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Romanticism on Ice: Coleridge, Hogg and the Eighteenth-Century Missions to Greenland

  • Sarah Moss

…plus d’informations

  • Sarah Moss
    University of Kent at Canterbury

Or if the Greenland wizard in strange trance

Pierces the untravelled realms of Ocean’s bed

Over the abysm, even to that uttermost cave

By mis-shaped prodigies beleagured, such

As Earth ne’er bred, nor Air, nor the upper Sea . . . .

Coleridge, “Destiny of Nations,” lines 98-102

We found our way again to him through the ice. We were magnetically drawn…Our presence was interference. We approached as slowly as before, and he turned to glower, treading water, opening his mouth – the gray tongue, the pale violet mouth, the white teeth – to hiss. He paddled away abruptly to a large floe and again catapulted from the water, shook his fur out, and started across the ice to open water on the far side.

We let him go. We watched him, that undeterred walk of authority…John Muir, on a visit to these same waters in 1899, said [polar] bears move “as if the country had belonged to them always.”

- Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams, 79

The literary geography of the Arctic is traditionally eerie and sublime, offering a strange space of moral and physical extremes. It is either light all the time or dark all the time. Strange lights sing in the sky and ice blurs the difference between earth and water. Travellers may be reduced to cannibalism or exalted to heroism but in any case will come back changed and perhaps not at all. Jane Eyre fantasises about this landscape in the opening scenes at Gateshead. Victor Frankenstein and his creature meet their just deserts there, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Sylvia loses her better half to this weird and magical place. Recent work by critics including Eric Wilson, Peter Davidson and Penny Fielding has constructed the Romantic Arctic along these lines, as a space of sublimity and strangeness, but readings of two eighteenth century books about Greenland suggest other possibilities. In different ways, Hans Egede and David Crantz, missionaries to Greenland whose work was translated and widely read in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, offer a habitable and even domesticated Arctic. James Thomson and Samuel Johnson depended heavily on Crantz and Egede’s work as sources of Arctic topography and anthropology, and Coleridge and Hogg engage with Crantz and Egede in more complicated and fruitful ways.

In 1732, Hans Egede, a Lutheran pastor from the Lofoten Islands, finally succeeded in gaining the support of Crown Prince Frederick of Norway and Denmark to establish a mission and trading post in Greenland. Resistance to this was based on Frederick’s advisors’ conviction that the idea was not viable as a business plan, which was justified by events. Egede ended by converting most of the Inuit to Lutheranism and becoming one of Scandinavia’s unofficial saints, but his intention was to find and restore to faith the lost communities of Norse Greenlanders. Greenland had been colonised by Icelandic and Norwegian families in the late tenth century, and, for four hundred years, the colonies had been a natural part of Norse society with functional trading and ecclesiastical links to the rest of Europe. At the settlement’s height, there were several thousand Norse Greenlanders, but communications across the north Atlantic were disrupted by plague epidemics in the fourteenth century, and the last recorded interactions with the Norse colony were early in the fifteenth century. Visitors since then had found eerie scenes of desolation, but Egede was convinced that there were survivors and that they were languishing in pre-Reformation ignorance of true religion. This was not an incredible idea; there is still no finally convincing or satisfactory explanation of the settlers’ disappearance, and many of Egede’s arguments against particular endings are those made by modern historians and archaeologists. Earlier historians assumed that the Inuit had massacred the Norse, but since the two communities had coexisted peacefully and even profitably for centuries, sudden violence is unlikely. It is highly unlikely that the plague killed everyone because anyone leaving Iceland with the virus would have died long before reaching Greenland, and even in the worst-affected communities in Europe there were enough survivors for the population to regenerate eventually. There was some climactic deterioration but not sufficient to cause widespread starvation, and such difficulties would usually lead people to emigrate back to Iceland and Norway or on to America. Egede was right that there was no final reason to believe that all the Norse Greenlanders had died in a fifteenth century cataclysm and, despite devoting himself to the conversion and support of the Inuit, he never despaired of the Norse colony. The story of their disappearance is alluring, and Egede’s was the only detailed account available in English until the second half of the nineteenth century.

