The guiding principle of this adaptation is the transposition of Sappho’s words about her (possibly fictional) brothers onto a specific working class Victorian family who experienced the same “anxious moments” that were the natural result of sending sons out to sail the treacherous seas. Although historical testimonia like the Byzantine Suda record information about Sappho’s family relationships, many of these details seem to derive solely from Sappho’s poems, which may not actually be autobiographical. Nevertheless, numerous mentions in other texts describe the two young men named in the so-called “Brothers Poem” as Sappho’s own brothers, opening the door to a potential parallel between Sappho’s experiences and those of a different sister and her two brothers, living millennia later.
In 1845, the British Royal Navy sent two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, into the labyrinth of the Canadian Arctic to find a passage through to the Pacific Ocean. The commander of this expedition, Sir John Franklin, vanished along with the 128 men who served under him, leaving behind nothing but graves, bones, relics, and fragments. In Odyssean terms, none of Franklin’s crew ever received a homecoming, a nostos. Among those who perished on this ill-fated expedition were two brothers, John and Thomas Hartnell, only 25 and 23 years old, respectively. Born in Kent to a working class family, they both served as able seamen (ABs) aboard HMS Erebus. John died less than a year after leaving England and was buried in his brother’s shirt, as can be seen from the initials “TH” embroidered near the shirt’s hem. Thomas Hartnell’s remains, like those of most of his fellow crewmembers, have never been identified.
The Hartnell brothers left behind a loving family who missed them dearly. In a letter to her sons dated 23 December 1847, more than two years after their departure, Sarah Hartnell wrote:
It is a great pleasure to me to have a chance to write you. I hope you are both well. I assure you I have many anxious moments about you but I endeavour to cast my prayers on Him who is too good to be unkind. […] If it is the Lord’s will may we be spared to meet on earth. If not God grant we may all meet around His throne to praise Him to all eternity.
My incorporation of full quotations from this letter derives, in part, from the cento style of poetry, a post-classical but classicizing art form by which Late Antique authors like Ausonius composed patchwork verses using half-lines from the texts of earlier Greek and Latin authors, creating a sort of “absolute intertextuality.” Naturally, these translation decisions push my text into the realms of reception and recreation rather than word-for-word correlation; more literal translations have tended to read Sappho’s words as a mild rebuke of the addressee, while creative translations have read the poem as a thorough mockery of the two brothers. In contrast, I have attempted to imagine my narrator (the historical Mary Ann Hartnell, younger sister of John and Thomas) as gently guiding and comforting her anxious mother, Sarah, giving her hopeful words that she might pass onward to her two sons lost at sea.
In Sappho’s “Brothers Poem,” the poetic narrator speaks of two brothers, Charaxos (Χάραξος) and Larichos (Λάριχος), whom I have associated with John and Thomas Hartnell respectively. In the original poem, only Charaxos is at sea while Larichos seems to be at home on Lesbos, in contrast to the Hartnell brothers, who sailed together into the Arctic. Because the Hartnells were working class sailors in contrast to Sappho’s seemingly elite brothers, I have changed some of Sappho’s language that speaks of elite power – e.g. Charaxos is described as “commanding” (ἄγοντα) his ship, inaccurate to the context of the Hartnells – instead, these young men are “upon the sea,” even “drifting,” and thus powerless against the forces of both nature and the British imperial system that compelled them to engage in dangerous naval work. The addressee of the original poem is a matter of great debate, but I have chosen to follow those who assert that the narrator is speaking to a mother-figure, whom I then correlate with Sarah Hartnell, mother of the Hartnell siblings.
I have attempted to adapt the original poem’s references to the Greek gods in two ways: first, my new poetic narrator often calls upon the Christian “God,” as Sarah Hartnell does in her letter; and second, the original prayer to “Queen Hera” (βασίληα Ἤρα) is replaced with an invocation of Lady Jane Franklin, the wife of Captain Sir John Franklin, who led a massive letter-writing and fundraising campaign to support numerous search missions on behalf of her lost husband. Lady Franklin became a symbol of the eternally faithful elite Victorian wife, gaining the title “Penelope of England” in the popular press, and her ability to move ships and men around the Arctic region was nearly comparable to divine might.
Though Lady Franklin has been the subject of in-depth historical investigation, both strictly historiographical and more poetic, the widows, sisters, and mothers of the working class victims of the Franklin expedition have been comparatively neglected. By co-opting and adapting the text of Sappho’s “Brothers Poem,” I hope to draw attention to the double loss suffered by the Hartnell family and thereby add to the extensive tradition of writing and rewriting this tale of Arctic disaster. This, in turn, allows us a way to expand our view of Sappho’s original poem beyond the purely invective readings, offering the possibility of genuine emotional expression and concern for those still at sail on uncertain seas.
In order to incorporate Sarah Hartnell’s own words and phrasing, my translation of Sappho’s Greek uses blank verse stanzas, each composed of three lines of iambic pentameter and a fourth line of iambic tetrameter. The decision to follow this metrical constraint arose from reading Sarah’s letter and discovering that her words naturally follow an iambic pattern; the places where I have used Sarah’s words whole-cloth are bolded below:
But mother, aren’t you always saying John
must sail home soon? For if it is the Lord’s
good will, we may be spared to meet on earth.
