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Actes du colloque de la S.F.E.V.E. à l'université de Provence, les 18 et 19 janvier 2008. Thème : « Représentations victoriennes et édouardiennes des quatre éléments »

The Mystery of “those icy climes” (Shelley 269): Literature, Science and Early Nineteenth-century Polar Exploration

Catherine Lanone
p. 201-210


Nineteenth-century science probed into the mystery of ice, from the structure of snowflakes to glaciers to Polar exploration. Literature reflects this attempt to understand the shifting nature of ice, a transparent yet deceptive—neither liquid nor truly solid—elemental structure. While glaciers become the sublime site of Romantic poetic epiphany, Mary Shelley subverts the euphoric associations of pristine settings by choosing to locate a crucial confrontation between creature and creator in the Alps, then by opting for Walton’s search for the North Pole and the Northwest Passage as a frame for Victor’s narrative. Walton’s delusion and search for an open sea ties in with the journals of contemporary expeditions, as if Mary Shelley had sensed that the jingoistic expeditions might turn into epic disasters. The loss of Franklin’s last expedition triggered an unprecedented series of rescue expeditions which allowed to map unknown areas yet also proved how shifting and unconquerable the ice remained for nineteenth-century boats.

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1Seeking to connect science and humanities, French philosopher Michel Serres uses the Northwest Passage as a metaphor, claiming that shifting from science to the so-called human sciences is a perilous adventure, with its own shifting cartography of icy shores, deceptive islands and fractal ice-floes. As he skillfully steers from science to philosophy back to science, Serres muses on the history of the actual Northwest Passage, and on the elusive geography of ice, the wondrous maze of elemental infinity:

Le dessin que forme la glace fait avancer, culer, virer, immobilise.
Des optiques de fantasme trompent, dans un milieu blanc, cristallin, diaphane, brumeux. La terre, l’air et l’eau se confondent, solides et liquides, flocons flous et brouillards se mélangent, ou, au contraire, chacun d’eux se découpe, fractal, et la lumière éclate, irrisée, réfringente, par tout le spectre défini, multiplie les objets, frange les bords, joue avec les distances. Dédale d’erreurs et de précisions à l’observation attentive, golfes, chenaux, bassins, détroits des rayons et des ombres. (Serres 16)

2As Serres points out, the Passage was sought as early as the Renaissance, but the quest was almost abandoned until the nineteenth-century’s adamant attempts to rule the elements, thanks to the progress of modern science. We shall attempt to trace the nineteenth-century fascination with those distant regions of ice and snow, a kind of scientific grail as well as an area of myth and fantasy, the unexpected site of desire, of the romance of polar exploration.

3At the turn of the nineteenth century, at a time when England was heading for the soot and smoke of the Industrial Revolution, transparent, pristine ice became a source of fascination, an obsession prompted both by science and aesthetics. From crystals to glaciers to the blank maps of the poles, the mystery of metamorphic ice beckoned, a transparent oxymoron, neither liquid nor solid, an enticing alchemy casting its spell, the enigma of purity and creation. For Eric G. Wilson, “Crystals, glaciers and the poles form invitations to the uncanny” (Wilson 85).

