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Letters Written during the Late Voyage of Discovery


Winter Harbour, 1st March, 1820.


I AM no poet, you know, nor do I pretend to be a judge of poetry; but there are certain energetic productions which early made an impression on my memory; -- an impression not soon, I trust, to be effaced. In Paradise Lost, for instance, I have often been struck with the skill displayed by Milton in forming the character of the arch fiend, in which envy and malice, too often, I fear, the companions of state-ambition, are the prominent features. After a voyage still more extraordinary than ours, the infernal hero, landing on the verge of the solar system, thus addresses the life and soul of that system "which now sat high in his meridian power."

		"O thou that with surpassing glory crown'd,
		Look'st from thy sole dominion like the god
		Of this new world; at whose sight all the stars
		Hide their diminished heads; to thee I call,
		But with no friendly voice, and add thy name,
		O sun! to tell thee how I hate thy beams."
How different was the salutation with which that glorious luminary was welcomed by every soul in our little world! with what alacrity did we hasten to greet the foremost harbingers of his approach! But our sentiments, on the first view of the sun, were somewhat different from those of his Tartarian highness: -- no great compliment to ourselves, you will say. But let us proceed in due order.

The new year flattered us with a prospect of an improved temperature of the air; but its promise was delusive. The wind fell, and the mercury in the thermometer sunk down to the usual state of this season. On Sunday, the 2d January, the thermometer indicated the highest temperature to be -28°, and the barometer 29.6: on Monday, the 3d, the thermometer rose to -9°, and the barometer fell to 29.4. Notwithstanding the many heavy falls of snow for some time past, the appearance of the land and ice around us was much the same as before. For so intense is the frost, that the particles of snow, more in the form of spiculae, or needles, than of flakes, being perfectly dry, do not adhere together, but are drifted by the wind in all directions, until they lodge in ravines and other hollows, while the heights are, in some places, nearly bare.

In the end of last year and the beginning of this, a number of our people were what is called frost-nipped; frost-bitten is rather an alarming idea. These accidents generally happened when they were taking brisk exercise in walking or running on shore; the very time, one should have imagined, when they were the least exposed to them; and the very means which one should have adopted to prevent such accidents. The cause, however, was at last discovered to be the harshness of the boots worn by the men, which interrupted the circulation of the blood; and when in their place easy boots, made of canvas, and lined with flannel, or other woollen stuff, with soles of raw hide, were used, it is almost incredible how few frost-bites occurred.

In the beginning of January it was first reported to the commander of the expedition, that the sea-scurvy had made its appearance on board the Hecla. The patient first complained of pains in his legs, which were supposed to be rheumatic, but which, when considered in conjunction with the state of his gums, too surely indicated scurvy. This destructive malady rarely makes its first appearance among the officers of a ship; not so much from any difference in their food (and in this case no difference whatever existed in the provisions of officers and men in either quantity or quality), as from the officers being more attentive than the men to every thing that can affect their health. But the cause of the complaint, in the present instance, lay in this, that the officers' beds were situated in close contact with the ship's sides, and in {68} so far with the external air, whereas the seamen's beds were detached by an open space of a foot and a half.

When the dampness of the patient's bed was suspected to have occasioned his complaint, every bed in the ship was, at stated periods, aired before the fires. The antiscorbutics on board, consisting of various preserved vegetables, or their juices, were immediately employed, and in less than a fortnight the patient was able to take a little exercise between decks. His recovery was also much accelerated by the use of mustard and cresses, a small quantity of which Captain Parry contrived to raise, in shallow boxes filled with mould, places along the stove-pipe. In this was a confirmation of the fact, that fresh vegetables are the most perfect of all remedies for scorbutic disorders. Having been raised without the influence of day light, the mustard and cresses were colourless, but in all other respects they seemed to possess the qualities belonging to them when raised in the most favourable circumstances.

On the 7th January we had another proof, although certainly no fresh proof was necessary, of the intolerable effect on our feelings produced by cold when accompanied by wind. On that day the mercury in the thermometer fluctuated between -38° and -40°: but the wind blew hard from N.N.W. with a heavy drift of snow. So bitterly keen was the sensation of cold, that it was almost impossible to withstand it in moving the short distance from the one ship to the other.

For several days afterwards the aurora borealis frequently appeared, but with very feeble colours; nor were either the magnetic needle or the electric apparatus affected by it.

At noon, on the 11th, the temperature of the external air fell lower than we had ever before experienced it, namely, to 49° below zero. But the weather was perfectly calm, so that several officers and men could take exercise on shore without inconveniency.