The success of the Lutheran mission attracted a Moravian group. The Moravians were a Protestant sect established near Dresden by Count Zinzendorf. They had had some success in other colonies, and especially among slaves in the Danish West Indies to whom they preached acceptance of one’s divinely ordained lot in life. Particularly after Egede’s retirement, the Lutheran and Moravian missions co-operated so well that they became a byword for Christian collaboration, but the poetics of the two missions are different. Egede’s Description of Greenland sets out observations of Arctic fauna and flora which no-one else in Europe was in a position to make and provides a limited and often incidental account of his missionary work. He dwells on plant, animal and human adaptation to Arctic conditions as evidence of the power and intricacy of God’s work and presents the demands of survival so far north as challenges to faith that must and can be overcome. David Crantz, the chronicler of the Moravian mission, refers anyone with an interest in the Arctic to Egede’s work and then settles down to a detailed and fervent account of daily and yearly life at the mission station, documenting the progress in faith of Inuit individuals and communities. What the two writers have in common, which differentiates them from all other European travellers to and writers about the Arctic in this period, is that they were trying to make new and permanent lives in the far north. Others passed through for the sake of money, science and/or England and could regard suffering and the possibility of death in the Arctic as both temporary and immediately purposeful. But the missionaries took their families with them, married and bore children, built houses and schools and strove to settle, while rejecting the Inuit ways of life which might have made this, at least in practice, a reasonably straightforward endeavour. This desire, this calling, to establish domesticity in the Arctic, to build a little house on the ice and a city on the hill in a land that could barely sustain nomads, demands an approach to northernness radically different from that of all other travellers and writers.

There is a growing and exciting secondary literature on northernness, nordicity and the aesthetics of polar travel, but it has neither encountered nor made room for these Arctic home-makers. Francis Spufford, inaugurating the genre with I May be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination, reads the Arctic as innately sublime, while Eric Wilson writes strikingly in The Spiritual History of Ice: Romanticism, Science and the Imagination that “…polar terrae incognitae and other frozen shapes kill and cure. They blanch the earth to a corpse” (2). He is right, and this extreme (polarising?) quality is one of the reasons for the enduring appeal of polar writing to both general readers and literary writers. This is illuminating in relation to Frankenstein and the Rime of the Ancient Mariner but it cannot speak to those who set up home on the blanched earth nor to those equally important literary texts influenced by them. Recent Canadian work on northernness emphasises the Arctic as Other, sometimes to the frustration of Inuit writers to whom it is home; Aritha van Herk writes in ‘Creating William Barentz’ in John Moss’s collection, Echoing Silence, “The Arctic . . . . is a mirage of land and water, and ice-shape beyond political declension. The farthest reaches of the north are a configuration of the imagination, a transgressive act for those who dream of a nirvana beyond ice” (p79). John Moss’s Enduring Dreams: An Exploration of Arctic Landscape finds the Arctic ultimately post-modern, a space in epistemology where “Arctic quietude is an absence of language; there is apparently illimitable terrain. . . . . No wonder so many returned and return to the infinite silence of their Arctic experience, to chaos” (p38). This construction of the Arctic as a place defined by strangeness and the unheimlich offers no hold for Crantz and Egede’s interest in homeliness, and so critics of Romanticism inherit an anachronistic view of polar space. Penny Fielding writes of Romantic-era Arctic travel, “there did not seem to be much time at the arctic: no visible effects of chronology, no lost civilizations, no history and no myth” (46). This is one version of the Romantic Arctic, but there was a lost civilization which had left ruins, inscriptions and burials, and major figures in British Romanticism were intrigued by it. Although he is interested in the experience of living in and identifying oneself with “the North,” Peter Davidson excludes Arctic narrative from The Idea of North and, citing Neil Kent’s cultural history of Scandinavia, The Soul of the North, writes simply,

The accounts of the Danish travels to Greenland in the early eighteenth century are haunting. The pastor Hans Egede, who went on to try to improve the conditions of the native peoples, found no trace, not a vestige, of Norse settlement. It is like a fable of the power of the destructive north, the cornlands turning to barley, then oats, then rye before being overwhelmed by the ice sheet, the obliteration of the settlers from the landscape.


This fable is an appealing way of reading the disappearance of the Norse colonists, but it does not give much weight either to the real strangeness of the story, which inheres in the idea that there was nothing wrong with fifteenth-century Greenland, or to the importance of Egede’s return. Egede’s Description of Greenland cannot and does not relate to fables of the destructive north even when it describes northernness as destructive because it is passionately invested in a habitable and even domestic Arctic. Egede’s version of the Norse colony’s progress is the opposite of Davidson’s:

. . . . the Greenland Colonies bred a Number of Cattle which afforded them Milk, Butter and Cheese in such abundance, that a great quantity thereof was brought over to Norway, and for its prime and particular Goodness was set apart for the King’s Kitchin. . . . . We also read in these Histories that some parts of the Country yielded the choicest Wheat-Corn, and in the Dales or Valleys the Oak-Trees brought forth Acorns, of the Bigness of an Apple, very good to eat. The Woods afforded plenty of Game of Rein Deer, Hares &c. for the Sport of Huntsmen. The Rivers, Bays and the Seas furnished an Infinite Number of Fishes, Seals, Morses and Whales; of which all the Inhabitants made a considerable Trade and Commerce. And, though the Country at present cannot boast of the same Plenty and Richness, as it lies destitute of Colonies, Cattle and uncultivated; yet I do not doubt, but the old Dwelling Places, formerly inhabited and manured by the ancient Norway Colonies, might recover their former Fertility, if they were again peopled with Men and Cattle.


