Poets and explorers, part I

I love books about exploration in general, but especially polar exploration. All that snow and ice, it reminds me of my girlhood in Wisconsin — I’d get misty but the tears would freeze to my face.

One narrative arc I’ve noticed in these works is the correspondence between poetry and exploration in England. There’s the sailor, Samuel Hearne, whose Arctic adventures inspired Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. According to this website, the poem is a “major contribution to the Romantic and Gothic traditions … a powerful rendition of the Romantic quest, a journey of suffering, expiation, guilt and the assertion of Self.” A list to which Mr. Hearne would probably like to add, “discomfort … that’s expiation, guilt and deuced discomfort!”

Then, as a thread in her excellent book, The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty, Caroline Alexander discusses how the events surrounding the Mutiny — or at least the popular conception of it — inspired Romantic poets like Wordsworth, Byron and Coleridge. I’m doing a rude injustice to Alexander’s scholarship but the basic gist is that the Romantics (with the possible exception of Byron) viewed Fletcher Christian, the lead mutineer, as a noble individual sticking it to the Man — as opposed, let’s say, to some unbalanced drunk guy, eager for a boat charter back to Tahiti. This was around the time of the French Revolution, so you could say that sticking it to the Man was getting to be a huge Western European pastime.

In both cases it’s interesting to see how the poets of the time, especially STC, are inspired and inflamed by current events to twist headlines into myth. And how the idea of the man alone on the high seas, peering for a shoreline, becomes the most potent metaphor of all for the boys at home in long socks with quills.


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