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Thursday, 10 December 2009

The Black Spot (Scott After the Pole)



Robert Falcon Scott (1868-1912), writing in his journal in the Cape Evans hut
: photo by Herbert G. Ponting, 1911 (National Archives UK)

Had I but strength to stand, I'd walk out
Upon the ice and show you the strange sights
That glow within the black lights of the Pole.
Natural science cannot explain these lights.
Where nothing living breathes the personal
Must also hold its breath. The stirrings of the men
In restless sleep, their labored breathing.
I must write Wilson's mother a note, deceive
Her if I'm able as to the horror  

Of his end. I'll tell her of his courage,
His selflessness, his loyalty to the men.
She'll have no need for the truth, no more
Than did we to be undeceived. Not till  

Our bones are found will they find my letter.
"29th March. My dear Mrs. Wilson.
If this reaches you, Bill and I will have gone
Out together. We are very near it now  

And I should like you to know how splendid
He was at the end. Everlastingly 

Cheerful and ready to sacrifice  
Himself for others, never a word of blame
To me for leading him into this mess.  

He suffers only mild discomforts.
His eyes have a colorful blue look of hope
And his mind is peaceful with his faith. 

My whole heart goes out to you in pity."
Can't see my marks yet still can grip this stub
And make it move across the page. Black spots
In the dark, marking what cannot be shown.
Black spots blur on white paper: what can  

Be shown cannot be said. The hour grows late
For these meandering trains of thought  

Represented by blurred spots on white paper.
Connect the dots and the limits of my world
Will grow apparent to you. Where in it am I?
This riddle does not exist as problem
In your life, where the light of the personal
Shines. The solution of the problem  

Of life is the vanishing of the problem.  
I am the microcosm, thought Scott 
At the last, in the dark, as night closed in
Over permafrost. A black spot now his world
Growing to fill the whole vast snowbound landscape.


Robert Falcon Scott's South Pole party on his ill-fated expedition, from left to right at the Pole: Lawrence Oates (standing), Henry Bowers (sitting), Scott (standing in front of Union Jack flag on pole), Edward Wilson (sitting), Edgar Evans (standing). Henry Bowers (1883-1912) took this photograph on the day of the party's arrival at the Pole, 17 January 1912, using a piece of string to operate the camera shutter: photo from Leonard Huxley (ed.), The Return from the Pole, in Scott's Last Expedition (volume 1), New York, 1913 (National Archives UK)

File:Herbert Ponting icebergs Scott Expadition.jpg

Icebergs in McMurdo Sound, as seen from McMurdo Station during Scott's last expedition: photo by Herbert Ponting, 1910; image by Wayne Ray, 31 March 2008 (private collection of Bruce Parker, London, Ontario)

"The worst has happened... All the day dreams must go... Great God! This is an awful place": Robert Falcon Scott, diary entry, 17 January 1912, upon reaching the Pole, only to learn that Amundsen had preceded him by six weeks.


~otto~ said...

Wow, the slower I read that the more it soaked into my bones. A wonderful tale.

"what can
"Be shown cannot be said" still echoes.

And this: "The solution of the problem
"Of life is the vanishing of the problem."

Yes, in my mind (if I read correctly) that is a hard lesson.

Also, as usual, fantastic finish.

bill sherman said...

great poem, Tom.

Anonymous said...

the poem belies the first line, the stength is there!

TC said...

The story of Scott's Antarctic expeditions has interested me for a very long time. I attended a medical and scientific college at Cambridge, Gonville and Caius. Dr. Edward Wilson, the zoologist -- to whose mother the dying Scott wrote the very affecting note I have quoted in the poem -- had been at that college. In the library was a college flag Wilson had taken to the South Pole.

Wilson was a wonderful man. Ascetic, self-effacing, compassionate. After leaving Cambridge and his medical studies at St George's Hospital, he undertook missionary work in the slums of Battersea. There he contracted tuberculosis. After a long recovery period he set out with Scott on the latter's first Antarctic voyage of 1901-1904.

On the later Terra Nova expedition, when Scott's vessel was trapped in the ice for a second year, Wilson was given an opportunity which he craved: to be the first biologist to study the mid-winter breeding of the Emperor Penguin. While Scott's party wintered at Cape Evans, Wilson, profoundly interested in the natural world in general and birds in particular (the lovely sketches and watercolours of birds he did as a young man show him to have been a first class artist), led a 130 mile three-man expedition through the polar darkness, braving temperatures as low as minus-77 F. (their teeth cracked from the cold), to the rookeries of the Emperor Penguin, where they collected five eggs in an early stage of development -- the first such specimens ever found. They managed to keep three of the eggs intact through the arduous journey back to the base, where, exhausted and severely frostbitten, the men had to be be cut out of their clothes.

As for Scott, his reputation for heroism came under question during the 1980s and 1990s in revisionist histories in which he was criticized and even satirized for what was seen as bad planning and poor leadership; as his historic star fell, that of his contemporary Edward Shackleton rose. Shackleton's management skills were praised as a model for US corporate businessmen. Shackleton was comparatively the superior "organization man", it was suggested. Pop historians made hay with the new fallen Scott. History of course always bespeaks the relativity of cultural values. In recent years the debunkers of Scott have however been silenced by studies of meteorological data for the Ross Ice Shelf during February and March 1912 proving that Scott's disaster was the product not of poor judgment on his part but of spectacularly -- and unusually -- bad weather conditions.

