Musings...

Robert Cotner, Editor

ir Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) was the consummate explorer of Antarctica. A member of Robert Falcon Scottís Discovery expedition in 1901-1904, he was driven to return to the frigid continent, which in his day was barely touched by human exploration and totally forbidding as a natural habitat. He returned to Antarctica in 1907 expecting to be the first to reach the South Pole. But, fearing for the welfare of his crew, he turned back with but 97 miles to go and returned to England. In 1914, he came again to Antarctica in what was called the "Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition" ó to be the first crossing of the continent by a team of explorers. His ice-bound ship, Endurance, was destroyed before he could get there.

On November 21, 1915, Shackleton and his crew of 27 were marooned on an ice floe and began one of the most incredible sagas of human courage and endurance in the history of humankind. On September 3, 1916, Shackleton and his entire crew arrived safely in Punta Arenas, Chile. The men were thoroughly malnourished, severely frostbitten, and so bedraggled that they frightened people whom they met. The remarkable fact about Sir Ernest is that he never lost a man under his supervision, even though they traveled in the most treacherous circumstances with poor provisions and absolutely no communication capability beyond the sound of their own voices.

But Shackleton was more than an arctic explorer. An Anglo-Irishman, he was fond of Robert Browning and had a propensity for quoting Browning as he traveled. Roland Huntford, in his masterful biography Shackleton (Carroll & Graf Publisher, Inc., 1985) told of an experience with a Russian Army officer in Murmansk, in the far-north of Russia. The officer reported that, as he and Shackleton were on an excursion there in 1918, they stopped to "gaze over what to me was the abomination of monotony . . . vast expanses of snow; in the distance the gun-metal of the Lola Inlet. [Shackleton looked] at it . . . as though he wished to imprint it on his memory . . . and . . . began to declaim poetry."

On another outing with the same officer, Shackleton began "declaiming again":

"You donít know who said that," Shackleton asked. "No, I donít know who said it."

"Well, Shackleton said it."

"That explorer-man? He must be a man of parts. I never knew he was a poet!"

Shackleton turned and said, "Then why the devil do you think he became an explorer."

The link between poetry and exploration came full circle for Shackleton in the year of his death, 1922, of a heart attack in South Georgia as he was about to begin another trip to Antarctica. T. S. Eliot, in "The Waste Land," a poem which many consider to be the hallmark poem of that era, wrote:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?

Eliotís footnotes attributed this passage to Shackletonís South (1920), in which, as Eliot wrote, "at the extremity of their strength, [they] had the constant delusion that there was one more member than could actually be counted." This "Fourth Person," as it came to be called in Shackletonís writings, was the conscious presence of another being among the three explorers as they hiked the uncharted, never-before-traveled winter mountains in gale-force winds and knee-deep snows of South Georgia, on the last leg of the journey to save their marooned colleagues. This mystical experience, Shackleton wrote, must always be a part of the "record of our journeys."

By virtue of his unstinting love of his fellow men, Shackleton repeatedly gave up his dreams and risked his life to insure their safety and well-being. As an explorer, it seems to me, we should call him intrepid; as a leader, undaunted, as a person, perhaps, St. Ernest. v

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