Jun 22, 2008

Letters From High Latitudes

Sailing Trilogy, Pt. 2
Letters from high latitudes, by Frederick Temple Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, Marquis of Dufferin and Ava. Introduction by Her Excellency Vigdis Finnbogadottir. London: Merlin, 1989. First published in 1857. 228 pgs.

Why read a book written by an Irish Lord over 150 years ago?
-Dufferin was a literate Lord who was comfortable with princes as well as rowdy sailors. He made friends in a seemingly effortless fashion with Icelanders who didn’t speak English--and he didn’t speak Icelandic. They conversed in Latin, or sign language if necessary.
-He was a true Renaissance Man who wrote, danced, drew, sailed, and became a diplomat.
-This book is "specially recommended" by none other than W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice of Letters From Iceland fame, written 80 years later!
-And, my personal favorite: Iceland called to him.
Here are the facts:
Who: Frederick Temple Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, Marquis of Dufferin and Ava
What: sailed an 80-ton schooner 6,000 miles
When: 1856
Where: Scotland to Iceland to Jan Mayen to Norway to Spitzbergen to Scotland
Lord Dufferin purportedly wrote letters to his mother during this epic journey, and these letters form a sort of journal that is the book. This was possibly one of the earliest versions of a travelogue, and it started a fad for subsequent ones. Like most readers, I have read numerous travelogues, and this one is not only one of the earliest, it sets a standard that few have achieved. While not quite as wacky and sophisticated as Auden’s Letters from Iceland, this really is a terrific read, whether or not you are interested in sailing, history, or Iceland.
This is a tale of an intrepid adventurer, a man modest but mighty. He loved his Mum. He took danger as a matter of course in the pursuit of his hobby -- Extreme Exploration. His turns of phrase were as elegant as the clothes he wore.
Dufferin’s laconic writing style is perfect for describing such bigger-than-life experiences as camping in Iceland (complete with porters, servants, and cooks). Or, how about a party on board Napoloen III’s yacht, the Reine Hortense? This gala evening in Reykjavik Harbor featured not only fine dining, an excess of expensive alcohol, and an orchestra for dancing. No, a party on the Reine Hortense was a sort of Disneylandesque experience, complete with a theme, elaborate decorations, costumes, props, song and dance, and a gaily whimsical crew of partying sailors.

Dufferin sketches his fellow travelers, and people they met along the way. He describes his cook’s behavior during a trying time: the Foam was played pinball among icebergs, and all hands were on deck to fend them off. “I feel it just to pay a tribute of admiration to the cook, who on these occasions never failed to exhibit an immense amount of misdirected energy, breaking—I remember—at the same moment, both the cabin skylight, and an oar, in single combat with a large berg that was doing no particular harm to us, but against which he seemed suddenly to have conceived a violent spite.” Dufferin’s manservant, the melancholy Wilson, is described thus: “Life in his eyes is a perpetual filling of leaky buckets, and a rolling of stones up hill…He professes but a limited belief in his star, --and success with him is almost a disappointment.” Sigurdr, the Icelandic student of Law who was guide and friend, Mr. Ebenezer Wyse, the Sailing Master, Dr. Fitz and others all come to life in Dufferin’s letters.
Iceland is described with similar acuity: “I understood how natural it was that the Scandinavian mythology, of whose mysteries the Icelanders were ever the natural guardians and interpreters, should have assumed that broad, massive simplicity which is its most beautiful characteristic.”
I was delighted to discover that Dufferin played a part in the illustrations that grace the book. They are engravings, carefully and beautifully rendered. When I learned that he was the artist, I could hardly picture him out in the wilderness or on shipboard with his steel plates, tools, acid, and whatever else you use to prepare engravings. I have to conclude that he sketched the scenes, and someone else turned them into engravings. I’ve tried, but haven’t been able to find out for sure.
I am likewise frustrated by being unable to learn the length of Dufferin’s schooner. The Foam was an 80 ton vessel, and engravings of it appear in his book. It has two masts. But how long was it? I would like to know how it compared to the 33’ cutter that Rockwell Kent sailed to Greenland. My uneducated guess is around 60’. I also wonder if a movie has been made about Dufferin—and if not, why not. Can any of my readers help me out?
The Foam
While W.H. Auden’s Letters from Iceland doesn’t fit in with my sailing trilogy, it is an example of a superb travelogue—one of the best. As it happened, Dufferin missed the very part of Iceland that Auden covered in detail: the central highlands. Due to getting a late start because of difficulty acquiring a sailing master, and his goal of getting through the drift ice, Dufferin had to cut short some of his Iceland travel. Or perhaps it was because he spent too much time playing chess while camping, and waiting for Strokr and Geysir to erupt.
All was not fun and games…the Foam sailed through some extremely perilous waters, and Dufferin was not one to avoid danger when in pursuit of a remote island or exotic view, no matter how inaccessible it was due to glaciers and drift ice. But Dufferin’s modesty and equanimity are equaled only by his laconic, dry wit, and the book has a sophisticated, light feel to it. I loved this book! See if you do too.


Professor Batty said...

... it costs as much as my copy of Salka Valka!

John said...

Mine didn't. But I would have loaned it to you even if it did ;-) Let's see...did I get it from BookMooch?...yes! It was "free"! Isn't that cool?

Rose said...

Above comment from Rose, contrary to appearances.