Charlie Vermont said...

This poem about Scott, the
pictorials of the expedition,
and TC's discussion of the story,
and the selection of an epic heroic
quest as an inspiration for poetry
demonstrate in a microcosm why
Tom Clark is a great Man of Letters,largely unrecognized
comparatively speaking by the literary world.

human being said...

what i really love about the way you comment is that you usually come and leave your wise and poetic words plus a link to one of your works... then something beautiful and holy happens... a union... of our experiences and emotions... no matter how different they might be... in the core, they are of the same substance...
i can see what connects my people's battle to Scott's expedition...

i can see how that black spot can travel from a personal microcosm into the macrocosm of humanity...

i loved this poem a lot... the way you tell the story from first person point of view was so touching... i felt myself there witnessing the graceful death of a great man i have always admired since childhood...

and Tom...

you just don't write poetry
your life is poetry
you are a beatuiful poem
composed by soul of the cosmos
that is love...


TC said...

Charlie, HB,

Nothing could be more gratifying than the generous words of worldly wise poet friends -- a doctor, a teacher -- whose work inspires and guides.

Friendship of this kind is a pole star that lends a glimmer in the dark winter night.

Thanks and peace of heart and soul to you both.

Anonymous said...

thirty years ago i was studying poetry and microbiology in buffalo and a friend, the poet al deloach, after learning of my still unresolved grief for my boyhood hero roberto clemente, turned me on to your poetry tom. because of your poems about the great one i learned a new way of dealing with emotion that season, a way other than depression and anger. it wad a big step for my life and my work as a poet. thank you for that. i hope you visit my blog today. thank you tom.

Pinkerbell said...

Hey Tom,

I've read this with great interest and I love the way you focus us in to the last thing he had left: his ability to write. How important it was to try to leave some positive thoughts in such desolate moments.

It conjures up such emotions to think of how they must have felt. That gut-wrenching feeling of knowing they had not been first and then realising their fate was bound into the cruel ice.

I know some of Scott's ancestors personally and I know the pain caused by the doubters. The families are so often the forgotten victims in these situations.

TC said...


Well, I think those family members have much to be proud of.

Yes, the writing seems to have been the last of the life in Scott.

From his final diary entry, March 29, 1912:

"Since the 21st we have had a continuous gale from W.S.W. and S.W. We had fuel to make two cups of tea apiece and bare food for two days on the 20th. Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker of course, and the end cannot be far.

"It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more."

Pinkerbell said...

hm I meant "descendants" - I'm always getting that one wrong!

Thanks Tom, they definitely have a lot to be proud of in my book too.

TC said...


One thing the poet needs ("every thing / the poet needs" -- the closing words of your very moving and very much appreciated "the arc of the poet") is better eyesight and more sleep. Deficits in those two areas caused me to miss your comment till today. Sorry about that.

To reach into the reality of the common place, intersect with the spirit of the curious, stir the dreams of the everyday reaper and reach (occasionally) into the Endless: these are high aspirations indeed. To manage any one of them would surely be worth a lifetime of devotion to the art.

The model of Clemente's dignity, pride, resistance, courage and generosity was important for me as well. I fear we will never again see the like.

Clemente (1934-1972)

aditya said...

Heart rending. Tumultuous.

I am sad.

Everyone, tends to cling on to hope. Hope when amalgamated with emotions is fiery combination.

"The worst has happened... All the day dreams must go... Great God! This is an awful place"

hmmmm .. the spots have left me speechless. For a long time to come.

TC said...

Scott, still hopeful

Anonymous said...

we were kids
we could never figure out
why the pittsburgh press and bob
prince were so mad at roberto.
we knotholers only knew
the great one
who would talk to us
for hours
in the sunshine
before the game.

leigh tuplin said...

Thankyou Tom, simply that. This whole piece is so poignant and beautiful. A pleasure to read!

aditya said...

This is one of the better ones, of what ever little I have read of you. I make it sound a little preposterous, a young man commenting on your greatness. But every reader has that right Tom. :)

Very beautiful. Sorrow is beautiful, too. So I have always believed.

No more words come to me. Very heart rending.


TC said...


Yes, we do come to the end of words.

But the end of feelings... never.

Robert Falcon Scott said...

I liked your poem very much. There has been a lot of rubbish written imagining what Scott might have been thinking while writing those last letters.

I am a poet in Pittsburgh who is writing a serious book on Scott - I have held Wilson's prayer and sketch books in my hands, and this letter you reference.

I write the Scott blog at

Check it out and sign up to follow!


Robert Falcon Scott said...

Just realized RFS comes up instead of my name:

TC said...

Dear Robert Falcon Scott,

'Tis an honour and a pleasure indeed to be able to view Scott's last blog.

(Thanks very much, Micki!)

Marie W said...

This is so incredibly beautiful. What can I say.. every line is a step deeper into the eternal snow. And no way back, no melting of the ice and no spring, ever again. Where nothing living breathes the personal Must also hold its breath. Bill and I will have gone Out together...
I just want to read it over and over.