Most of this is mythmaking. Kirsten Seaver writes that “Comparisons of Norse Greenland with Iceland or Norway during the same five hundred years repeatedly demonstrate the need for caution in assuming that life was always harder in Greenland” (5), but Thomas McGovern cautions that the Norse Greenlanders were also “denied any effective cereal production” and “perched high on a food web marked by long and short term instability” (193-224). Both contemporary saga accounts and modern archaeological research suggest that Norse life in Greenland was always possible but rarely easy. Whatever Egede’s unnamed sources, it is neither true nor probable that his experience of trying to farm in Greenland led him to believe that there was ever a surplus of Greenlandic dairy produce, oversized fruit of any description, or the leisure and inclination to hunt for amusement rather than subsistence. This version of the Arctic is just as much of a fable as Wilson’s dead earth, Davidson’s obliterating ice-sheet and John Moss’s post-modern landscape. But this myth of polar abundance is one that has not been recognised by recent scholarship, despite its obvious importance to (at least) Johnson, Coleridge and Hogg.

The rhetoric of Arctic plenty here is unusual but not unprecedented. Mercantilists opposed to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s monopoly on trade in the lands that are now Canada had accused the HBC of concealing its discovery of “a Country of surprising Greatness . . . . abounding with all Kinds of Game, Fish and Beasts of rich Furs, in excellent Climates, abounding with Timber Trees of all Sorts, and wild Fruit, and capable of all other Kinds of Fruit and Grain upon Cultivation” (Dobbs 55). But Arthur Dobbs never went to the far North himself and could make no response when those he sent to confirm his conspiracy theory reported that the cold was “so extreame” that “for four or five Months in the Winter we can hardly look abroad without freezing our Faces, Hands or Feet.” (Dobbs 182) For Dobbs, silence is a possible response to the disjunction between the rhetoric of plenty and the experience of ice, but Egede’s text must incorporate this disjunction because it is at the heart of the very idea of a Greenland mission. Both Egede’s calling to Greenland and his receipt of royal funding depend upon the idea that Greenland can be doubly domesticated, returned to the Lutheran fold of the mother-country Denmark and productively replanted with crops and farm animals. The Description of Greenland is interested in a tender archaeology of cultural continuity, easing out and dusting off evidence that the real Greenland is Nordic. Egede pieces together a third-hand, twice translated account by “a Venetian” in Danish service who “is said by Chance to have been driven upon the Coast of Greenland in the Year 1380” to describe a convent supplied by hot water from a volcano above its valley:

This hot Water is not only conveyed by Pipes into the Convent, and through all the Cells of the Friars, to keep them warm . . . . but here they also boil and bake their Meat and Bread with the same. . . . There are also fine Gardens, which reap great Benefit from this hot Water, adorn’d with all Sorts of Flowers, and full of Fruit.


Whatever the truth of this – and there was a convent near a hot spring – the present tense, the tumbling rhythm of ‘not only…but also’ and the insistence on warmth and profusion bespeak both the intensity of Egede’s ideological investment in the place and the lingering fantasy of someone who is, as he was at the time of writing, very cold and very hungry. In the teeth of the evidence (“Besides the frightful Ice that covers the whole face of the Land, the Sea is almost choak’d with it” [Egede 54]), Egede insists on a once and future Promised Land in the Arctic. He is sure to the end that “the Colony . . . . is not yet wholly destitute of its old Norwegian Inhabitants,” who must be on the east coast, “hindered by the Ice, which renders them altogether inaccessible” (23). There is still no sense that anything but faith and perseverance might be lacking to heal this breach in space and time between ice and plenty: “If the old Lands, formerly inhabited and manured by the Norway Colonies, were anew peopled with Men and Cattle; they would, without doubt, yield as much as either Iceland or Feroe, seeing there is as good Pasture-Ground as in those Islands” (Egede 177).

