Posts Tagged ‘Ernest Shackleton’

Books briefly noted

July 17, 2013

Busy times, but here are brief notes on a handful of books I’ve read recently:

ciabbatoni-danteDante’s Journey to Polyphony
Francesco Ciabattoni
(University of Toronto Press, 2010)
264 p.

A scholarly monograph examining the place of music in the architecture of The Divine Comedy. Ciabattoni, a professor at Georgetown, sees Dante using references to music to deepen and enrich the political, moral, and religious themes of the poem. The basic claim can be briefly stated: in Inferno music is heard as a perverse parody of sacred liturgy, cacophonous and ugly; monophonic chant dominates Purgatorio, where it is a balm for wounded souls and an expression of spiritual solidarity; Paradiso enters the realm of polyphony, where the music of the spheres and a harmonious chorus of blessed souls express the unutterable beauty of beatitude. Speaking as a casual admirer of Dante, none of this strikes me as particularly surprising or controversial, but it is certainly valuable and interesting. Most intriguing was Ciabattoni’s observation that the cascading, intertwined vocal lines of polyphony serve Dante well as he approaches the highest heavens precisely because the complexity obscures the sung text, for the music is thus able to carry the soul beyond the limits of rational comprehension and into the realm of boundless love and beauty. Take that, Council of Trent! Ciabattoni develops his full argument in great detail.

hahn-signsSigns of Life
40 Catholic Customs and their Biblical Roots
Scott Hahn
(Doubleday, 2009)
288 p.

Catholics are sometimes accused, by their separated brethren, of importing a lot of non-Biblical baggage into their practice of the faith; I won’t say that Scott Hahn set out specifically to counter that accusation (though, given his background in evangelical Protestantism, it might have been in the back of his mind), but he has countered it nicely all the same. He examines forty aspects of Catholic religious and devotional life, ranging from broad thoroughfares like “the Mass” and “Baptism” to nooks and crannies like “Novenas” and “Scapulars”, devoting five or six pages in each case tracing it to Biblical sources. Quite apart from whatever apologetic value the book may have, it also serves as a helpful primer on the wonderful variety and richness of Catholic faith and life. What would life be like without pilgrimage, the Church calendar, sacred images, and the tabernacle? I don’t want to think about it. The book would make a suitable gift for a Catholic convert, for a non-Catholic curious about Catholic practices, or for a cradle Catholic who wants to deepen their understanding of the tradition. Written in an accessible, even conversational, tone, it is the sort of book one can pick up now and then, read a few pages, and then set down again. It would serve well as a basis for family catechesis, or (as I can personally testify) as occasional bedtime reading.

kelly-musicEarly Music
A Very Short Introduction
Thomas Forrest Kelly
(Oxford University Press, 2011)
130 p.

The designation “early”, in this context, refers to music that was rarely or never heard prior to a revival of interest in the mid-twentieth century — namely, music of the medieval, renaissance, and baroque periods, covering the years from roughly 1000 (coinciding with the invention of musical notation) to about 1750 or thereabouts. Bach is “early music”; Mozart, just a few decades later, is not. The book gives a nice introduction to the music of these times, pointing out the distinctive characteristics on the basis of which we carve it up into separate periods, and helpfully highlighting the performance challenges of the music, some of which survives only in ambiguous notation or assumes that players will improvise on the basis of the written score. Kelly, a professor of music at Harvard and long involved in early music circles, also devotes a substantial part of the book to a brief history of the “early music movement” of the past fifty years, which aimed to revive the repertoires, styles, and instruments of the past. He doesn’t shy away from skeptical questions about this quest for musical “authenticity” — after all, “period instruments” and “period playing” are all very well, but where shall we find a “period audience”? — but in my opinion the proof is in the pudding: without this music, and the dedication of those who try to bring it back to life, the world would be a much drabber place. The book is a pleasant little primer for those who love this music.

hurley-southSouth with Endurance
Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition, 1914-1917
The Photographs of Frank Hurley
(BCL Press, 2001)
244 p.

