Scattered rocks amongst a weather-worn
Headstone marked August Sonntag’s humble
Gravesite. On a desolate moraine, Donald
MacMillan bore witness to the isolated tomb,
In stark solemnity, a single photograph taken
In broad Arctic sunlight.
Fifty years after Sonntag’s death, MacMillan
Recollected tragic events that demoralizing
Hayes to grieving silence. Icy water paralyzed
Sonntag’s gallant heart, extinguishing his
Celestial light, his love of stars and moon,
Practitioner of navigational science.
Dr. Hayes needed heartfelt days to speak
Openly of his friend’s untimely death.
Recorded in his diary, Hayes recounted his
Strange dream: crash of ice in darkness, Sonntag
Sailing away upon dark waters, flash of eternal
Light, divine despair in meaning and in depth.
From this unsettling vision, Dr. Hayes was
Fraught with anguish, continuous concern. As
Below-zero nights trudged past, forsaken hopes
Eclipsed to quiet lament. Beneath luminous robes
Of auroral fire, the crew, in silent watch, prayed
For a miracle, their astronomer’s safe return.
In early morn, two Inuit hunters at the ice-
Locked schooner appeared. Peter Jensen, the
Ship’s interpreter, was the first to learn Sonntag’s
Mortal fate. When his face lost expression, it
Confirmed what all inwardly had feared. Jensen
Uttered but three words, “Sonntag was dead!”
Hayes and his men made procession by torch-
Light across the rocky desert that sufficed for
Sonntag’s resting-place. Under a cathedral of
Gathered constellations, they relinquished their
Comrade’s body to Greenland’s frozen wilds,
His immortal soul to God’s enduring grace.
To this day, no flowers adorn the lonesome
Gravesite of August Sonntag penned in Hayes’
The Open Polar Sea. Sonntag’s memories are
Possessively held in fragile pages of this narrative
Of discovery. In warmer climes, readers still ponder
Sonntag’s death, a friend silenced in Arctic eternity.
Written on the occasion of Douglas Wamlsey speaking at the Old Dartmouth Lyceum Lecture
Series on October 24th, 2013.
Inspired by a photograph taken by Donald MacMillian, an early 20th century Arctic explorer,
this poem describes the death and gravesite of August Sonntag. The black-and-white photograph
was an illustration in Douglas Wamsley’s “Polar Hayes,” a biography of Isaac Israel Hayes, MD.
Sonntag was Hayes’ second-in-command and astronomer during his 1860-1861 Arctic expedition,
searching for the Open Polar Sea.
Afar on the open polar sea I love to ride, with
Dr. Hayes and Sonntag by my side. We run on
A vigorous, close-hauled tack, approaching
Baffin Bay. Under the low-angled summer sun,
We steer a two-masted schooner amongst great
Arctic majesties: breaching whales with blowing
Plumes and ocean-swimming polar bears.
As we made the remote Greenland coast, we
Marvel at a myriad of architectural delights.
Like ancient pyramids and imposing Byzantine
Towers a hundred feet in height, icebergs gleam
And glisten in summer light, fresh water
Cascading from their flanks and ocean waves
Breaking on their carved-out breadths, crashing
With roaring might.
An Arctic boat journey begins, call of northern
Wild, leads in ice floes open and close beneath
Protesting brine. What marvelous sights we glean
Splendor of snow-crested mountains and plateaus,
Alluring desolate climes. By dog sledge we hunt
Polar bears against blowing snow and across
Frozen seas. As shots ring out, through ice
Hummocks the wounded beast escapes. Ravenous
For the kill, dogs howl for blood, red splashes
Congealing on frozen snow.
Afar on the open polar sea, I love to ride with
Dr. Hayes and Sonntag by my side. The Arctic’s
Noble hand rules mountains and moraines, a
Clockwork of proportioned time, as glaciers creep
And a thousand shrieking winds penetrate mortal
Flesh of men to their weary souls. Sacrificing
Blackened fingers and toes are painful hazards,
Venturing too close to Captain Inglefield’s
Cloud-shrouded Ellesmere Land.
Beckons the Arctic night, a magical dome of stars,
Planets, and transparent light, reflections of a
Quiescent moon. Void of sun’s warmth, no
Blossom to adorn, Hayes and I venture into the
Frozen darkness, upon a groaning sea, lamenting
Sonntag’s death, the day cold won his life. In
Silent grief, we admire his sidereal passion,
Constellations that keep a constant vigil over
His solemn, rock-tomb grave.
Afar on the open polar sea, I love to ride with
Dr. Hayes by my side. We venture a thousand
Miles north to Grinnell Land, to reach the
Channeled narrows, to stand on lapping shores
Of the open Arctic Ocean. With sextant in hand,
An exhausted sighting made, and with only a
Transient polynya seen, we never lost faith or
Hope of returning to our dream, to Greenland
Shores and bays, stone-slab Viking ruins,
Remote and grisly plains, Land of Desolation.
This poem generally follows the thematic stanzas of Thomas Pringle’s longer poem, “Afar in the Desert.” It also incorporates images of Dr. Hayes’ second book, The Open Polar Sea, including the death of his best friend, August Sonntag, who served as Hayes’ second in command and as ship’s astronomer.
