Monday, August 17, 2009

Lady Franklin's Lament

The Franklin expedition and tragedy inspired a great deal of artistic work. There were songs and poems and paintings and skuptural creations, mostly but not exclusively from English artists, that attempted to honour, understand, grieve, lament, mythologize or explain the great tragedy and the mystery that surrounds it.

One of the most enduring was the touching ballad "Lady Franklin's Lament" (which is also known as "Lord Franklin"). It is a traditional folk ballad that commemorates the expedition (allegedly) written by Jane, Lady Franklin herself in or around 1855, at a time when Lady Jane still (publicly) maintained that the expedition was still missing and not lost.

From the University of Glasgow Special Collections [Mu23-y.1 page 48]

I recently stumbled upon a recording of the song by Sinead O'Connor, one of the singers and singing voices that I adore the most. She delivers a soft and truly beautiful rendition this very touching ballad and, in this youtube video of the song, also explains the powerful emotions evoked by the song. O'Connor tells us how, to truly sing this song, "you have to become the song, and become the ghost, if you like" and that strong emotions of a song only come out when you "inhabit a song or let it inhabit you". In singing the last line for the first time, she apparently burst into tears as she connected with the feelings of Lady Franklin.

Which is one reason why the song reveals an important part of the Franklin expedition story. I do think that with all of the recognition and focus Lady Franklin's ambition, strong-will, independence, status-seeking, influence peddling and "petticoat" governing has received - the strong woman behind the weak man, writing or re-writing some of Sir John's letters and reports (especially when Lieutenant Governor of Van Dieman's Land), showing more ambition and drive for his career than he seems to have - very little attention has been paid to what I think was her very genuine love, affection and deep compassion for her husband. It is something I am personally exploring in her letters but I've only really just started in on this. However, it does seem to me that her real love for her husband drove her to push for positions, expeditions, searches and memorials for Sir John as much as, if not more than, raw ambition and status-seeking.

That comes out very distinctly in "Lady Franklin's Lament" and all the more powerfully with O'Connor's recording of it.

And that is the power of art. Especially looking back as historians, it is art and culture that captures the human experience far more powerfully than raw data points and lists of facts. Art does not merely "bring the story to life" like a re-enactment or dramatization, but it strikes a very real, human and emotional connection to the events, the time and the people caught up in those events. That connection can lead to understanding that simple study and knowledge of facts cannot accomplish.

This particular art, this song, like all good and great art also transcends the particular circumstances in which it was written. It speaks to timeless longing, searching, love and loss. It speaks to the searching for human connection. According to Wikipedia, the song has been recorded by numerous artists, including Martin Carthy, John Renbourn, Pentangle, Pearlfishers, Connie Dover as well as the Duncan McFarlane Band, where the chorus of the Northwest Passage is added to the end. The version by Micheál Ó'Domhnaill and Kevin Burke is very well known in Ireland and appears on the album "Promenade." It can be heard on youtube. The melody was also used for Bob Dylan's song "Bob Dylan's Dream", as well as David Wilcox's "Jamie's Secret". The 1981 song, "Northwest Passage" by Stan Rogers (who also wrote "Barrett's Privateers" among many other great maritimer folk songs) also recalls Franklin's expedition. The first verse is also used in "I'm Already There" by Fairport Convention. O'Connor herself, in the youtube video above, notes that she had never heard of the song before it was introduced to her just before she sang it.

I recently came across another fairly recent recording of "Lady Franklin's Lament" by Sejd who uploaded his recording on youtube with a very engaging slide show of images of the Arctic, Franklin and his expedition. While the singing, in my humble view, is less emotionally evocative, the juxtaposition of the Arctic and Franklin images serves much of the same purpose: it forces you to pause for a moment, listen and watch and even think about what it must have been like.

Of course, as I noted above, there was much more written or sung or painted or skulpted than just this one song. And that artistic creation has itself spawned a growing library of commentary. Margaret Atwood wrote about the Franklin mythologizing in Canadian culture in "Concerning Franklin and his Gallant Crew", the first chapter of her book of lectures-cum-essays Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature. In 2006, Sarah Moss turned her Ph.D. dissertation into The Frozen Ship: The Histories and Tales of Polar Exploration in which, among other tales of the North and South Pole, she examines the mostly English uses and abuses and manufacturing of the Franklin story and why. In other areas as well, Professor Russell Potter has explored the visual representations of the north, including Franklin, in his 2007 Arctic Spectacles: The Frozen North in Visual Culture, 1815-1885 (many of the images in the Sejd slide show appear in his book; on Potter's website Visions of the North, you can also read his insightful and informative analysis of the Landseer's "Man Proposes God Disposes" depiction of the fate of Franklin's expedition and what would have meant to Victorians at the time).

There is much more to do in this regard. It seems to me the field, particularly from a Canadian perspective and perspectives of Canada, is just opening up as our broader public attention turns to the poles and the environment.

So, while the search for the answer to the mysteries of the fate of the Franklin expedition continues with new search expeditions, forensic analysis, archival research, relic analysis, etc continues and expands, the search for the meaning of the Franklin expedition and its impact on history continues and expands as well. Understanding the art and culture of the time adds greatly to the richness of our understanding of the expedition and the human experience.