4Such Romantic fascination must be connected with the progress of science. As Frédérique Rémy points out, ice is a hybrid element, a remarkable phenomenon which challenged eighteenth and nineteenth-century science, especially when compared with the fluidity of water and the solidity of earth: “comment une substance peut-elle changer d’état sans modification de son essence et surtout, comment, une fois solide, cette substance peut-elle s’être allégée? D’où lui vient en gelant cette force incroyable qui fait éclater les contenants?” (Rémy 7). Science had attempted to tame the process; in 1724, the German physicist Farenheit devised his temperature scale and chose as his fixed point zero the temperature at which frozen water and salt begin to melt (the freezing point of water without salt is 32, the highest point 212 degrees). In 1744, the Swedish astronomer Celsius devised an easier scale, choosing as reference points the freezing point of water (without salt) and the boiling point of water. Inevitably, at the turn of the century, ice stirred the Romantic imagination. Poets were enticed by the mystery of ice crystals, by “the secret ministry of frost” (Coleridge 162) which Coleridge muses on as he gazes at the silent icicles “Quietly shining to the quiet Moon” (Coleridge 164), turning condensation into a sign of organic life but also a metatextual emblem of the creative, poetic mind. Following Horace Benedict’s de Saussure scientific experiments on Mont Blanc in 1787, scientists (such as Agassiz or Tyndall) were to probe for a century into the enigma of glaciers, so that the quest for sublime emotion in the Alps, leading from Shelley’s tribute to glaciers in “Mont Blanc” to Turner and Ruskin, was prompted by Burke, the Grand Tour, but also by contemporary science. Less obvious perhaps today is the early nineteenth-century enticing appeal of Polar Romance, which pervades the first part of Coleridge’s 1798 ballad The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, as enchanting green ice turns into a howling monster paralyzing the ship (“The ice was here, the ice was there,/The ice was all around” (Coleridge 132)). Significantly, Mary Shelley chose to preface the narrative of Victor Frankenstein with the letters of an explorer, Walton, a would-be poet who has switched from failed writing to dreams of discovery and polar exploration, no longer Antarctica as in Coleridge’s case but what was then loosely called “the North Pole”—a term which referred both to the quest for the Pole and to the mythical quest for the Northwest Passage.

5Polar ice may seem a far cry from England but it attracted English attention like a magnet. The polar seas were a terra incognita, a blank which caught people’s imagination, a void which must be explored and mapped, for geographic and political rather than Romantic reasons. After crushing Napoleon, Britain had to confirm its supremacy, and claim uncharted lands before Russia did. Such was the aim—one might say the obsession—of John Barrow, the Second Secretary to the Admiralty. There was also, of course, a commercial aim: the Northwest Passage was meant to provide a short cut to China and drastically reduce expenses. But when the quest for the Northwest Passage was resumed in 1818, it quickly became obvious that such a long, uneasy route, even were it discovered, was unlikely to be commercially rewarding. Yet the scientific and strategic goals remained: it still appeared crucial to claim the Arctic as English, to map its secrets in terms of outlines, but also of fauna and flora—not to mention native inhabitants, whether Inuit or Indians—, crucial also to ascertain what the polar seas actually looked like.

6After the failure of a sea expedition led by John Ross—who, deceived by refraction, thought he saw a mountain range closing the horizon, returned to England against the opinion of his second in command, Parry, and broke his career in the process—, Barrow set his heart upon a joint expedition, a land expedition led by Sir John Franklin, and a sea expedition led by William Parry. Together, they would chart the Arctic and Parry, guided by Franklin’s indications, would discover the Northwest Passage. Of course, they never found each other on the Arctic shore.

7Franklin was a naval officer, who knew nothing about travelling on foot across barren Arctic regions. For all his previous experience, Parry did not understand the nature of ice. A better choice for a leader might have been William Scoresby, the whaler who had warned the Admiralty that now was the right time for an expedition, since the ice was less thick than it had been as far as any fisherman familiar with the region could remember. Scoresby had been on a fishing boat since the age of 10; yet he happened to have also developed a passion for science, so that his father had sent him to Edimburgh university; he had sent papers to the Royal Society and become a well-known scientist as he was the first to draw ice crystals properly, after polishing a piece of ice which he used as a lens to magnify the crystals onboard his ship, long before Tyndall’s accurate microscopic observations (indeed, Tyndall was to pay him a vibrant tribute in the 1870’s). But Barrow ignored Scoresby, who was no gentleman and did not belong to the Navy. Besides, Scoresby kept repeating that the North Pole must be frozen, whereas Barrow believed in the theory of the open sea: Barrow was convinced that behind the barrier of ice the sea must become warmer, lying as it does closer to the sun, a theory which seeped into scientific but also popular articles—articles which, for instance, Mary Shelley may have been acquainted with. Hence Walton’s anaphoric incantations, replacing the poles as the “seat of frost and desolation” with “the region of beauty and delight”: “There, Margaret, the sun is ever visible/there snow and frost are banished; and sailing over a calm sea, we may be wafted to a land surpassing in wonders and in beauty every region hitherto discovered on the habitable globe” (Shelley 269). Much has been said about the representation of medecine in Frankenstein, but perhaps not enough about the topicality of that other Promethean scientific quest, Arctic exploration, the folly of which is encapsulated in Walton’s speech by the anaphoric deictic building up a realm of fantasy and a sense of longing, “there”... According to Jessica Richard, “Shelley not only draws on but contends with the improbable romance of Polar exploration, an enterprise with the phantasmal incentive of a temperate polar sea beyond the Arctic ice” (Richard 296). Like Walton, Barrow believed in a warm, Arcadian pole, and Scoresby was duly forgotten and Franklin and Parry promoted.