Frances Hennessey has been fascinated with Arctic exploration for some time, and has concentrated on the writings of Isaac I. Hayes, MD. Frances writes informally on Arctic-related topics, and also writes poetry, some of which are vignettes of her reading and personal experiences. She tweets @OpenPolarSea and has a poetry blog www.oceanic-visions.com
No flowers graced three graves on
Snow-swept Beechey Island, resting
Place for the first deaths of Sir John
Franklin’s doomed expedition.
Humble wooden plaques, names and
Dates of passing young lives, strength
And hope infected by disease, tainted
By lead poisoning, laid to rest in solemn
Bleakness, entombed in permafrost.
For seven months, the officers and
Crew of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus
Were punished by the ice, held fast at
The burial site for venturing too far,
Too soon for the Northwest Passage.
Vengeful and possessive, the Arctic
Resisted exploration by Franklin’s
126 men in British battleships that
Hazarded foreboding waters no keel
Had ever plowed.
When wind and tide fractured leads in
Beechey Island ice, Franklin sailed
South, spirits and sails raised high,
The Royal Navy Ensign proudly
Flying. Driven by favorable winds,
Two ships inadvertently entered a
Life-or-death naval siege, men and
Ships against ice, hope without reason,
Predestined doom. Ice from McClintlock
Channel imprisoned the ships with
Paralyzing ice, inflicting two winters
Of frozen despair.
After two years of angst, Lady Franklin,
Anticipated the worst. Days of blue-
Satined hope turned to dismal black
Nights. Perpetually a lamp of optimism,
She charted the rescue of her beloved
Sir John. Much like Beechey Island ice,
The British Admiralty pushed back, as
Franklin had three years of canned
Goods, each a toxic dose of death that
Eventually vanquished Sir John’s noble
After twenty months of impenetrable
Ice, unable to turn back, the officers
And crew made forced march on
King William Island, where the Arctic
Unleashed its brutal might, worsening
Disease and suffering against a winter-
Weary crew. British sailors to the end,
They clung to wooden lifeboats, over-
Burdened as sledges with supplies,
Vain struggles against lost hope.
A century later forensic analysis recon-
Structed their demise, hundreds
Of bone fragments scattered on their
Desolate resting place, an island marked
With death. Some bones contained
Microscopic knife cuts, evidence of
The last resort. In unmerciful cold,
As each man’s dreams were lost, they
Gave the full fathom of duty, falling
Lifeless into oblivion, mortal flesh to
This poem was inspired by the ill-fated, 1845 Franklin Expedition led by Sir John Franklin to discover the Northwest Passage across the High Arctic.
All officers and crew, a total of 128 men, were lost from ravages of disease, starvation, lead toxicity, and/or debilitating effects of cold.
Frances Hennessey has been fascinated with Arctic exploration for some time, and has concentrated on the writings of Isaac I. Hayes, MD. Frances writes informally on Arctic-related topics, and writes poetry, some of which are vignettes of her reading and personal experiences. She also tweets @ArcticBoat1854 and has a poetry blog www.oceanic-visions.com
Poetry submitted by Frances Hennessey. Inspired by The Open Polar Sea, Chapter XXX, Dr. Isaac Israel Hayes, Hurd and Houghton, 1867.
Along the rocky shores of Kennedy
Channel, wind and tide force
Abrasive groans from colliding ice floes.
As winter releases its reluctant grip,
Flocks of chanting Dovekies return
To roost on higher rocks.
As in ages past, summer in
Ellesmere Land blossoms forth anew,
Then as swiftly, retreating sun and
Warmth usher in the fall and winter’s
Dark curtain of long and bitter nights.
My eager footsteps follow the arduous
Paths of Arctic heroes Elisha Kane
And Isaac Hayes, explorers, who 150
Years ago, scrambled up these ragged
Mountain summits to survey the
Extremis of northern, barren lands.
In cataclysm of fire and molten rock,
Greenland and Ellesmere were
Cast by Vulcan’s hammer.
Stony embryonic siblings,
They drifted to their noble place,
Cup-bearers to the Geographic
In forceful throes of Darwinian
Evolution, primitive life emerged,
Unique and specialized in form.
Segmented-shelled sea scorpions,
Bristling with legs and claws,
And sharp-toothed spiny sharks
Glided freely in a azure-blue,
Primordial Laurentian sea.
Preserved as petrous portraits,
Ancient centipedes, propelled by
Flowing legs, once scurried past
Spindly-limbed plants that
Reproduced by spewing spores
Into a tropical-forested breeze.
My mind and senses overwhelmed,
I am humbled by the grandeur I behold.
From the ragged Ellesmere mountain top
I peer to distant Greenland plateaus,
Powdery white with a fresh diadem of snow.
Like Kane and Hayes, I wonder what
Ancient memories are held deep within
These majestic Silurian headlands?
What knowledge was forever lost to
Wasting effects of penetrating ice and snow?
Perhaps Kane and Hayes were the
First to know when discovering fossils
Along the high-sloped beach below,
Marveling at impressions of
Prehistoric creatures, their brittle
Stories preserved as fossils
Forever engraved in stone.