Hayes short book consists of three prose pictures: The Doctor; The Savage; Snow and Ice.
THIS book is not a narrative of travel. The purpose of the author has been to draw, from personal experience, some pen-pictures of life and nature among the sublime mountains, crags, glaciers, and icebergs of Greenland. [p. xii]
p. 31, on the sophistication of Hayes’ Greenland doctor: Odd étagères, hanging and standing, and a large solid walnut case were all well filled with books, and other books were carefully arranged on a table in the center of the room. My eye quickly detected the works of various English and American authors, conspicuous among which were Shakespeare, Byron, Scott, Dickens, Cooper, and Washington Irving. Sam Slick had a place there, and close beside him was the renowned Lemuel Gulliver; and, in science, there were, besides many others, Brewster, Murchison, Agassiz, and Lyell. The books all showed that they were well used, and they embraced the principal classical stores of the French and German tongues, besides the English and his own native Danish. In short, the collection was precisely such as one would expect to find in any civilized place where means were not wanting, the disposition to read a habit and a pleasure, and the books themselves boon companions.
p. 36-37, a conversation between the Greenlandic doctor and the author: “But, my dear sir, you forget these shelves. Those books are my friends. Of them I never grow weary; they never grow weary of me. We understand each other perfectly. They talk to me when I would listen, they sing to me when I would be charmed, they play for me when I would be amused. Ah! sir, this country is great, as all countries are great, each in its way; and this is a great country to read books in. Upon my word, I wonder everybody don’t fill ships with books and come up here, burn the ships as did the great Spaniard, and each spend the remainder of his days in devouring his shipload of books. In this fancy of mine you may perhaps imagine that you find something quite peculiar, but I assure you it is nothing of the kind. Each one to his taste, you know, and, like everybody else, of course I think mine the best. Another of your poets, Henry Taylor I think, must have had some notion of this sort in his mind when he wrote,
‘We figure to ourselves
The thing we like, and then we build it up
As chance will have it, on the rock or sand;’
and so you see that I have built in fact as well as fancy on the rock.”
I could not help being pleased with this novel way in which my host viewed his situation and exhibited his desires; and I amused him greatly when I told him so. Then I said, “Truly a pretty picture you have drawn of the country, and of the wonderful uses to which it may be put; but let me ask you, how often do books reach you?”
“Once a year, when the Danish ship comes out to bring us bread, sugar, coffee, coal, and such like things, and to take home the few trifles, in the shape of furs, oil, and fish, which the natives have gathered in the interval.”
“Books to the contrary, I should say the ship would not return more than once without me, were I in your situation.”
“So you would think me a sensible fellow, no doubt, if I would pick up this box and carry it off to Paris or Copenhagen, or may be to New York?”
p. 42-44, on how the Doctor was able to keep up with current affairs; Our conversation, naturally enough, ran upon the affairs of the big world on the other side of the Arctic Circle, upon its politics, and literature, and science, and art, passing lightly from one to the other, lingering now and then over some book which we had mutually fancied. I found my companion perfectly posted up to within a year, and inquired how he managed things so well. “Ah! you must know,” answered he, “that is a clever little illusion of mine. I’m always precisely one year behind the rest of the world. The Danish ship brings me a file of papers for the past twelve months, the principal reviews and periodicals, the latest maps, such books as I have sent for during the year, and besides this the bookseller and my other home friends make me up an assortment of what they think will please me. Now, you see, in devouring this I pursue an absolute method. The books, of course, I take up as the fancy pleases me, but the reviews, periodicals, and newspapers, I turn over to Sophy, and the faithful creature places on my break fast table, every morning, exactly what was published that day one year before. Clever, isn’t it? Our conversation, naturally enough, ran upon the affairs of the big world on the other side of the Arctic Circle, upon its politics, and literature, and science, and art, passing lightly from one to the other, lingering now and then over some book which we had mutually fancied. I found my companion perfectly posted up to within a year, and inquired how he managed things so well.