8Thus, with great insight, Frankenstein foreshadows the hubris of the series of expeditions which were to mesmerize England, from 1818 onward. For instance, Walton dreams of solving scientific mysteries: “I may there discover the wondrous power which attracts the needle and may regulate a thousand celestial observations, that require only this voyage to render their seeming eccentricities consistent forever” (Shelley 269-270). Sir John Franklin’s agenda, defined by Admiralty orders as he was about to set out on his first attempt to reach the Arctic sea by land, was also supposed to solve the mysteries of the Arctic, to condense and crystallize observations, making “their seeming eccentricities consistent forever”. While the doctor and naturalist of the expedition, Richardson, was to sample and study flaura and fauna as well as natives, and midshipmen Back and Hood to draw watercolours which would function like photographic proofs, Franklin was “to amend the very defective geography” (Franklin 1) of the North, and so ascertain correctly latitude and longitude; deposit information along the coast for Parry; register the temperature of the air at least three times a day; describe all meteorological phenomena, as well as optical phenomena like the aurora; observe the dip and variation of the needle (magnetism was one of the many mysteries which were being solved by modern nineteenth-century science). A picture of Franklin, which was published as the frontispiece of his journal, displays a man on the cutting edge of modernity, serenely holding the tools of science which connote control and deny disorientation. Similarly, the daguerreotype which was taken as he was about to depart on the 1845 expedition features a telescope, an emblem of the leader’s far-sightedness. Shackleton’s later claim, that he was drawn to the very axis of the world, might equally be applied to the investigation of the North Pole at the dawn of the nineteenth century. Science was to triumph over Arctic ice and find the very axis of the world.

