Shackleton mines Robert Service for literary impact

“…in memories we were rich.  We had pierced the veneer of outside things.  We had ‘suffered, starved, and triumphed, grovelled down yet grasped at glory, grown bigger in the bigness of the whole.’  We had seen God in his splendors, heard the text that Nature renders.  We had reached the naked soul of man.”

These lines are among the most famous from South, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s epic account of the trials of the Endurance expedition.  Few contemporary readers may be aware that for this passage Shackleton mines another work, a poem with which he clearly assumes his readers are familiar: Call of the Wild, a celebration of masculine valor by Scottish-born poet Robert Service.

For the title of the poem, Service mined the work of author Jack London, whose novella of the same name first appeared in print in 1903.  Service’s debut collection, Songs of a Sourdoughwas published in 1907 and quickly became a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic. By 1917 the British edition of Songs of a Sourdough was in its 36th printing.  Service’s muscular poetry, little known today, must have been well familiar to Shackleton’s readers at the time of South‘s publication in 1919.

Shackleton suggests that his crew was remarkably well read.  After the perilous open boat journey from Antarctica to South Georgia Island, Shackleton and five companions set up camp beneath the inverted hull of the lifeboat James Caird, converting the vessel “into a very comfortable cabin a la Peggotty.”  They christened the place Peggotty Camp.  Sir Ernest offers no further explanation.  With this casual name-drop he assumes a common knowledge of David Copperfield, in which the hull of an inverted fishing boat forms the Peggotty family’s tidy home in the marshes.

When first I read South the Peggotty reference was completely lost on me.  Reading Copperfield years later, I was chastened to reflect that at least where Dickens was concerned, the rough-hewn Antarctic sailors of the heroic age were more cultured than myself.  I can picture the young Tom Crean reading Copperfield at sea by the light of a storm-swung lantern.



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