Full Fathom of Duty

Elisha Kent Kane, Three Graves of Members of the Franklin Expedition. National Gallery of Canada


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
Frozen dust.

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