9But this iconic representation was repeatedly and severely tested by the reality of Arctic ice, as is shown by the accounts of Parry’s journeys on the Polar sea (however successful he may have seemed compared with Ross), or by Franklin’s accounts of his two attempts to map the Arctic shore on foot. Franklin’s journal of the first land expedition is as stiff and unpalatable as the watercolours drawn by his two midshipmen, Hood and Back, are fascinating. Every day Franklin takes readings, piling up figures, noting time, latitude and longitude, variations of the magnetic needle, variations in weather and temperature, indeed mapping both weather and space. Ultimately, however, the weather remains unpredictable, the elements cannot be tamed. Like shoes, beards and tea, the sextant freezes at times. On the day when Franklin tries to impress the Indians with a solar eclipse, there is a snow-storm. Even though the journals uphold Western methods, those obviously prove defective. When the Indian chief refuses to go further, Franklin protests with characteristic scientific hubris: “We now informed him that we were provided with instruments by which we could ascertain the state of the air and water, and that we did not imagine the winter to be so near as he supposed” (Franklin 200-201). Yet winter is indeed upon them, and progress is desperately slow. Snow and ice are deceptive, treacherous surfaces which science cannot frame. The “voyageurs”, the French Canadians or métis, are soon exhausted by their heavy packs which make them fall into the ice and snow. Food becomes scarce. The atmosphere of the watercolours themselves seems to change. We move from triumphant images (the men departing and crossing a frozen lake, with dogs and sleighs) or naturalistic photographic accounts (such as the drawing of a bear or of lichen, made for Richardson’s sake), to more sublime views of the white, empty landscape. The long journey on foot becomes an ordeal, a trial by exhaustion, hunger and pain, though the English believe in the mystique of their mission. As they reach the Arctic sea and begin at last to map its contours, Franklin miscalculates, pushes it too far, too late. The weather is changing, yet he does not retreat. In the morning their blankets are as stiff as planks; the men rub their faces constantly to prevent them from freezing. Routinely the icy swamp cracks under their feet: “we found ourselves above the knees in water—and as this froze immediately on exposure to the air it occupied no little time to disencumber our legs from ice” (Back 169). Along the Arctic shore they face rain, snow, severe gales, an elemental vortex; they waste precious days following what they thought was the sea, and which turns out to be a deceptive inlet, Bathurst Inlet; and when, at long last, Franklin decides to turn back at Point Turnagain, when they take the desperate chance of trying to save time by venturing on the sea, they have to face severe winds and floating ice which may crush their fragile willow-bark canoes. The watercolours depicting the canoes at sea, for instance by Cape Barrow (it was part of colonial practice to bestow very English names upon the conquered land) show how different the Arctic sea, even that close to the land, is from Barrow’s dream. Even if the watercolours display no vortex of mist and snow in Turner’s numinous manner, the representation of ice and sea may be deemed somewhat sublime, in Burke’s sense of the word. The men are dwarfed by the craggy rocks, lost in their tiny boats on the cold, cold sea which dashes itself against the rocky shore, the sombre horizon spells doom. In the published version of Franklin’s journal, the engravings gently modify the watercolours, opting for more cheerful colours and more regular proportions as if to lighten the ordeal—after all, in the published version, the story was meant to appear epic rather than frightening. Yet the full horror of the journey may be read between the lines, as the men fail to find animals to hunt and attempt to live on “tripe de roche”—the lichen which burns stomach and mouth, but which was all they found on Starvation Barrens.

  • 1 Too weak to go on, Hood was left behind with Richardson and Hepburn; Michel joined them and fed the (...)

10Franklin lost 11 out of his 20 men, including his young officer Robert Hood. One of the voyageurs, a métis called Michel, even indulged in cannibalism and was shot;1 yet the journals, an extraordinary story of suffering and endurance, a real-life drama, turned Franklin into a hero, the man who had wrestled with the elements, who had eaten his boots.

  • 2 The term was used in 1855 in an article in Blackwell’s Magazine. See also Russell Potter’s Arctic S (...)
  • 3 See Francis Spufford’s analysis of the way in which Cruikshank “catches the crowd hysteria aroused (...)

11Although such heroic polar exploration prompted fame and fascination, voices of dissent were heard, pointing out that it was hopeless to attempt to rule the ice, a metamorphic element far more challenging than both earth and water. First and foremost, as we have seen, Mary Shelley turned her Monster—impassive as he is to cold and frost as he leads Victor on and on towards the North—into a figure for the mad, deadly lure of Polar exploration, at the very moment when expeditions were being resumed. In a comical rather than Gothic vein, newspapers which celebrated explorers also demanded at times why the Juggernaut2 of science required so many victims. In 1819, Cruikshank caricatured the North Pole expeditions with his “Landing the Treasures, or the Results of the Polar Expedition!!!”. While the crowd is cheering, the leader of the polar expedition has lost his frost-bitten nose; the crew bring trophies, such as a bird on a bayonet (perhaps an echo of Coleridge’s albatross) or a polar bear with a constellation on his back (Ursa Major, an emblem of polar romance and danger); Jack Frost is literally carrying the pole (a narwhal’s horn).3 Clearly, Cruikshank has little respect for the wonders brought back by explorers, including a jar of red snow for the British Museum.

