Journal of a Voyage Around the World: A Year on the Ship Helena(1841-1842).

Although not strictly Antarctic bound or a circumnavigation, this voyage did round Cape Horn and reached almost 59 degrees south. King was a recent Harvard graduate when he took this voyage from New York to Canton, and after brief work there he continued on another ship back to New York. He was a fast reader and regular in his comments about reading. What follows is taken verbatim from the journal of his voyage.

p. 7-8, Tuesday 16th November, 1841: In the afternoon I arranged my books placing those I want to use most in convenient and concatable situations. They are all piled up on a shelf which I had made under my berth and though at hand, and yet difficult to find. I cannot feel too much gratified that I brought my books with me—they are the best & most constant friends & companions one can have–& when the jest or yarn has passed off I feel a relief in take up one of these old companions and finding a smiling welcome within its pages. Here though in mid ocean I am surrounded by a community of nations—at one time I love to be elegant with the Greek to fight the Trojans with old Homer; and again Horace & I tread over again those Etruscan fields and rail together at the folly of the times; or perchance Cicero attracts me with his mellow voice and still smoother language, & I join with him in pleading the Cause of Archias or urge the condemnation of Verres. Now I tread with Rinaldo through the camp of the Crusaders or bask in the garden of the enchantress Armida; perchance Alfieri calls and I go over with him, the plaintive & touching history of David and the cruelty of Saul.

At another time Racine invites me and leads me through the tragic history of Athalie; or wishing to laugh at the lawyers and see them as depicted in the Plaideur. At times I would sail with Camoens to Eastern shores & visit with him the inhospitable natives of Malinda, or wonder about in the garden of Venus. As for Cervantes, he Quixote & myself, including Sancho, have wept over the fall of Chivalry and vowed to couch our lances & do right good battle against wrong doers. I say nothing of the great Shakespeare; immortal Milton—with a host of splendid companions. Pope, Dryden, Gray, Thompson. “ed id omne genus” we are always together and scarcely out of sight. With such companions, who that does not envy me? Can I tire of them? Did I, La Bruyère might add another & disagreeable portrait to his Characters. No branch of literature, but what I am in some manner supplied. No language, but I can, so far as my feeble knowledge goes, indulge in and pluck its choicest fruit. [King goes on with a fulsome paeon of tribute for both Harvard and his mother (Queen of mothers!) for his education and his taste for reading and literature.]

p. 15, Friday, 27th November: So I spent the morning from 9 to 1 upon the lee side of the taffrail reading Master Humphrey [Dickens] which I finished. My opinion of this book is exactly what I was afraid it would be & I was disappointed. I think it is somewhat tedious & prosaic—besides I am wholly out of humour with the author for killing sweet pretty little Nell after exciting my sympathies to the utmost extent, after carrying her through so much hardship and suffering. [cf, Oscar Wilde on the subject.]

p. 32-33, Wednesday 22: I was obliged this afternoon that I might be comfortable, actually to go to bed & there remained from 2 until 6 o’clock, reading. Is this not romantic? I admit it is in idea, but I’ll be sworn there’s no spark of romance in the reality. If the cold increases I byink of Rip Van Winkleizing until we round Cape Horn, as this is altogether more than I bargained for. … I am now writing with woolen gloves on, to keep my hands comfortable, or rather from being very uncomfortable…. Read Blackstone this morning–& Spanish in the afternoon. Also Capt. Delano’s voyages—one from Boston around Cape Horn in 1799-1800.

p. 33, Thursday 23rd December: Cold, bitter cold and no fire to warm me! poor wretch, why didst thou leave thy pleasant residence in Philadelphia, that queen of cities, to come here on the black & inhospitable shores of Cape Horn? Was it to search like Rasselas after the phantom happiness? Or has Plutus inspired thee to try distant regions after gain? Perhaps thou seekest variety in travel, & art desirous of seeing foreign lands….