An unofficial version of Egede’s Description was published by the Bergen Company, to whom he had sent an early draft as a report, in 1729, and it was popular enough to be translated into German a few months later. Egede rewrote and expanded this work in Greenland during the 1730s, and the resulting book was published in 1740 and translated into English in 1745. It is cited in most eighteenth and nineteenth century accounts of the Arctic and has some influence on eighteenth-century as well as Romantic literature. Two of Johnson’s Rambler essays are closely based on an Inuit myth about the sun and moon which Egede relates, and scholars of these essays agree that Johnson wrote with a copy of Egede’s text in front of him. [1] The Arctic scenes in James Thomson’s Winter draw on both Egede’s Description and, particularly in relation to the polar bear, David Crantz’s History of Greenland[2]

David Crantz shares Egede’s investment in the Arctic as a site of profusion, but, representing Moravian orthodoxy and writing twenty years later, he looks towards a millennial future rather than a lost land of milk and honey. Egede’s dwelling on the past necessitates a close involvement with landscape because, in the absence of any textual evidence about the Norse colony’s decline, the reading of land must suffice and because his own sense of Nordic identity drives an interest in the (agri)cultural reintegration of Greenland. Crantz’s interest in the City on the Hill, the image which also shapes early American or Colonial Puritan writing, seems to displace the particularities of the Arctic. Abundance remains important, but the point is God’s miraculous and gratuitous provision for his creatures rather than the potential rewards of faith and good works. In Nonconformist fashion, biblical phrases form so much of Crantz’s interpretative vocabulary that Greenland begins to seem more like the metaphorical setting for salvation than a material place. The invention of landscape as an analogy for spiritual progress is only a little less complete than Bunyan’s, and it is clear that material conditions have a limited influence on Crantz’s History. It is a history of conversion much more than a history of place.

This investment in parables at the expense of conventional travel writing is particularly clear in Crantz’s observations of natural history. The first chapters of the book are devoted to such observations, forming an odd prelude to the following two volumes of detailed missionary chronicle but establishing Greenland as a densely meaningful backdrop for the dramas of salvation which follow. Observing a great quantity of seaweed, Crantz remarks, “we may suppose that the bottom of the sea is grown over with plants and herbs . . . . which have hitherto served only to decorate the cabinet of the virtuoso on account of their vanity.” At the mission, such vanity is dismissed: “However they certainly spread a table for many, . . . . of the inhabitants and hungry monsters of the ocean, that seldom or never present themselves to our view” (1: 68). The phrase to “spread a table” echoes across the Bible as an image of God’s loving or unconditional provision for his people, and it is taken up in the New Testament to demonstrate Christ’s democracy. Crantz thus presents the Arctic sea-bed as part of this provision, included in the Bible but also – since it is possible to read God’s love in both – in dialogue with it. He explains the spawning of herrings by asking how “were they to secret themselves beneath the ice all the year round”; they could “yield the tribute they owe to man, who is appointed to be lord over the fishes of the sea?” (1: 90). He concludes that the surplus of herring is a divine provision for the basis of trade, so the Inuit can “procure for themselves those necessaries, which the unfruitfulness of their own land denies them” (1: 91). This insistence on Greenland as part of the space fully accounted for in the Old and New Testaments could be seen as an attempt to resist or overcome the intrinsic strangeness of the place, but there is no real sense of Arctic strangeness in Crantz’s text. His Greenland is cold and dark (“When one boils water, it first freezes over the fire, till at length the heat gains the mastery” [Crantz 1: 43]), but since it is clear that Crantz’s interest in abundance is exclusively metaphorical, ice and lack of light pose merely practical problems. God’s love is so clearly written on the land that there is no need for such manifestations as food and warmth. An early experience of being lost, storm-bound and starving leads the missionaries to conclude merely that “there was a hand of God in it, and that he would teach them, by all sorts of adversities, not to enter too far into temporal cares” (Crantz 1: 331). The Arctic is a place where the pure signs of God’s love can be purged of material concerns.

