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Ultima Thule

February 23, 2012

Awhile back, I entreated you to visit the UK’s National Maritime Museum’s exhibit “High Arctic: Future Vision of a Receding World” (read the post here). During my visit, I picked up a little book of poems by Nick Drake, the featured poet in the installation, simply called “High Arctic.” The book doesn’t contain all of the poems that are associated with the exhibit, but I thought I would share one of my favorites–and I highly recommend getting a copy of his poems for yourself.

Phytheas says:


I sailed with the sun

Into a dream;

North past the sacred promontory

To the emporium called Belerion,

A land subject to frost

Where they shape tin from the mines

As a man’s knucklebones.

North along the coast of Britannike

Into a strange summer

Beyond the edges of the world;

The gnomon of our mast

Lengthened across the sea each day;

The nights diminished;

New stars appeared, never before seen;

The pole star rose from the northern horizon

Higher and higher;

Finally, after six days at sea, we saw

The lost land called Thule.

Theophrastus says time

Is an accident of motion

And surely what he says is true;

For we came to a place where the sun did not set,

And the ocean stopped

And the waters congealed,

And the gnomon of our mast

In that frozen noon

Cast a shadow that reached to the horizon.

In the brief dark

I beheld Arktikos, the Great Bear,

The Pole Star

And the seven stars

Turning above my head

As if we were the still point

Of everything.


I staked my life and sailed into a dream;

When at last I returned home

They did not believe me.

I wrote the truth in a book,

But then the book was lost.

I am Phytheas, the Greek.

This was my dream.

Drake’s poem is based on the Greek adventurer who is presumed to be one of the first explorers of the Arctic who returned to write and publish his musings on the experience. He also references “Thule” in his poem, an evocative image of the north that has a suitable poetic history. One critical study of the works by the renowned Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen, written in response to Rasmussen naming his Greenlandic trading station “Thule,” states that “Thule” is a poetic, even a legendary name, one that always points across horizons, a place where only imaginations can travel. She explains the political aspect of this poetic naming practice:

Ultima Thule as a concept for the far North means engaging with particular horizons and perspectives. Horizons reflect peoples’ concerns with both openness and closure that determine what we experience and how we interpret what we experience. When a horizon and whatever lies beyond it are given articulate form, they freeze our view of the reality that immediately confronts us.

We can think about how the northern horizons given a material presence in Rasmussen’s trading post is linked to Drake’s re-imagined evocation of place, time, desire, and the north. Drake uses imagery of time to ask us to rethink our global responsibility to the north in terms of our contribution to climate change (which puts an expiration date on the Arctic) through the long history of western fascination with pushing boundaries, moving horizons.

From → Literature, Poems

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