  • 4 Caspar David Friedrich, The Sea of Ice, 1823-25, Oil on Canvas, 96,7 x 126,9 cm, Kunsthalle, Hambur (...)

12In 1824, a more sublime vision of the mad, Promethean ventures, was offered by Caspar David Friedrich’s “Sea of Ice”,4 a heap of broken slabs, an architecture of ice, with its chaotic, aggressive pattern of raised triangles, reaching above the bluish, greenish layers of ice and snow. The metaphysical indifference of nature swallows the tiny hull we discover as if by mistake, reinforcing the idea that it is about to vanish. The painting is supposed to have been inspired by one of Parry’s journeys during which one of his ships, the Fury, was trapped and crushed by ice. The scene is preternaturally cold, the sublime energy of ice utterly defeats men—indeed, there are no men left in the painting.

  • 5 “the permafrost of the ground, that peculiar combination of water pretending to be land within the (...)
  • 6 Modern forensic science has proved in the 1980’s that the canned food caused lead-poisoning, perhap (...)

13The vision of ships trapped in ice was to haunt the saga of British exploration during the Victorian era. With uncanny foresight, Friedrich depicts a scene which foreshadows one of the most traumatic disasters of Victorian scientific ventures, the disappearance of the Erebus and Terror. In 1845, a confident Sir John Franklin sailed forth, the proud leader of what was intended to be the ultimate Arctic expedition. The two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, had been fitted with the latest scientific designs, such as steam power, occupying much space but supposedly allowing the ships to break Arctic ice. The hull was protected with iron plates. The expedition relied for the first time on tinned food to avoid shortage. But by 1847, nothing had been heard from the expedition, and England began to launch rescue operations. They still did not understand, however, the very nature of ice. In the words of Canadian writer Rudy Wiebe, the ice is water pretending to be land.5 It simply shifts, as elusive as water. The ice changes form, a passage which is open will be closed the next moment, it cannot be charted or explored like land. The straits where Franklin had ventured were closed when the rescue expeditions came; they looked for the expedition where it was not. Year after year, Britain sought its heroic crew, to no avail. In 1854, Dr John Rae, who was travelling by land, encountered by chance some Inuit people who gave him hints of Franklin’s fate: the Erebus and the Terror had been trapped in ice, and abandoned.6 The survivors had attempted to walk across the ice, and had been driven to the last extremity, cannibalism; to put an end to costly expeditions, the Admiralty spread the whole story, a rather awkward decision. In 1854, the news blurred the boundary between the savage and the explorer, it was simply unthinkable. The very basis of the Empire seemed shaken by the unacceptable news. Year after year, until the 1870’s, English and American ships were sent to seek the lost expedition. Charles Dickens, in Household Words, published a series of articles upholding the myth of the great Arctic hero; with Wilkie Collins, he wrote and performed a play entitled The Frozen Deep, a melodrama vindicating Arctic explorers. The story of the lost ships haunted Dickens and Victorian Britain. Official discourse still upheld exploration, leading to the First International Polar Year in 1882, while paintings and symptomatic allusions in contemporary novels suggest a more ambivalent response, casting doubt on those “great knights-errant of the sea” and those “ships whose names are like jewels flashing in the night of time” (Conrad 29), Franklin’s Erebus and Terror, which Conrad was to celebrate in the ambiguous opening scene of Heart of Darkness. Thus nineteenth-century art and culture reflected and refracted the manner in which Promethean science wrestled with the ever-slippery, elusive, treacherous yet seductive, Polar ice.

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Back George. Arctic Artist: The Journal and Paintings of George Back, Midshipman with Franklin, 1819-22 [ed. Houston, C. Stuart]. Montréal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994.

Beattie Owen, Geiger John. Frozen in Time: Unlocking the Secrets of the Franklin Expedition [1987]. Vancouver/Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1992.

Coleridge S.T., in W.H. Auden, Norman Holmes Pearson (ed.), The Portable Romantic Poets, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977, 130-164.