On such occasions we could not avoid the remark, that several effects of cold, stated to have been experienced by other persons, who had passed the winter in similar climates, were never perceived by us. The excruciating pain in the lungs, the instantaneous conversion of breath-vapour into snow, &c. never came under our observation.

Saturday the 15th was distinguished by the most brilliant, indeed the only very brilliant exhibition of the beauties of the aurora borealis, or northern lights, which we had witnessed since we entered the Arctic regions. The phenomenon first presented a complete arch, nearly in the plane of the meridian. This arch soon broke up, and the common aurora appeared in the southern horizon, such as we had often seen, namely, a pale light seeming {69} to issue from behind a dark cloud; but this darkness might be only the sky itself assuming that colour, from the contrast with the whitish light. The luminous appearance was, with us, confined to the southern horizon, as in Britain it is confined to the northern. We had frequently, in navigating the sounds and straits from Baffin's bay, been induced by the phenomena of the compass, to conceive that we had gone to the northward of the N. magnetic pole of the earth. The appearance of the aurora also to the southward of us may perhaps intimate some kind of relation between the causes of both. This is no new notion; but at any rate no one can be less qualified that I am to advance or to form conjectures on the subject. It has been asserted that a peculiar kind of noise has been heard during remarkable displays of streamers; but although we are placed in a situation the most remote from any terrestrial noises, yet nothing of the kind was ever perceptible by our ears. During the death-like silence in which we are enveloped, we have on many occasions been surprised to notice to what a distance the sound of persons in common conversation on the shore, as well as on board, has been audible. -- But as a dry enumeration of circumstances in the order of their chronological succession, especially from my hand, would convey a very imperfect notion of this singularly beautiful phenomenon, I annex a copy of some verses on the subject, which adorn our Arctic Gazette, a production which, wherever imagination and invention are concerned, will not shrink from a comparison with your high born London Gazette. These verses will also serve as a proof that all the snows and ice of N. lat. 75° are not sufficient to quench the flame of British genius.

Suggested by the brilliant Aurora of 15th January, 1820.

		"High quiv'ring in the air, as shadows fly,
		The northern lights adorn the azure sky.
		Dimm'd by superior blaze the stars retire,
		And heav'n's vast concave gleams with sportive fire.
		Soft blazing in the east, the orange hue,
		The crimson, purple, and ethereal blue,
		Form a rich arch, by floating clouds upheld,
		High pois'd in air, with awful mystery swelled,
		From whose dark centres, with unceasing roll,
		Rich coruscations gild the glowing pole.
		Their varied hues slow waving o'er the bay,
		Eclipse the splendor of the dawning day.
		Streamers in quick succession, o'er the sky,
		From the arc's centre far diverging fly.
		Pencils of rays, pure as the heav'n's own light,
		Dart rapid upward to the zenith's height.
		Transfixt with wonder on the frozen flood,
		Deep in th' o'erwhelming maze of Nature's laws,
		'Midst her mysterious gloom I sought the cause:
		But vain the search! inscrutable by man
		Thy works have been, O God! since time began,
		And still shall be. -- Then let the thought expire,
		As late the splendors of Aurora's fire
		To dark oblivion sank, in wasting flame,
		Like the dim shadows of departed fame!"
It has been mentioned that our usual serenade consisted in the lugubrious howlings of the ravenous but famished wolves. Like other carnivorous animals they doubtless possess the faculty of devouring prodigious quantities of food when they can obtain it, and of enduring long privation when they cannot. Some of them approached within no great distance of the ships, as we could judge from their howl; but we seldom had a distinct view of them, nor hitherto, in spite of all our contrivances, have we been able to kill or catch one of them. One came over the ice, very close to the ships on the 25th. He was almost entirely white, the body long and lank, as indeed the wolf always seems to be on the continent of Europe, even in his best state. He stood higher on his legs, but much resembled the dogs of the Esquimaux and Greenlanders. His long bushy tail hung down almost to the ground; when running his head was thrown out very low. A dog belonging to the Griper, was for some time in the habit of disappearing from the ship about a certain time of the night, returning on board after some hours' absence. He was more than once seen in company with a wolf, and being mostly of the same colour, may have been well received by that animal. At last he left the ship never more to return; and whether he lost his way, or, which is more probable, that he was destroyed by some stranger wolf, his absence is still unexplained. A large and powerful black dog belonging to the Hecla, used also to frequent the society of his distant relations, the wolves, on shore. One morning he returned home bit and torn about the throat; but about a mile from the ship, following the track in the snow, a considerable quantity of blood and hair was found, showing that the wolf had suffered still more than the dog.

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