In some ways, then, Crantz presents Greenland’s remoteness and inaccessibility as bringing its inhabitants closer to God, and this is where his writing may begin to feed into Rousseauvian ideas that were developing as his translated History was being read in England. The Inuit “Greenlanders” are “discreet, cautious, friendly, mannerly and modest,” “without artificial and often dissembling words and compliments, and without strange and often ridiculous flourishes, postures and grimaces” (Crantz 1: 170). They “live a poor toilsome life in our eye, but they are cheerful under it, and have all that nature requires in the little they possess” (Crantz 1: 184). “The quality of their land and the poverty of their houses saves them from many a disorder, that other nations imbitter each other’s lives by” (Crantz 1: 186). They are “a gentle, quiet, civil and good-natured generation. They live in a state of Nature and Liberty . . . . extra civitatem, yet in Society” (Crantz 1: 183). For Crantz and his brethren, this virtue born of poverty means nothing in itself. There is no merit in an absence of sin that results from material and cultural conditions. To bring about the millennial City on the Hill, the Greenlanders must manifest a broken spirit and a contrite heart: “nothing was requisite but the cries of unaffected distress and an upright mind to be set free” (Crantz 2: 159). How far this actually happened is questionable; Finn Gad remarks in his History of Greenland that “the catechism was and remained incomprehensible in the pseudo-Greenlandic in which it was written” (p99). Crantz measures the value of preaching by the preacher’s emotion rather than the audience’s comprehension, relating a “brother”’s joy when his “heart was quite alive” in a discourse to a new group of “wild people” who showed no signs of understanding his words (2: 164). The eventual success of the Lutheran and Moravian Greenland missions is often attributed to the second generation of missionaries who were born in Greenland and grew up bilingual. It seems likely that Crantz’s History has a momentum quite apart from the conversion narratives it relates as well as from the land itself. The communications he describes were not taking place or were meaningful to the missionaries but not to their audience. It remains important that Crantz presents Greenland as a theocracy where religious enthusiasm holds unhampered sway.

Coleridge’s 1796 poem, “The Destiny of Nations: a Vision,” footnotes Crantz and reads the Arctic as a place of moral and intellectual freedom where a nascent culture can move towards theocracy without the mind-forged manacles of contemporary England. Coleridge is always fascinated by ice and its transformative properties, but here the strange polar phenomena serve analogically as guides on the path towards “Self-control,” “Reason” and reliance “On the victorious goodness of high God” (Coleridge, “Destiny” 121-125). This is in many ways an unusually conservative poem for Coleridge at this date, in which each instance of Arctic strangeness leads the “Laplander” and the “uncouth throng” of Greenlanders gently but inexorably towards Christian orthodoxy. The aurora borealis, “the streamy banners of the North,” give rise to a legend which “first unsensualizes the dark mind” and then

Emancipates it from the grosser thrall
Of the present impulse, teaching Self-control,
Till superstition with unconscious hand
Seat Reason on her throne.

Coleridge, “Destiny” lines 79-87

This stately progression from heathen darkness to Christian light is repeated by the powers of the Inuit shaman, the “Greenland wizard,” whose role offers an interim faith that will suffice,

Till from Bethabra northward, heavenly Truth
With gradual steps, winning her difficult way,
Transfer their rude faith perfected and pure.

“Destiny” 124-126

Greenlandic understanding of the world is valuable here because it is different from that of Europeans who “Chain down the winged thought” (“Destiny” 29 ) and because it can work as a prototype for Christianity. “Superstition” is preparing a way for the Lord in the Arctic wilderness, but there is little sense of the numinous in the wilderness itself. A brief comparison with “Frost at Midnight” shows how “Destiny of Nations” can seem to have more in common with Crantz’s account of landscape than with Coleridge’s contemporary poems. In contrast to the “secret ministry” of frost, there is little sense of ice and frost having agency in any way distinct from that of God here, and the workings of the natural world have no mystery that is not immediately referred to God’s will. This is a poem in which “Frost at Midnight”’s startling attention to the extraordinary vibrations of ice is replaced by missionary fervour which comes with a much more straightforward (and traditional) approach to language and landscape. This is particularly clear in quite different ways of using the same image, that of the natural world as an alphabet. The second stanza of “Destiny of Nations” asks, “For what is Freedom, but the unfettered use / Of all the powers which God for use had given?” (“Destiny 13-14) (The very word “unfettered” implies a freedom that comes after, and perhaps with the precondition of, imprisonment, a tempered and post-lapsarian freedom that comes not from the absence of constraint but from knowing and surviving it). The answer makes further refinements:

But chiefly this, him First, him Last to view
Through meaner powers and secondary things
Effulgent, as through clouds that veil his blaze.
For all that meets the bodily sense I deem
Symbolical, one mighty alphabet
For infant minds; and we in this low world
Placed with our backs to bright Reality,
That we may learn with young unwounded ken
The substance from its shadow.