Read my Blackstone today, concerning hereditaments [sic]—and finished Consalvo de Cordoba my Spanish, which has occupied me the last fortnight. I like it very much I wish there were more to read. I shall commence tomorrow the little drama of El Sí de las Niñas. I have a dreadful headache today and shall retire for the night tho’ it is but two bells, so goodnight to you my N. American friends, & speedy breezes to you my swift ship Helena.

p. 34, Friday 24th December: I read Blackstone this morning, but find it dry this cold weather, & shall therefore lay it by for the present to resume it when we reach the more comfortable climate of the Pacific. I also began the comedy of Moratín, entitled El Sí de las Niñas, but found it either less interesting than Gonsalvo de Cordoba, more difficult, or else the cold prevented my entering into the spirit of it, for I did not continue it, & shall postpone it for the present. We have been reading the sailing directions for passing Cape Horn, & all seems blue enough. Almost all the writers prefer a winter voyage, to the summer season—when the days are only six hours long; for though the days be short & the weather cold, yet the chances are better for getting Easterly winds to carry the ship around.

p. 36, Saturday 25th December: [Christmas] Dinner being finished I smoked a cigar, but being fairly overpowered by the goose was obliged to take refuge in my berth & lay there reading Rasselas until Murphy with tender arms enfolded me & I slept! Gentle dreams stole through my brain, geese were cackling & hissing around me—unborn goslings reproved me, widowed geese & heartbroken ganders rebuked me with silent, sad glances….

p. 36, Sunday, 26th December: A comfortless day…I shut myself in my stateroom & read the services of the day, this being the first Sunday after Christmas. This occupied me until dinner, which being dispatched, I retreated to my berth, overpowered by the cold & remained there all the afternoon, reading Rasselas& dozing. This latter method of killing time will be the least unpleasant resort of escaping from the bitter cold.

p. 38, Monday, 27th December: I give up reading now, my mind being constantly on the stretch to solve the important question, “how may I keep warm?”

p. 39, by Tuesday, 28th, he is in better spirits: I employed myself for the greater part of the day in amusing reading & practicing my flute & guitar. Have not the courage to begin my studies until fairly clear of Cape Horn & in fine, warm weather. If we had a stove, I should like nothing better than to sit by it & read all the day long, let the winds blow as they might, so that my feelings were above the freezing point. [Actually, the temperature on this summer Cape Horn day was no less than 56 F.]

p. 40, Wednesday 29th: Commenced Nicholas Nickleby this afternoon & intend reading it again & go over with him, those rugged hills he climbed at first, until the better fates triumphed over the worse, & he gradually became freed from the grips of misfortune & was happy.

p. 46, King ends a five-page New Year’s meditation on his happy year past, naturally with reading: I read Nicholas Nickleby today and am as much interested as I was on first perusal. One circumstance I have forgotten to note, which occurred today & which I should not omit—I sewed a button on my unmentionables!

p. 47, Saturday, Jan 1st, 1842: I went up to the mizen crosstrees and sunned myself reading Nicholas Nickleby and sketching some parts of Staten Land, but did not succeed very well;…

…Dinner finished retired to my stateroom and then to the berth, where ensconced I lay until teatime reading Nickleby.

p. 49, Monday, Jan 3rd: I have kept my room all day, reading Pelham, and have finished the first volume & pretty well advanced in the second. If we remain in this cold region much longer I shall become quite a novel reader, it is impossible to study, the weather is too uncomfortable. One great comfort in our affliction is the continued daylight. The sun sets about a quarter to nine, when we have twilight until twelve, and then the day begins to break. I have just come from on deck, 10½ o.c. p.m. and can read the finest print without difficulty. Think of daybreak at midnight.

p. 49-50, Tuesday 4th: We are rapidly approaching the “end of all things” the terminus of creation, where the sun even looks frozen, and everything gloomy. I have been reading Pelham all day & finished it, and for the first time regret I read so fast, as my novels will soon be exhausted. I provided myself, but scantily supposing that my studies would afford equally agreeable & more valuable entertainment. But who can fix his mind upon anything while the body is freezing. I can’t and so have given it up. In the course of time we must get around this Cape, I presume, & upon this presumption I exist, patiently (I think I am patient) awaiting the action of Destiny.

p. 51, Wednesday, Jan 5: Boswell makes Dr. Johnson laugh at the idea of our being affected by the weather but, the Dr. never visited this part of the globe. I wonder if Johnson would prove that a man would be quite as happy when baffled off Cape Horn with head winds and stormy weather, as he would be if all was fair and the ship experienced no such inconveniences? I leave it for the intelligent reader, no less a person than the first person singular, to judge.

… I will hope however that fair breezes are to be our position until we reach Valparaiso—“so mote it be!” I have been reading Washington Irvings Sketch Book today, and am most pleased. He writes as I wish I might even imitate, an ambitious desire perhaps, and unattainable, yet it is no harm to wish it.

[Within a week the ship is beyond the Cape enroute to Valparaiso and King’s reading resumes at a presumably higher, philosophical level. But he deserves notice for his voracious reading at sea. There is much more material on reading in this amazing book, but we will leave King’s reading in warmer climes for other readers to discover. ]