We ought not worry either way.
But if it brings you comfort, send me out
to write to Lady Franklin seeking news,
for she will surely know the soonest if
your sons are safe upon the sea,
already drifting back to friendly shores.
But cast your prayers on Him who is too good
to be unkind – remember, sunlight shines
out brighter after shadowed storms.
If not, God grant we may all meet around
His throne to praise Him to eternity,
but I would think our family blessed indeed
to see my brothers safe someday,
before dear Tom’s outgrown his shirts again,
his tails you stitched to show his name in thread.
May that day help to heal your heavy heart
with stories snatched from icy waves.
 Rayor and Lardinois 2014: 1-4, Lardinois 2016.
 Swift 2018: 72-73.
 Mueller 2016: 28.
 This detail was revealed during an archaeological investigation in the 1980s (Beattie and Geiger 2014). John was one of the first casualties of the expedition according to his tombstone on Beechey Island, the inscription of which reads: “Sacred to the memory of John Hartnell, A.B. of H.M.S. Erebus, died January 4th, 1846, aged twenty-five years. ‘Thus saith the Lord of Hosts, consider your ways’” (Cyriax 1939: 106).
 Beattie and Geiger 2014: 200. Tragically, this message was composed years after her son John had died, giving her words an eerie sense of foresight or clairvoyance.
 Okáčová 2009.
 Rayor and Lardinois 2014: 160, Mueller 2016: 26.
 Carson 2014, Logan 2016; cf. Martin 2016.
 Bierl and Lardinois 2016: 2, Mueller 2016: 31.
 Kurke 2016.
 Elce 2009.
 Stevens, Macaulay, Miller 1859: 816.
 Woodward 1951, McGoogan 2006, Elce 2009.
 Elce 2018, Schroeder 2020.
Bibliographical Note and Acknowledgements
Many thanks to Dr. Alexa Price for sourcing the epithet “Penelope of England,” and all my gratitude to D.J. Holzhueter for providing invaluable information about the Hartnell family. The edition of the ancient Greek text used for this translation derives from Mueller 2016: 25.
Beattie, Owen and John Geiger. 2014. Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Bierl, Anton and André Lardinois, eds. 2016. The Newest Sappho: P. Sapph. Obbink and P. GC inv. 105, frs. 1-4, Studies in Archaic and Classical Greek Song, Vol. 2. Leiden: Brill.
Carson, Anne. 2014. “The Brothers Poem by Sappho.” Times Literary Supplement 28: 22.
Cyriax, Richard J. 1939. [1997.] Sir John Franklin’s Last Arctic Expedition: The Franklin Expedition. Plaistow & Sutton Coldfield: The Arctic Press.
Elce, Erika Behrisch, ed. 2009. As Affecting the Fate of My Absent Husband: Selected Letters of Lady Franklin Concerning the Search for the Lost Franklin Expedition, 1848–1860. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Elce, Erika Behrisch. 2018. Lady Franklin of Russell Square: A Novel. Alberta: Stonehouse Publishing.
Kurke, Leslie. 2016. “Gendered Spheres and Mythic Models in Sappho’s Brothers Poem,” in Bierl, Anton and André Lardinois, eds. The Newest Sappho: P. Sapph Obbink and P. GC inv. 105, frs. 1–4, Studies in Archaic and Classical Greek Song, Vol. 2. Leiden: Brill. 238-265.
Lardinois, André. 2016. “Sappho’s Brothers Song and the Fictionality of Early Greek Lyric Poetry,” in Bierl, Anton and André Lardinois, eds. The Newest Sappho: P. Sapph Obbink and P. GC inv. 105, frs. 1–4, Studies in Archaic and Classical Greek Song, Vol. 2. Leiden: Brill. 167-187.
Logan, William, trans. 2016. “Charaxos and Larichos.” Poetry July/August. Accessed 13 January 2021.
Martin, Richard. 2016. “Sappho, Iambist: Abusing the Brother,” in Bierl, Anton and André Lardinois, eds. The Newest Sappho: P. Sapph Obbink and P. GC inv. 105, frs. 1–4, Studies in Archaic and Classical Greek Song, Vol. 2. Leiden: Brill. 110–126.
McGoogan, Ken. 2006. Lady Franklin’s Revenge: A True Story of Ambition, Obsession and the Remaking of Arctic History. London: Bantam.
Mueller, Melissa. 2016. “Re-Centering Epic Nostos: Gender and Genre in Sappho’s Brothers Poem.” Arethusa 49(1): 25–46.
Okáčová, Maria. 2009. “Centones: Recycled Art or the Embodiment of Absolute Intertextuality?” Kakanien Revisited. Accessed 13 January 2021.
Rayor, Diane J. and André Lardinois. 2014. Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Schroeder, Corinna McClanahan. 2020. “Letters to the Dead.” Southern Review 56(1): 60-64.
Stevens, William, James Macaulay, and William Haig Miller, eds. 1859. “Fate of the Franklin Expedition.” The Leisure Hour: An Illustrated Magazine for Home Reading, 812-816.
Swift, Laura. 2018. “Thinking with Brothers in Sappho and Beyond.” Mouseion 15: 71–87.
Woodward, Frances. 1951. Portrait of Jane: A Life of Lady Franklin. London: Hodder and Stoughton.