Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Sir John Franklin, Poet?

The career of Sir John Franklin inspired numerous poems both during and after his lifetime, ranging from the romantic (Swinburne's "The Death of Sir John Franklin") to the modernist (Gwendolyn MacEwen's "Terror and Erebus") to the postmodernist (David Solway's Franklin's Passage cycle) -- but until now, Franklin had never been known as the author of any poetry of note.  The excellent Non Solus blog just put up a scan of the manuscript of Franklin's foray into verse, which was preserved in the pages of a special presentation copy of his Journey to the Polar Sea, which was inscribed to Sir John Richardson's wife.  This copy had been acquired by the University of Illinois library under the auspices of Professor Robert Eugene Johnson, whose biography of Richardson was published in 1976, but although Johnson mentioned the poem in his book, it has not previously been published, so far as the blog's editors (or myself) can tell.

It was certainly not meant for public consumption, and its interest today is more historical than poetical -- although married to the poet Eleanor Ann Porden, Franklin was, to his very soul, a man of prose. The subject of the poem is the pressure Franklin felt on his being expected -- as had been tradition for explorers -- to write up his journey for public consumption, whence it would be brought forth by John Murray, whose arrangement for such things with the Admirality was a long-standing one.  Many biographers have noted the struggles Franklin went through in producing his narrative, and the prose indeed is labored in parts (though not half so much as this poem!).  Never the less, the result was widely read, and secured his reputation as "the Man who ate his boots"; the book has rarely been out of print since.

The poem itself is in a sort of ballad stanza, and is filled with archaisms, forced rhymes, and other such tokens of the light verse it aims at -- the first two stanzas are a fair sample:

Heigho! alack and well a day! 
 Was ever wight like me distressed
What shall I write? What can I say
Will this or that way read the best?

Oh! that my foe a book had written
So spake the wisest of mankind
Alas! his curse my head has smitten
And write I must tho ill enclined.

And it continues in this manner. One might be tempted to rehearse Harry Bailey's rejoinder to Chaucer's "Tale of Syr Thopas" -- but then again, Chaucer's doggerel was meant to be bad.  Still, the poem offers up some insight into Franklin the man; apparently he possessed a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor, a trait not often otherwise noted among his writings -- and for this, we can certainly be grateful.


  1. Sorry to pour cold water on this but the poem was actually written by Eleanor, not John! As soon as I saw the first line I rushed to look in my book Deadly Winter and there it was on p101. While he was holed up working on his account of the overland expedition he wrote to her complaining about how hard the work was, and the poem was something of a tease on her part which accompanied her letter of reply. Looks like she must have copied it into the book they gave their friends the Richardsons.

  2. The handwriting is strikingly similar to Sir John's so I'd guess that, although Eleanor authored the poem, Sir John transcribed it into the book. That said, I haven't looked at a sample of Eleanor's handwriting, which I expect would clinch the issue.

  3. I´ve found a reference about the procedence of this poem (i mean this if it exists only one) in the book of Stuart Houston called "Arctic Artist: The journal and paintings of George Back" in the page 284 (This page is one of them opportunely visible in the partial part offered by google books).

    He states that Franklin wrote a witty poem about "difficulties of authorship for a man of action" because his aversion on writting in general.

  4. I actually held and transcribed the original of the poem in a letter from Eleanor to Franklin at the Derbyshire Record Office when I was researching Deadly Winter, and she certainly wrote it. Franklin was no poet!

  5. The handwriting in the copy of the poem in this book doesn't look like Franklin's to me -- the letterforms are similar, but nearly all of SJF's letters have a hurried look and a more pronounced 'slant' -- I don't have samples of Eleanor's, but I'm thinking this is more likely in her hand.

  6. Thank you very much for sharing our post with a wider audience. We have published a new post on Non Solus that correctly identifies the poem by Eleanor Porden based on Martyn Beardsley's research at the Derbyshire Public Record Office, which appears in his Franklin biography, Deady Winter. I hope that you and your blog followers will have the chance to visit the University of Illinois's exhibition on Polar exploration in early 2013. The exhibit is being held in comemmoration of the hundredth anniversary of the Crocker Land Expedition and will feature this copy of Franklin's narrative as well as other Arctic highpoints, including a manuscript of The North Georgia Gazette and Winter Chronicle.

  7. I agree that the poem is not in Franklin's handwriting. The most distinctive difference I can see is that Franklin always seems to start every m or n with an extra flourish when at the start of a word.

  8. Perhaps some of you can find this images interesting (if you already didn´t know about its existence).

    It´s the original notebook of J.Franklin written during the worst moments in the 1819 expedition in Fort Enterprise.

    In fact, this writting doesn´t help much to put some light on the poem question. I also know that there are more and better examples to compare to, and besides, because is obvious that this part of the journal was written in great anxiety and difficulty. But I think that this thing fits on your post with the scanned manuscripts you mention.

    They are in the John Murray Archive (National Library of Scotland).

    You can find there the watercolours of George Back.