Taissumani, Aug 28

A Gleam of the North Light


By 1854 the search for Sir John Franklin and his lost crew was waning from official interest in England. Yet it still captured the public’s attention.

Prose writers continued to speculate on Franklin’s fate, and poets wrote verse imagining his death or possible survival. The magazine Littell’s Living Age published “A Gleam of the North Light” in 1854.

The night was clear, and the heavens bright looked down on the dancing waves,
And the sea-fire sparkled fitfully, like death-lights over graves;
But the roar of the surf had a hollow sound where it smote the echoing shore,
As it sang the dirge of the strong of heart whose graves its crest swept o’er.

The gentle breeze scarce filled my sail when I left the land-locked bay,
And now that I rode on the ocean waves it quietly died away:
While the idle sail flapped sullenly in the damp and heavy air,
As if chiding the wind for the treachery that left it helpless there.

The waves had lost their sparkling flow, and glassily they rolled,
Sullen and dark, like traitors’ hearts, that hide the crimes they hold;
And with the calm o’er all the stars that shone so bright at even,
A gloom seemed rising from the sea, and blotting out the heaven –

A mystic gloom that was not fog, yet was no more a cloud,
But a vague and misty darkness, like a dead night’s dusky shroud,
That hid the stars and heaven, but showed the sea-fire bright,
When the plunging bow threw the waves aside in flakes of ghastly light.

Darker and darker grew the night, and through the gloom the tone
Of the morning surf on the distant beach, swelled like a giant’s groan:
When, lo! Where the water’s line is lost in the blackness of the sky,
A light is starting from the wave and spreading far and high.

What it is yet I cannot tell, as it glimmers through the haze,
But for my soul I cannot move, or change my fixed gaze;
While like the blaze from Arctic ice the light unearthly streams,
And the hollowed waves look black as graves, their crests lit by its beams.

‘Tis nearer now, on all around the ghastly light is thrown –
The sea has changed from sleep to death, the waves are turned to stone,
While from the deep, as dreams from sleep, fantastic forms are springing,
And a deathly cold, like a dead man’s hold, on my chilling heart is clinging;

The waves are changed to glittering ice, that sparkles in the rays
Of the northern light, whose lances bright with ruddy crimson blaze,
And all around, where waves were crowned, new figures ever rise:
Castle, and towers, and lofty cliffs that threat the changeful skies,

Now bathed in rosy sunset light – now tinged with yellow gold,
Or glittering white, like silver bright, with lines distinct and cold.
The splendors of the vision seemed to hold me fast and still,
While to my breast my every breath grew deadly cold and chill.

But see! What surges with the wave that heaves the glittering mass?
What form is that which darkly looms through walls of icy glass?
A ship – whose hull so weather-beat seems like a ghost-ship pale,
Whose snowy yards are whiter than the canvas in the sail;

Upon whose deck the men are still – each sailor with his hand
Outstretched upon the tackle, as if waiting the command –
But all so still. I cannot tell whether ‘tis life or death –
My voice is frozen in my throat – I gasp and strive for breath –

I strive to hail the silent ship ere yet she surges past –
At first in vain – but, now, Oh joy! My voice returns at last.
No answer comes: all silently the doomed ship holds her course;
Again I send the friendly hail – once more with greater force –

When suddenly the charm is broke – the waves resume their flow,
And the stars once more look twinklingly upon themselves below:
And my vision of the Erebus, with bold John Franklin’s crew,
Sweeps out of sight, like vanished dream, forever from my view.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to kennharper@hotmail.com.

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