“Destiny” 15-23

The imagery of Plato’s cave sets up a tactic of straightforward analogy that acquires divine sanction as the poem proceeds. The “clouds that veil his blaze” seem similar to the “streamy lights” and “meteor lights better than total gloom” (“Destiny” 63). In this explicitly theological construction of the aurora borealis, the northern lights replace the sun in the Arctic winter and represent heathen darkness preceding the coming of the Son later in the poem. They are not compelling in themselves but as secondary substitutes for the real and promised light of Christianity. This connection becomes explicit at the end of the stanza where Coleridge echoes Donne: “Thou with retracted beams, and self-eclipse / Veiling, revealest thine eternal Sun” (“Destiny 25-26). Both the Sun/Son pun and the image of God revealing himself by concealing himself invoke metaphysical poetry in general and Donne in particular (“There I should see a sun, by rising set / And by that setting endless day beget” (Donne, “Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward 11-12]). Coleridge’s liking for Donne is documented and not surprising, but these lines evoke a distinctly un-Romantic approach to the natural world. Similarly, the “mighty alphabet” of sensory data here foreshadows the “shapes and sounds intelligible / Of that eternal language” in “Frost at Midnight” (Coleridge, “Frost” 59-60). Both poems read Nature as intelligible, even legible, and yet there are telling differences. “Frost at Midnight”’s “eternal language,” like the Logos, bypasses the letter that killeth to manifest itself directly in “crags / Of ancient mountain” (Coleridge, “Frost” 55-56). The point is precisely that God’s language does not employ an alphabet. The relationship between shapes and sounds is stranger and more wondrous than those “pent mid cloisters dim” might believe (this is illustrated by the haunting final line, “Quietly shining to the quiet Moon”) (“Frost” 74). “Destiny of Nations,” by contrast, insists on the translatability and even transparency of God’s meaning in the world. Despite the well-informed interest in Arctic phenomena and the footnotes indicating the latest works of polar travel, Coleridge’s interest here is in incorporating the Arctic into an orthodox and traditional reading of landscape much more than in attending to the strange particularities of ice as he does elsewhere.

If it does not offer the keen aesthetic pleasures of “Frost at Midnight” and some of Coleridge’s other mystical writings on ice, this description of Arctic ordinariness serves, in the end, a politically radical purpose. The Arctic Coleridge borrows from Crantz is not transfigurative or even innately exciting, but he has had to go to the ends of the earth to find a political home. “Destiny of Nations”’s rejection of Arctic exoticism may demonstrate Coleridge’s sense of Europe’s fall from grace with more gravity than meditations on the sublime. It is the ice of Europe that has, or has been given, overwhelming destructive powers in this poem. The speaker draws a comparison between the “Beings of a higher class than Man” that guide the Greenlanders and the “Spirit” who “held commune with the warrior-maid of France,” forging a link between the clear meanings of Crantz’s Greenland and French revolutionary idealism (“Destiny” 138). The warrior-maid “went forth alone / Urged by the indwelling angel-guide” and finds:

An unattended team! The foremost horse
Lay with stretched limbs; the others, yet alive
But stiff and cold, stood motionless, their manes
Hoar with the frozen night-dews. Dismally
The dark-red dawn now glimmered; but its gleams
Disclosed no face of man. The maiden paused,
Then hailed who might be near. No voice replied.
From the thwart wain at length there reached her ear
A sound so feeble that it almost seemed
Distant: and feebly, with slow effort pushed,
A miserable man crept forth: his limbs
The silent frost had eat, scathing like fire.
Faint on the shafts he rested. She, meantime,
Saw crowded close beneath the couverture
A mother and her children – lifeless all,
Yet lovely! not a lineament was marred –
Death had put on so slumber-like a form!
It was a piteous sight; and one, a babe,
The crisp milk frozen on its innocent lips,
Lay on the woman’s arm, its little hand
Stretched on her bosom.

“Destiny” 197 - 217

There are so many similarities between this and the accounts of Sami and Inuit life in a similar climate that the contrast must be deliberate. Unlike the slant beam of the “far off Sun” and the “Boreal Morn” this “dark red dawn” is no harbinger of metaphysical light and reveals nothing (“Destiny” 181). Both babies are cold, but the Sami child screams healthily into the snowy blast and is given “gentle solace” by “the streamy banners of the North” as it sits in its cradle on its mother’s back (“Destiny” 77), an obvious contrast to the baby frozen to death in the act of suckling. The marmoreal qualities of the dead French mother and children work both to accord these peasant victims of war an obsequy and to contrast sharply with the vitality of the screaming baby and honoured polar ancient of the Arctic. The father tells his story to the Maid of France in between his dying agonies, and it is an obviously generic tale. Soldiers have razed their village and all the surrounding ones, but this family escapes and “terror-struck drove on / Through unfrequented roads,” unable to light a fire for fear of being seen (“Destiny” 239). They continue into the night, the wife weeping and the children moaning with cold and hunger “Till Fright and Cold and Hunger drank their life. / They closed their eyes in sleep, nor knew ‘twas death” (“Destiny” 245). However difficult the way “Heavenly truth” must tread “from Bethabra northward” to bring to the Inuit the consummation of their “rude faith,” it is clearly not as hard as in revolutionary France (“Destiny” 124). The foundations of clear thinking and peaceful living are far away while the earth blanched to a corpse is close to home, and this clearly relates to Crantz’s vision of Greenland’s millennial future.