Conrad Joseph. Heart of Darkness [1902]. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983.

Hood Robert. To the Arctic by Canoe 1819-1821: The Journals and Paintings of Robert Hood, Midshipman with Franklin [1974]. [ed. Houston, C. Stuart]. Montréal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994.

Franklin John. Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea, in the Years 1819, 1820, 1821 and 1822, London: John Murray, 1823; New York: Cosimo, 2005.

Potter Russell. A. Arctic Spectacles. Seattle/London: University of Washington Press, 2007.

Rémy Frédérique. Histoire de la glaciologie, Vuibert/Adapt-Snes Éditions, 2007.

Richard Jessica. ““A Paradise of My Own Creation”: Frankenstein and the Improbable Romance of Polar Exploration”, Nineteenth-Century Contexts, 25: 4, 295-314.

Serres Michel. Le Passage du Nord-Ouest, Paris: Minuit, 1980.

Shelley Mary, Frankentein [1818] in Peter Fairclough (ed.), Three Gothic Novels, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968, 257-497.

Spufford Francis. I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination, New York: Picador, 1997.

Verne Jules. Voyages et aventures du capitaine Hatteras, in Jules Verne, Les Romans de l’eau, Paris: Omnibus, 2001, p. 379-808.

Wiebe Rudy. A Discovery of Strangers. Toronto: Knopf, 1994.

Wiebe Rudy. Playing Dead: A Contemplation Concerning the Arctic, Edmonton: Newest Press, 2003.

Wilson Eric G. The Spiritual History of Ice, New York/Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

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1 Too weak to go on, Hood was left behind with Richardson and Hepburn; Michel joined them and fed them some wolf meat which he had miraculously found, and which presumably came from the frozen body of another voyageur whom he may or may not have murdered, as the horrified Richardson came to realize. Michel shot Hood, although he claimed it was suicide; he was later shot by Richardson. The episode it at the core of Rudy Wiebe’s novel, A Discovery of Strangers.

2 The term was used in 1855 in an article in Blackwell’s Magazine. See also Russell Potter’s Arctic Spectacles for the impact of Polar exploration on Victorian culture, newpsapers and panoramas.

3 See Francis Spufford’s analysis of the way in which Cruikshank “catches the crowd hysteria aroused by the expedition” (Spufford 55). We may add that the red snow (actually described by Ross and explained as a kind of dyed lichen tinging the snow field), also features in Verne’s Hatteras, and might be taken as a strange natural phenomenon (which does exist) but also as a kind of displaced representation of the dangers of the Arctic, and potentially of the risk of cannibalism.

4 Caspar David Friedrich, The Sea of Ice, 1823-25, Oil on Canvas, 96,7 x 126,9 cm, Kunsthalle, Hamburg. The painting was deemed inhuman and was not sold while Friedrich was alive.

5 “the permafrost of the ground, that peculiar combination of water pretending to be land within the land itself” (Wiebe 2003, 106)

6 Modern forensic science has proved in the 1980’s that the canned food caused lead-poisoning, perhaps causing death or mental disorientation (see Owen Beattie’s startling account of his investigation).

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Catherine Lanone, « The Mystery of “those icy climes” (Shelley 269): Literature, Science and Early Nineteenth-century Polar Exploration », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 71 Printemps | 2010, 201-210.

Référence électronique

Catherine Lanone, « The Mystery of “those icy climes” (Shelley 269): Literature, Science and Early Nineteenth-century Polar Exploration », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 71 Printemps | 2010, mis en ligne le 07 octobre 2016, consulté le 19 août 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.2855

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Catherine Lanone

Université Toulouse 2 — Le Mirail.
Catherine Lanone est professeur à l’université de Toulouse II. Elle est l’auteur de deux livres consacrés à E.M. Forster et Emily Brontë. Elle a travaillé sur le journal de la première expédition Franklin et a également publié des articles sur les réécritures du gothique, notamment chez Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker ou les sœurs Brontë.

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