A couple of years ago, during an Antarctica-themed blogging blitz, I wrote about Ernest Shackleton’s ill-starred Endurance expedition to the South Pole, which ranks as one of the great survival tales in the annals of exploration. (See here.) Frank Hurley was the expedition’s photographer, and this beautiful coffee-table book gathers together the photographs that he was able to save from the hazards of ice and ocean. There is some background information given on the expedition and on Hurley, but naturally the pictures are the main attraction, and spectacular they are. Readers who want a good, detailed telling of the story should look elsewhere (specifically, to Lansing’s Endurance), but I would argue that this pictorial volume is an indispensable companion.

The Endurance

February 22, 2011

Source: Shackleton's Expedition Endurance Photography

Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage to the Antarctic
Alfred Lansing (Carroll & Graf, 1999)
278 p. [1959]

The Endurance
Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition
Caroline Alexander (Knopf, 1999)
213 p.

“For scientific discovery, give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel, give me Amundsen; but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”

— Apsley Cherry-Gerrard

Shackleton’s famous expedition, which lasted from 1914-16, is considered by many to be the crowning glory of the ‘heroic age’ of Antarctic exploration, notwithstanding the fact that the expedition never set foot in Antarctica.

Before reading these books I knew little of the expedition — only that it had not turned out as planned and had involved a daring boat journey. It was fascinating, therefore, for me to follow the story through its classic arc: promise, then disaster, then triumph. I had been enthralled when reading about Scott’s final expedition, which essentially consisted of one monumental effort to achieve the near-impossible, and on its own terms it is a wonderful story. Set next to Shackleton, though, it begins to look a little tame. Shackleton and his crew conquered one impossible obstacle only to be confronted by another, and then another, and another. That they made it out alive — all of them — is a testament to the leadership, courage, and determination of Shackleton himself.

The original objective of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition had been to cross, on foot, the entire Antarctic continent beginning from the Weddell sea and finishing at Ross Island, from which Scott had started his polar trek. A day or two from the Antarctic shore their ship, the Endurance, was captured by the sea ice and held, as it turned out, for nine months, until it was finally crushed to pieces and sank. The crew found themselves alone, without a ship (apart from the Endurance‘s three small lifeboats), hundreds of miles from shore, and with no hope of rescue. It was a hopeless situation.

Their path to safety involved, in stages: a harrowing sleepless week in lifeboats on stormy seas, jostled the while by ice floes, to a landing at Elephant Island; an epic 800-mile journey, undertaken by Shackleton and a small crew aboard a single lifeboat, the James Caird, through one of the ocean’s most inhospitable latitudes, in gale conditions, to reach South Georgia; and a punishing thirty-six hour trek, without tents or sleeping bags, through the uncharted interior of that mountainous, glacier-covered isle to reach a whaling station. Along the way they endured frostbite, starvation, dehydration, sleeplessness, and terrible dangers at every turn. When Shackleton, with two companions, finally did reach safety, they returned with a ship to rescue those who had been left behind. All told, the ordeal, from the time the Endurance was beset by ice to the rescue of the crew at Elephant Island, lasted 18 months.

Elephant Island (Source: Flickr - 'Chris&Steve')

Launching the James Caird from Elephant Island. (Frank Hurley)

Panorama of South Georgia. (Frank Hurley)

Lansing’s is the classic account, and with reason. He gets the reader right down on the ice, thinking through their plight along with the crew. The dramatic structure he gives to his story is excellent: when Shackleton and his small crew set out on their improbable attempt to reach South Georgia, Lansing remains behind on Elephant Island, for four long months, with those who were left not knowing if anyone would ever come looking for them. To a reader like myself, who didn’t know what was happening to Shackleton, this was an effective strategy.

Caroline Alexander’s version of the story has its strong points as well. She sets up the expedition’s background better than Lansing does, and, at the end, she spends quite a lot of time reporting what became of the expedition’s members in later years. I appreciated that. Generally speaking, however, her account of the expedition itself lacked the detail that Lansing provides, and I found it less involving. She does have access to some sources, such as the candid diary of crew member Thomas Orde-Lees, which Lansing seems not to have used.