In some ways the final text in this group, James Hogg’s novella The Surpassing Adventures of Allan Gordon[3] appears most conventional from the modern point of view (although, as a plot summary will suggest, it is conventional only in terms of its nineteenth-century polar aesthetic). There is a wide range of sources for this story, including Robinson Crusoe and Mungo Park’s Travels in the Interior of Africa, and Hogg’s Arctic influences include accounts of the Ross and Parry expeditions and William Scoresby’s Account of the Arctic Regions. The latter three texts contribute to and draw on the polar sublime as, of course, does the Rime of the Ancient Mariner which Hogg’s narrator quotes several times.

The Surpassing Adventures is concerned with the interaction between a culturally specific consciousness and the spatial unknown. Allan Gordon continues to reiterate that he is “bred a tailor” and from Fife, and to explain his actions and reactions by reference to these circumstances, while he lives on a wreck off Greenland with a polar bear as his partner and provider. It is explicit that identity is culturally constituted and that a culturally-constituted identity exists in irreconcilable apposition to strange and sublime Arctic landscape. Egede’s obvious influence on this text lies in ways of imagining the lost Norse Greenlanders, with whom Hogg’s hero lives for a season. Hogg echoes Egede’s interest in domestication, but his version is a self-conscious response to the epistemological threat posed by Arctic strangeness. [4]

The Surpassing Adventures of Allan Gordon is such a rare text that a plot summary may be useful. [5] It is a first person narrative “as taken down by John Duff schoolmaster” after the narrator’s return from Greenland (Hogg 1). Allan Gordon tells of his apprenticeship to a brutal tailor whom he eventually assaults. After this he runs away to sea and relates that “In 1757 I entered on board the Anne Forbes for the Greenland whale fishery” (Hogg 3). The drunken captain makes for Spitzbergen and then follows the fish north until the ship’s magnetic instruments fail and he tells the crew they are at the North Pole. They disbelieve him “for in fact there was no pole or pillar of any kind to be seen,” but they are alarmed by “nothing but a calm open sea and the sun beating on us all the four-and-twenty hours” (Hogg 3). The circling sun makes navigation impossible and the mate remarks in alarm that “this place is like the new Jerusalem there is no night here and no star to be seen and glad would I be to be out of it” (Hogg 4). When they do leave, the ship is crushed by the ice and Allan Gordon is the sole survivor. He lives in the wreck on rum and brandy until polar bears begin to harass him. He kills a female bear and its cub appears in his room, hungry. Allan befriends the cub, naming it Nancy, and they live together happily until the wreck drifts and they find signs of human habitation. Allan and Nancy track down these people, the last forty-one Norse Greenlanders and the only survivors of repeated raids by cohorts of malevolent polar bears. They join the colony, which has taken to polygamy and a corrupt form of Christianity based on fear of and enmity towards bears. Allan takes several wives, of whom Nancy is jealous, and when the other bears make their final raid on the community Nancy saves Allan and takes him to the shore, from which he is able to reach Iceland.

The bears clearly personify the physical and epistemological threat posed by the Arctic, and in this context Allan’s relationship with Nancy encodes a response to this threat. (The word “Arctic” derives, after all, from the Greek Arktos, bear.) Penny Fielding has written of this story that “arctic explorers felt themselves to be confronting a space that was peculiarly liable to resist discourse” and that contemporary polar explorers “describe arctic travel as the colonisation of the unknown by a newly scientific mode of exploration” (48). Hogg’s account of Arctic landscape certainly supports a reading in these terms. This is a beautiful place with a strange destructive agency where the ice itself has designs: “after struggling on for four and twenty hours longer we perceived another field of ice before us which likewise seemed approaching us for the floating ice was crushing up before it and rolling over it” (Hogg 5). The lack of punctuation and run of present participles emphasise the sense of movement and disorientation here, setting the scene for Allan’s relationship with the ice. As winter comes to an end he fears the breaking up of the ice because,

I never knew aught about the seasons nor troubled myself calculating about them which I knew would be to no purpose for suppose the winter is all one night yet the fact is that there is no night at all in those arctic regions, at least on the white blazon of ice where I was. There is no pitch dark winter night such as I have often seen in Strathbogie . . . . There was often a white frost fogg brooding over the ice through which I could not see objects at any distance still it was quite light where I stood.