“Ah! you must know,” answered he, “that is a clever little illusion of mine. I’m always precisely one year behind the rest of the world. The Danish ship brings me a file of papers for the past twelve months, the principal reviews and periodicals, the latest maps, such books as I have sent for during the year, and besides this the bookseller and my other home friends make me up an assortment of what they think will please me. Now, you see, in devouring this I pursue an absolute method. The books, of course, I take up as the fancy pleases me, but the reviews, periodicals, and newspapers, I turn over to Sophy, and the faithful creature places on my breakfast table, every morning, exactly what was published that day one year before. Clever, isn’t it? You see I get every day the news, and go through the drama of the year with perhaps quite as much satisfaction as they who live the passing day in the midst of the occurring events. Each day’s paper opens a new act in the play, and what matters it that news is one year old? It is none the less news to me, and, besides, are not Gibbon, Shakespeare, and Mother Goose still more ancient?”
I could but smile at this ingenious device, and the Doctor, seeing plainly that I was deeply interested in his novel mode of life, loosened a tongue, which, in truth, needed little encouragement, and rattled away over the rough and smooth of his Greenland experiences, with an enjoyment on his part perhaps scarcely less than mine, for it was easy to see that his love of wild adventure kept pace with his love of comfort, and that he heartily enjoyed the exposures of his career, and the reputation which his hardihood had acquired for him. I perceived, too, that he possessed a warm and vivid imagination, and that, clothing everything he saw and everything he did with a fitting sentiment of strength or beauty, he had blended wild nature and his own strange life into a romantic scheme, which completely filled his fancy leaving, apparently at least, nothing unsupplied; and this he enoyed to the very bottom of his soul.
p. 48-51: When the Doctor had finished this half soliloquy, I could not help asking what had impelled him to the life of solitude and exposure of which he had clearly grown so fond.
“The motives are various,” he answered, “but before we say anything under that head, let me revert to a word which you have just let fall, and which you have, perhaps, not duly considered the value of.”
I asked him what it was.
“But, surely,” I replied, “the word can hardly fail to suit a description of this place.”
The Doctor shrugged his shoulders while playfully answering, “Evidently all my talk about books, and the pleasure I have in them, has been quite thrown away, and my sweetness has been ‘wasted on the desert air.’ Perhaps you may have seen upon my shelves a rather fine edition of Lord Byron. Of all the poets he is my favorite, when describing wild nature. Why, what do you think would have been his handling of this grand midnight scene—these glorious cliffs, these snow-clad mountains, these glittering icebergs, glaciers, midnight sun—he who could behold the comparatively insignificant ice streams of the Alps, and call them ‘palaces of nature,’ where eternity sat throned in ‘icy halls of cold sublimity,’ and write so grandly about their expanding, yet appalling the human spirit, and how insignificant man stands forth in
contrast with nature in her rugged grandeur? Why, sir, what Byron saw was as nothing compared with this, and yet you call this solitude. Now let me answer you in this with a quotation from my favorite, which everybody, no doubt, who reads your splendid language, has by heart—that is to say, if I am not tiring your patience.”
“By no means,” I answered. “You cannot please me better than by praising this great poet, or by quoting from him.”
“That being the case, then here are the lines I want to use—
To sit on rocks, to muse o’er flood and fell,
To slowly trace the forest’s shady scene,
Where things that own not man’s dominion dwell,
And mortal foot hath ne’er, or rarely, been;
To climb the trackless mountain all unseen;
With the wild flock that never heeds a fold;
Alone o’er steeps and foaming falls to lean;
This is not solitude; ‘tis but to hold
Converse with nature’s charms, and see her stores unroll’d.’
“To be sure there is here no ‘forest’s shady scene,’ but I have oftentimes, in the winter moonlight, come to this same spot, and, looking out over the desolate, frozen sea, have, in the dark trailing shadow of a high ridge of hummock ice and icebergs, imagined that I was looking out upon a great woodland, such as I have many a time seen in winter time elsewhere. But if the forest is not here, all the rest of it most surely is; but the reverse of the picture quite as surely, is not. And now to wind up all this Byronic sentiment, let me just say, in the same Spenserian meter as before, and from the same excellent fountain head of poetry,
‘I live not in myself, but I become
Portion of that around me; and to me,
High mountains are a feeling, but the hum
Of human cities torture.’