A hundred years ago, one of the great dramas in the history of exploration was taking place at the very bottom of the earth, a place so shrouded in mystery that it had not yet been mapped. After simmering for a long time, the “Heroic Age” of polar exploration had reached its apotheosis in the form of a mad dash undertaken by rivals to be the first to claim the planet’s last great prize: the South Pole.
The exploits of Scott and Amundsen have since become a metaphor for the essential yin and yang of human exploits. Their race brings all the opposites together: success and failure; life and death; good planning and bad planning. The great irony of the outcome is that the winner of the battle, Amundsen, ended up losing the war; public opinion preferred to laud the martyred hero left frozen in the ice as “Scott of the Antarctic.”
Thus it is that their story has captured our imagination all these years. They say that history is told by the winners, but in this case, the narrative has been dominated by the loser. The posthumous publication of Scott’s journals gave his story life, even as he died to produce it. Many scholars have said that Scott’s reputation was saved by rhetoric, and much has been made of the beauty of his writing, made extraordinary due to the circumstances under which it was penned—at the end, as he lay dying of exposure, thirst, and starvation in a canvas tent illuminated by the nub of flame he managed to coax with frozen fingers from burning his shoelaces.
But the grace in Scott’s words stretches back long before he had to struggle to write them. His daily account of life from the perspective of an expedition leader upon whom the hopes of a whole nation rested makes for compelling reading all the way through. It was his second attempt to become famous; his first mission ended in failure but produced a bestselling book (The Voyage of the Discovery, 1905), written up with some effort from his notes. This time around, he was not only determined to succeed in reaching the Pole but also knew what it took to make people care; instead of devoting his energies to learning from the practical mistakes he’d made before (such as using dogs properly or securing the seals on his fuel tins), he poured them into recording a more intimate, detailed captain’s log.
The book that these notes became was transcribed and edited hurriedly and under duress once Scott’s journals were returned to London, months after news of his death was announced to a public clamoring for a comprehensive account of the tragedy from the horse’s mouth, as it were. Scott’s Last Expedition, the two-volume account produced from his journals mostly word-for-word, became an instant classic, and has not gone out of print since it appeared in 1913. With the exception of some small adjustments in the reporting of temperatures and the inclusion of a set of notes revealing material originally censored to protect the reputation of those still living, the text has gone unchanged all these years.
It is of some consequence, then, to discover that not everything Scott wrote were his own words, even though that is how they have always appeared in print. One of the passages famously noted for being an example of Scott’s innate facility with language and metaphor—and therefore “proof” of his superiority as a writer and noble soul—was in fact written by a far more accomplished wordsmith: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
So how can it be that no one—not even Scott’s lauded editor, Leonard Huxley, or any of the scholars who have pored over Scott’s words in a hundred years—have noticed this glaring misappropriation? The fact that Scott was quoting Longfellow in the first place provides us with an insight into his literary life that is just as revealing as simply noting that it was overlooked. The passage that Scott quoted is itself illuminating. An explanation is that what Scott quotes—as three lines of poetry on a whole page by itself (possibly for use as an epigraph in his book)—was very obscure to begin with: an excerpt from prose notes Longfellow wrote as an addendum to his translation of the Swedish poet Esais Tegnér’s “Children of the Lord’s Supper,” which appeared in print only a few times during Scott’s lifetime.
Here is Longfellow’s original excerpt (italics are mine):
The sun does not set till ten o’clock at night; and the children are at play in the streets an hour later. The windows and doors are all open, and you may sit and read till midnight without a candle. O how beautiful is the summer night, which is not night, but a sunless yet unclouded day, descending upon earth with dews, and shadows, and refreshing coolness! How beautiful the long, mild twilight, which like a silver clasp unites to-day with yesterday! How beautiful the silent hour, when Morning and Evening thus sit together, hand in hand, beneath the starless sky of midnight!
