Monday, July 23, 2012

"I Am Just Going Outside And May Be Some Time"

Randall Jarrell's "90 North" prompted me (in pedestrian fashion) to think of the following polar poem by Derek Mahon, which takes place at 90 South rather than at 90 North.  The poem is a villanelle, and one of the refrains is:  "I am just going outside and may be some time."  These words were spoken by Captain Lawrence Oates in March of 1912.

Oates was a member of Robert Scott's expedition to the South Pole, which began on November 1, 1911.  After reaching the Pole, the five-man group began the return trip.  Oates was suffering from frostbite to his feet, and his condition was slowing down the group, which was running out of food. On March 15, 1912, knowing that his condition was endangering the lives of the others, Oates asked them to leave him behind.  They refused.  On the morning of March 16 or 17 (Scott, who was recording events in his diary, had lost track of the date), Oates said to the others:  "I am just going outside and may be some time."  He left the tent and was never seen again.

His sacrifice was unavailing.  The remaining members of the group died less than two weeks later after a blizzard prevented them from reaching their next food cache.

      Thomas Moran,"The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone" (1893-1901)


'I am just going outside and may be some time.'
The others nod, pretending not to know.
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

He leaves them reading and begins to climb,
Goading his ghost into the howling snow;
He is just going outside and may be some time.

The tent recedes beneath its crust of rime
And frostbite is replaced by vertigo:
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

Need we consider it some sort of crime,
This numb self-sacrifice of the weakest?  No,
He is just going outside and may be some time --

In fact, for ever.  Solitary enzyme,
Though the night yield no glimmer there will glow,
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

He takes leave of the earthly pantomime
Quietly, knowing it is time to go.
'I am just going outside and may be some time.'
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

Derek Mahon, Antarctica (The Gallery Press 1986).

                                                      Thomas Moran
             "Cliffs of the Upper Colorado River, Wyoming Territory" (1882)


alice c said...

Is it wrong to have favourites among the forms of poetry? I am always drawn to the villanelle which looks so simple and yet is so challenging to write. Thank you for this choice today and for the apposite images.

Andy McEwan said...

"A very gallant gentleman" indeed. And this poem so wonderfully captures the bravery and humanity of his sacrifice. Who, reading it, could not feel for Oates going into the blizzard and cetain death, alone, for the sake of his comrades? And who could not feel for them, aware of the ultimate sacrifice their friend was making? I had never seen this poem before: many thabks for introducing me to it.

eugubino said...

Self sacrifice ,a sense of irony , and understatement ,the better qualities of the British, we've now lost to the celebrity culture .

Stephen Pentz said...

alice c: thank you for stopping by again, and for your thoughts.

I too am fond of villanelles, as well as triolets -- the repetitions, in the hands of a good poet, can be fun and lovely.

I'm pleased that you liked the poem and the paintings. I suppose that the word "sublime" may have prompted me to think of Moran.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. McEwan: thank you very much for visiting, and for your thoughts. I'm pleased that you like the poem. Scott's diary entries for March of 1912 are heart-wrenching to read. They all seemed to be well aware of how things were going to play out, but still kept their wits about them. And what Oates did is remarkable.

Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

eugubino: thank you very much for your thoughts. Yes, that world does, unfortunately, seem like a vanished world, doesn't it? I am not British, but I know exactly what you mean about "the celebrity culture" -- it is the bane of us all.

Thank you again.