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.