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James and Mary Ford, eds. Every Day in the Year. 1902.

May 18

A Ballad of Sir John Franklin

By George H. Boker (1823–1890)

  • The celebrated Arctic explorer. Thirty-nine relief expeditions, public and private, were sent out from England and America in ten years to search for Sir John. By one of these expeditions, sent by Lady Franklin, traces of the missing ship were found and its fate decided. He started on his last voyage on May 18, 1845.

  • “The ice was here, the ice was there,
  • The ice was all around.”

  • O, WHITHER sail you, Sir John Franklin?

    Cried a whaler in Baffin’s Bay.

    To know if between the land and the pole

    I may find a broad sea-way.

    I charge you back, Sir John Franklin,

    As you would live and thrive;

    For between the land and the frozen pole

    No man may sail alive.

    But lightly laughed the stout Sir John,

    And spoke unto his men:

    Half England is wrong, if he be right;

    Bear off to westward then.

    O, whither sail you, brave Englishman?

    Cried the little Esquimaux.

    Between your land and the polar star

    My goodly vessels go.

    Come down, if you would journey there,

    The little Indian said;

    And change your cloth for fur clothing,

    Your vessel for a sled.

    But lightly laughed the stout Sir John,

    And the crew laughed with him too:—

    A sailor to change from ship to sled,

    I ween were something new!

    All through the long, long polar day,

    The vessels westward sped;

    And wherever the sail of Sir John was blown,

    The ice gave way and fled.

    Gave way with many a hollow groan,

    And with many a surly roar,

    But it murmured and threatened on every side,

    And closed where he sailed before.

    Ho! see ye not, my merry men,

    The broad and open sea?

    Bethink ye what the whaler said

    Think of the little Indian’s sled!

    The crew laughed out in glee.

    Sir John, Sir John, ’tis bitter cold,

    The scud drives on the breeze,

    The ice comes looming from the north,

    The very sunbeams freeze.

    Bright summer goes, dark winter comes,

    We cannot rule the year;

    But long ere summer’s sun goes down,

    On yonder sea we’ll steer.

    The dripping icebergs dipped and rose,

    And floundered down the gale;

    The ships were staid, the yards were manned,

    And furled the useless sail.

    The summer’s gone, the winter’s come—

    We sail not on yonder sea:

    Why sail we not, Sir John Franklin?—

    A silent man was he.

    The summer goes, the winter comes—

    We cannot rule the year:

    I ween, we cannot rule the ways,

    Sir John, wherein we’d steer.

    The cruel ice came floating on,

    And closed beneath the lee,

    Till the thickening waters dashed no more;

    ’Twas ice around, behind, before—

    My God! there is no sea!

    What think you of the whaler now?

    What of the Esquimaux?

    A sled were better than a ship

    To cruise through ice and snow.

    Down sank the baleful crimson sun,

    The northern light came out,

    And glared upon the ice-bound ships,

    And shook its spears about.

    The snow came down, storm breeding storm,

    And on the decks was laid,

    Till the weary sailor, sick at heart,

    Sank down beside his spade.

    Sir John, the night is black and long,

    The hissing wind is bleak,

    The hard green ice as strong as death:—

    I prithee, Captain, speak!

    The night is neither bright nor short,

    The singing breeze is cold,

    The ice is not so strong as hope—

    The heart of man is bold!

    What hope can scale this icy wall,

    High over the main flag-staff?

    Above the ridges the wolf and bear

    Look down, with a patient, settled stare,

    Look down on us and laugh.

    The summer went, the winter came—

    We could not rule the year;

    But summer will melt the ice again,

    And open a path to the sunny main,

    Whereon our ships shall steer.

    The winter went, the summer went,

    The winter came around;

    But the hard green ice was strong as death,

    And the voice of hope sank to a breath,

    Yet caught at every sound.

    Hark! heard you not the noise of guns?

    And there, and there, again?

    ’Tis some uneasy iceberg’s roar,

    As he turns in the frozen main.

    Hurra! hurra! the Esquimaux

    Across the ice-fields steal:

    God give them grace for their charity!

    Ye pray for the silly seal.

    Sir John, where are the English fields,

    And where are the English trees,

    And where are the little English flowers

    That open in the breeze?

    Be still, be still, my brave sailors!

    You shall see the fields again,

    And smell the scent of the opening flowers,

    The grass, and the waving grain.

    O! when shall I see my orphan child?

    My Mary waits for me.

    O! when shall I see my old mother,

    And pray at her trembling knee?

    Be still, be still, my brave sailors!

    Think not such thoughts again.

    But a tear froze slowly on his cheek;

    He thought of Lady Jane.

    Ah! bitter, bitter grows the cold,

    The ice grows more and more;

    More settled stare the wolf and bear,

    More patient than before.

    O! think you, good Sir John Franklin,

    We’ll ever see the land?

    ’Twas cruel to send us here to starve,

    Without a helping hand.

    ’Twas cruel, Sir John, to send us here,

    So far from help or home,

    To starve and freeze on this lonely sea;

    I ween, the Lords of the Admiralty

    Would rather send than come.

    O! whether we starve to death alone,

    Or sail to our own country,

    We have done what man has never done—

    The truth is found, the secret won—

    We passed the Northern Sea!