venture has variously been interpreted as sublime martyrdom for the glory of Britain, an example of the worst excesses of nineteenth-century imperialist hubris, and, most recently, as evidence for a Canadian bid for Arctic sovereignty as melting ice makes the Northwest Passage more commercially viable. But what hasn’t been discussed are Franklin’s personal connections with Romantic poetry, and his expedition’s wider place within a culture of Arctic discovery that our writers helped to define.

Launched in 1845, the voyage was led by Captain Sir John Franklin, who commanded two ships, the forbiddingly-named “Erebus” and “Terror,” with a complement of 128 seamen. Franklin’s goal was to establish a northern maritime route that would permit shipping from Britain to the Pacific without rounding the Cape or circumnavigating South America. The explorer had previous experience in the Canadian arctic, having led the Coppermine Expedition overland in what are now the Northwest Territories (1819-22). Though this venture had been a disaster (11 of his 20 men died and there were rumors of cannibalism, while Franklin himself ate his boot leather), he was hailed as a hero upon his return, eventually earning a promotion as Governor of Tasmania. But this harsh experience hadn’t made the explorer more pragmatic: on his 1845 expedition, he brought along a useless supply of “button polish, handkerchiefs, curtain rods and a writing desk.” An abandoned lifeboat, discovered later, contained a “large amount of abandoned equipment, including boots, silk handkerchiefs, scented soap, sponges, slippers, hair combs, and many books, among them a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield.”

Setting out from England in May 1845, the expedition fared well at first, sending cheerful messages home via a whaling boat in July. The expedition camped off Beechey Island during the 1845-46 winter, but at this point things began to go wrong. Three sailors (Torrington, Braine, and Hartnell) died and were interred on Beechey Island, where I visited in 2007.

Graves on Beechey Island (Wikimedia)
Graves on Beechey Island (Wikimedia)

Modern toxicological analyses of their bodies reveal that they all suffered from lead poisoning, probably from the lead solder used to seal the tinned food, or from lead-pipes for storing water aboard ship. Affairs took another turn for the worse: the ships were trapped in ice off King William Island, 700 km to the south, in September 1846 and never sailed again; after two winters off King William Island, the crew abandoned the ships, and set out overland to find a Hudson’s Bay Company camp located hundreds of miles to the south. According to a note left on the island, Franklin died on June 11, 1847, and the expedition’s command passed to Francis Crozier, the commander of the “Terror.” Oral reports from the Inuit and modern forensic evidence suggest that the crew eventually turned to cannibalism. Though Crozier and another crew member may have made it as far as 400 miles to the south, where the remains of a camp were found in 1948, all members of the expedition and both ships were lost. Meanwhile, after two years without word, Lady Jane Franklin launched a massive investigation into her husband’s whereabouts, offering £20,000 in reward. Through the 1850s, dozens of ships set out to locate Franklin’s missing vessels and to determine the fate of the crew. The ships, and Franklin’s grave, were never found.

Torrington's grave on Beechey Island -- from my visit in August 2007
Torrington’s grave on Beechey Island — from my visit in August 2007

But what does Franklin’s expedition have to do with Romantic literature? Much more than I was aware, it turns out. The ill-fated explorer was actually Tennyson’s uncle-in-law (the poet’s wife’s mother was Franklin’s sister). And Eleanor Anne Porden, Franklin’s first wife, was a Romantic poet in her own right: she published The Veils; or the Triumph of Constancy (1815), “The Arctic Explorations” (1818), a poem inspired by her romantic interest in Franklin (whom she married in 1823), and Coeur de Lion, a historical epic with a dedication to George IV (1822). Her marriage to Franklin came with one condition: that she be allowed to pursue her poetic vocation. Porden had one child and died of consumption in 1825, while Franklin was away at sea (he married her friend Jane Griffin on his return).

In addition to Franklin’s personal connections to the English literary scene, his expedition is interesting in its participation in a mythology of Arctic exploration launched during the Romantic period. Frankenstein‘s frame narrative is the locus classicus for this, and Robert Walton’s narrative hauntingly anticipates some of the perils that the Franklin expedition would later face: the ship, bound for the North Pole, becomes inextricably trapped in ice, and, in spite of Frankenstein’s passionate exhortation that the expedition press on,  Walton agrees to lead the crew away from the ship, setting out overland to reach the south and civilization. Meanwhile, an emaciated and exhausted Frankenstein dies, while the Creature drifts away on a raft in permanent self-exile from humanity. (This last touch may owe something to the Hudson mutiny of 1611, when Henry Hudson’s crew marooned him and his son in a life raft in the middle of what is now Hudson’s Bay, in the Canadian Arctic).

Beechey Island, during my visit there (August 2007)
Beechey Island, during my visit there (August 2007)

More directly related to Canadian exploration, though, is the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which (Fulford and Kitson argue) incorporated details of Samuel Hearne’s A Journey from Prince of Wales’s Fort in Hudson’s Bay to the Northern Ocean (pub. 1795). Hearne (1745-92) was an overland explorer in northern Canada who kept memorable diaries of his three expeditions between 1769 and 1771. Though Coleridge’s scenes are set in the South Pole, his gothicized descriptions of the Arctic landscape almost certainly owe certain details to Hearne’s travel narrative. Contributing to the veracity of this claim for influence is the fact that Hearne’s co-author, William Wales, who wintered with him at Hudson’s Bay in 1768-69, was Coleridge and Lamb’s teacher at Christ’s Hospital, and Coleridge mentions reading Hearne’s work in his notebooks. Moreover, Wordsworth cites Hearne’s “very interesting work” directly in the note to “The Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman,” which he read “with deep interest” during the composition of Lyrical Ballads. And, while Wordsworth and Coleridge were reading Hearne’s Journey to the Northern Ocean for sublime artistic inspiration, Franklin too was consulting it — but in a more literal fashion, as the only reliable guide-book for his own voyages. The explorer read Hearne’s book in preparation for his Coppermine expedition, and confirmed in his own travel report the exact location of the infamous “Massacre at Bloody Falls” that Hearne had recounted.

In short, then, the recovered Franklin ship promises to reveal not just the mysteries of the doomed expedition, but also a cultural archaeology, germinated in the Romantic period, about the unexpected correspondence of literary art and exploration — just as The Vicar of Wakefield made its way into a lifeboat.

The author kayaking in the Arctic -- August 2007
The author kayaking in the Arctic — August 2007

3 thoughts on “Why Franklin’s Ship Matters to Romanticists”

    1. Heather, I just noticed some more wordplay of this kind: the water-snakes’ “flakes” (scales), the poem’s icy landscape, and the Mariner’s beard in the last stanza, are all described as “hoary” — a pun on a colour (grey) and another kind of ice (hoarfrost)

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