Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Role of Poetry in Polar Expeditions

Having picked up a copy of The Hall of Uselessness by Simon Leys as part of a friend's Christmas present, I see that it is the book I should have taken along on the last vacation, and that I was negligent in putting it back on the shelf when I first noticed it at Kramerbooks last summer.

In the essay "On Readers' Rewards and Writers' Awards", Leys offers the observation that
In the darkest depths of disaster, when all members of his expedition had to abandon every piece of superfluous luggage, [Shackleton] refused to abandon his beloved copy of Browning's collected poems. One day some scholar should write a doctoral thesis on "The Role of Poetry in Polar Expeditions"--but right now I had better not wander too far away from my subject.
The polar explorers I grew up reading of were Robert Peary and Richard Byrd,  They were brave and efficient, but, as far as I could tell from what I read of and by them, prosaic. If Peary brought Browning along on his sled or Byrd on an airplane, I have not read of it.

But Robert Graves's story "Old Papa Johnson" offers a British officer in middle age who knows by heart Shakespeare's sonnets, the Psalms, St. Mark's Gospel, and the Book of Ruth, all memorized while "expeditioning". He says that he memorized the last to distract himself from the likelihood of imminent death during a violent storm on "Desolation Island", In the preface to the volume, Graves identifies "Old Papa Johnson" as one H.H. Johnson, and Desolation Island as South Georgia Island. I regret to say that I have given away the collection of essays and stories that contained it.

I regret still more that Pierre Ryckmans, who published under the name Simon Leys, is no longer with us to write that thesis on the role of poetry: he died this August.


  1. George, I don't know if Browning would have been my choice in the frozen wilderness even though he is one of my favorite poets -- I think I might have chosen Gerard Manley Hopkins or Emily Dickinson (my other two favorites). Your posting, though, does suggest a provocative question (a variation on the stranded on a desert island query): what shall we read when we are most desperate in our lives or when we are very isolated? I ask that question a lot these days. I have not figured out an answer. But I divert myself from the question by reading The Moonstone, a sensational novel that I have been discussing at my blog. It is a great escape from all things worthy of escaping.

    1. Hopkins would fit comfortably in pocket or pack. I can't answer your question--that choice would depend on so much.