Here is the quote as it has appeared in Scott’s Last Expedition, unchanged since 1913:
Impression: The long mild twilight which like a clasp unites today with yesterday; when morning and evening sit together hand in hand beneath the starless sky of midnight.
Leonard Huxley (who was no slouch when it came to being well read) most likely missed this due to his not having recognized its origin; after all, Longfellow is associated with poetry, and even a Victorian reader intimately familiar with his work might not have chanced to read what were rather drawn-out notes about someone else’s work, and even then would have had to be in possession of one of the few editions of Longfellow’s works in which it appeared to even have access to it. (Scott did have a copy of Longfellow’s Poetical Works that included this addendum with him on his first expedition, and most likely on his second, too.) Where Scott was wont to set down potential epigraphic material, he did so openly, at the beginning of new journals, and generally noted the authors whose lines he quoted. It must be remembered that at the time, Scott did not think that anyone but himself would be using these journals as raw material; he likely did not think it necessary to note that the quote was from Longfellow.
Still, this does not explain why Huxley would have overlooked the unique nature of Scott’s words, set apart from the rest of his journal as they were. He simply included them as prose in the next day’s journal entry, under the heading of an “Impression,” one of the stylized observations Scott had made on previous occasions in the form of lists. After all, the words themselves do hint at the kind of artistic eye that allowed Scott to note “The blue arch beneath the smoky cloud” and “The gentle flutter of our canvas shelter.” (One could ask if it was an intimacy with Longfellow that influenced Scott’s style and syntax to begin with; if so, he chose well whom to copy.) Scott’s great friend, Edward Wilson, the physician, scientist, and painter, readily gave advice when it came to his comrades’ attempts at rendering the landscape with a brush, always instructing them to really see what lay before them, rather than refer to what they imagined they saw or ought to see. Scott’s “Impressions” read very much as similar attempts to capture what he really sees, but with words. Therefore, it is understandable that such an erudite reader as Huxley could have mistaken Longfellow’s words for Scott’s.
Of course, the possibility exists that Huxley did indeed recognize Longfellow’s words, but chose not to add a credit to that effect (thereby remaining true to Scott’s actual manuscript and honestly avoiding a charge of plagiarism), because it would have been very much in the interest of Scott’s legacy (and by extension the reputation of Smith, Elder, his publisher) to promote him as the gifted linguist by which he became known. This we cannot know, but only speculate, as we have to do in order to likewise account for the erroneous accounts of temperatures which were reduced from plus to minus in order to (or as a consequence thereof) emphasize the physical extremes Scott and his men suffered through.
The suggestion that Scott’s Journals appeared in print exactly as he had written them, with minimal interference in the transcription, was important; it not only preserved the idea that Scott’s talent sprung fully formed from his pen without the need for revision (and indeed, much of it was indeed unedited—the man could produce whole sentences without fiddling with his wording after the fact), but that the account was true. Even the hint of “spin” attached to the sacred texts of the nation’s newest hero would have sullied them; that was left, amply so, to everyone else, whose rhetoric built much fire of the barely smoldering embers of Scott’s expedition. Leonard Huxley, is it worth noting, is listed merely as the man who “arranged” the text, rather than as “editor,” which implies a far more intrusive role. As it happens, he did both in equal measure.
So: What of the quote, and what does it tell us about Scott? For a start, it reveals that he was a far more inquisitive and voracious reader than we had assumed, even given the various accounts of his love of reading by surviving expedition members. He took the time to read those obscure notes, and to pay attention to them in enough detail to bring them to mind when he needed them; he obviously had an ear for beautiful language that informed his own. Evidence suggests that he memorized the words, rather than look them up, because he made subtle, but significant changes to the lines of the sort made by an elision of memory rather than a lack of care with transcription.
It is also worth noting that Scott appeared to be reading an account of Norse sagas while he was encamped in a similarly desolate and mythical landscape—the kind of stories his rival encamped 400 miles further along the coast would have been familiar with. Scott may have claimed to one and all that he gave Amundsen no mind, but his reading suggests otherwise.