Hogg 17

The comparison with the properly regulated days and nights of home shows how strange and unnerving are the polar light levels. This is a place without time and thus, without navigation, almost without space. There is no real point in going anywhere because there is no way of knowing where you are or where you are going.

However, Allan Gordon offers at least two forms of resistance to this “space that was particularly liable to resist discourse.” The first is simply that of pleasure. Nancy’s ability and constant readiness to catch fish protect him from the fear of starvation that rightly haunted most polar travellers, and her company provides insulation from the horror of a direct and sustained encounter with the destructive unknown. So provided, Allan describes drifting on an iceberg as “reposing at my ease or walking in awful sublimity on the top of a lofty mountain moving on with irresistible power and splendour” (Hogg 25). Even while lost and covered in frost with “no other guide save to look behind me at my track and see that I kept always on a straight line,” he can note that “The Aurora Borealis made it nearly as bright as day and the scene was truly beautiful the silvery rime that qavered in the atmosphere being all spangled with pale rainbows much more beautiful than a lunar one” (Hogg 27). Unlike the authors of many of his sources, Allan can afford not to take the Arctic personally because Nancy’s protection means that he is not immediately threatened by it, and this distance affords space for aesthetic pleasure. His relationship with Nancy is also the basis of the domesticity which – as in Robinson Crusoe – forms a counter-discourse to the themes of disorientation and subjection. Nancy strives constantly to please Allan and eagerly obeys commands; “When she found that she had done any thing that drew forth my approbation she never forgot that again” (Hogg 24). After the first winter, during which “her sagacious looks proved an agreeable conversation to me” the couple achieve a form of direct communication and the sexual dimension of the relationship is explicit: “Yes she lay in my bosom and though certainly a most uncourtly mate she being the only one I had I loved her sincerely I might almost say intensely” (Hogg 16). They make “A pretty couple . . . . walking arm in arm” and later Allan must wait for Nancy to hibernate before he can embark on his polygamous “amours” with the Norse women. When spring comes, the bear is “kind and affectionate as ever” but when she finds that she has been displaced in Allan’s bed, “her unhappiness was extreme” (Hogg 47). “Her moans by night disturbed the whole community” and “There was moreover a gleam of jealousy in her eye toward some of the women which frightened me” (Hogg 47). Despite recognising that “I could not leave my wife and my other supposed beautiful inamorata to sleep with a huge white she bear,” “yet I had resolved to do it rather than drive her to desperation” (Hogg 47). He dallies and Nancy disappears, returning only to rescue him when the other bears massacre the remnants of the Norse community.

This may be the first but is not the last fantasy about human/polar bear couples in Arctic writing. [6] It bears obvious relation to Crusoe’s relationship with Man Friday and to some extent can be read in a similar way as the triumph of homo economicus over the native representative of strange space, an act of intellectual colonisation by domestication. Crusoe has animals as well as Man Friday in his “little family.” But there is something more masochistic at work – or at play – here. Nancy is still a bear. We are constantly reminded, usually in the context of their caresses or bed-sharing, that Nancy is overwhelmingly bigger and stronger than Allan and can easily hurt him by accident, and in some ways their nights together can thus be seen as prefiguring the eventual deaths of the young Norse women, raped and then “prostrated and devoured” by the ravening polar bears (Hogg 50). What Allan achieves in his relationship with Nancy, and what Hogg achieves in his writing of the Arctic, is the arresting ability to live with strangeness, happily to set up home on an iceberg drifting unsteadily at the ends of the earth with a beloved creature that could easily kill him and against which he has no defence. Hogg’s Norse Greenlanders die, essentially, of polarisation, fearing and at last consumed by the frozen shapes that kill, while Allan can cohabit with the sublime, albeit at some (pleasurably paid) cost to his masculinity. He inherits from Egede, and perhaps, at the last, resolves, the dilemma of writing on ice. The fantastic nature of the resolution may seem to reinstate the idea of Arctic resistance to culture, while the masochism of sleeping with a polar bear may approach that of Burkean terror. But domesticity mediates between ice and culture; there is neither terror nor masochism when Allan sits down to a fish supper with Arktos. Hogg reconciles the dichotomy between fantastic cold and fantastic abundance. In poetic terms (and in poetic terms only), he answers Egede.

Parties annexes