A principal attraction of Alexander’s version is that it includes a generous number of the justly famous pictures taken by Frank Hurley, the expedition’s photographer. That these photographs survived is, in itself, something of a miracle. They bring the expedition to life in a wonderful way. Many editions of Lansing’s book do not include them, and it would be a shame to be without them.


Here is an informative, interactive site devoted to the Endurance Expedition, including quite a number of Hurley’s photographs.

Ernest Shackleton

February 21, 2011

Ernest Shackleton is another of the great names associated with Antarctic exploration. Like Scott before him, he was a Navy man for whom Antarctica proved irresistible. Between the ages of 25 and 47 he was a part of four Antarctic expeditions, three of which he led himself.

His first taste of Antarctica came as a member of the Discovery Expedition, under the leadership of Robert Falcon Scott. Shackleton held a fairly minor post in the expedition’s roster — third lieutenant — but he was one of three chosen to make an attempt on the South Pole during the Antarctic summer of 1902-3. The trip was not a success, making it barely half the distance to the Pole before turning around, but it did establish a new “furthest south” record, reaching latitude 82°17′. Shackleton was in ill health in the latter part of the trek, suffering from scurvy, and upon arriving back in camp he was shipped home to convalesce.

He was shipped home, which might have seemed an inglorious outcome, but, being the first expedition member to arrive back in England, there was a great deal of interest in him, and he achieved a certain degree of celebrity. Turning the situation to his advantage, he began to make plans for another Antarctic expedition, this time with himself as leader.

By 1907 plans were in place, and the Nimrod Expedition set sail. Early in 1908 they established a base at Cape Royds, on Ross Island, and settled in for the winter. As the Antarctic spring came, they prepared for the expedition’s main event: a trek to the South Pole. The trekking party consisted of Shackleton, Frank Wild, Eric Marshall, and Jameson Adams.

The Beardmore Glacier

They walked south across the Ross Ice Shelf and climbed to the Antarctic Plateau by way of the 160 km (100 mile) long Beardmore Glacier. (That same route would be taken by Scott’s Polar party a few years later.) They then set out across the vast Plateau. After over 2-1/2 months of trekking they had reached a point — latitude 88°23′ — about 160 km (100 mile) from the Pole when Shackleton made the difficult decision to turn back. They were dangerously low on food, and would not have survived the return journey. As it was, they had to make some of their return distance on half-rations. Shackleton later summarized the reasons for his decision in this way: “A live donkey is better than a dead lion”.

Nimrod's South Pole trekkers. L to R: Wild, Shackleton, Marshall, Adams.

Just two years after Shackleton’s near miss, both Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott successfully reached the South Pole. Shackleton, however, had not had his fill, and began casting about for another Antarctic feat to perform. He settled on a trans-Antarctic trek: he would march from one side of Antarctica to the Pole, and then continue to the other coast. The expedition’s formal title was the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, but it is popularly known, after the name of its famous ship, as the Endurance Expedition.

I’ll have more to say about the Endurance Expedition in the coming week; it turned into one of the most beloved adventure stories in recent history. For now, I will just note that Shackleton never took a single step of the trans-Antarctic journey. When he returned to England in 1917, he seems to have still had Antarctica in his heart.

And so it was that in 1921 he set sail yet again, at the helm of the Quest, for an expedition with rather unclear objectives. Many of Shackleton’s men from the Endurance signed on again, and the whole enterprise had an air of nostalgia about it, as though it were an attempt to recapture the camaraderie and adventure of glory days. Once again, as with the Endurance, they docked in South Georgia before proceeding to Antarctica, but this time Shackleton went no further: in the early hours of 5 January 1922 he suffered a heart attack and died. He was 47 years old.

At the request of his wife Shackleton was buried on South Georgia, a fitting resting place for a man who had loved Antarctica, who in life had been restless and adventurous, courageous and resolute, and a well-beloved leader of men.

Shackleton's grave in South Georgia.