A Luminous Phenomenon

An explorer so excited by the possibility of luminescent phenomena could have found no better guide than Bernard O'Reilly's Greenland, and the Adjacent Seas, and the North-West Passage to the Pacific Ocean, published the same year as Frankenstein.

Illustration:
Frederick Christian Lewis and S. Koenig, "Luminous Phænomenon," from Bernard O'Reilly, Greenland, the Adjacent Seas, and the North-West Passages to the Pacific Ocean (London: Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy, 1818), 203. (Archive.org: https://archive.org/details/greenlandadjacen00orei/page/n255).

I try in vain to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation; it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight. There, Margaret, the sun is for ever visible; its broad disk just skirting the horizon, and diffusing a perpetual splendour. There—for with your leave, my sister, I will put some trust in preceding navigators—there snow and frost are banished; and, sailing over a calm sea, we may be wafted to a land surpassing in wonders and in beauty every region hitherto discovered on the habitable globe. Its productions and features may be without example, as the phaenomena of the heavenly bodies undoubtedly are in those undiscovered solitudes.

In the opening pages of Frankenstein, Robert Walton extols the otherworldly north as a land of beauty and light, a reputation based, he explains, on the accounts of "preceding navigators" that he had been reading since his youth. An explorer so excited by the possibility of luminescent phenomena could have found no better guide than Bernard O'Reilly's Greenland, and the Adjacent Seas, and the North-West Passage to the Pacific Ocean, published the same year as Frankenstein.

Distinctively focused on unrecorded "phenomena of atmosphere, new to men of science" (iv), O'Reilly, in the image above, presents an unusual luminescent event that he reportedly experienced passing through Baffin Bay at midnight on July 6; "A milky stratus encircled the horizon, and in the point of wind a beautiful exhibition of cirrocumulus occurred, the patches being edged with a rich tinting of sun-light, which contrasted with good effect to the purplish-brown swell at the centre… at first a continuous stream of white issuing from an irregular coronal ring, apparently touching the cloud: from this ring a mazy spire descending held communication with the cloud: from the point in which the sun was sweeping his lowest arch, other radiations, shorter and more sharp, came in response to the former, to which succeeded a gradual but uninterrupted change of the radiations from the cloud into a reticulated form with recurved points… (187-188).

Quite unlike the images of landscape and local peoples that otherwise populate most of the volume, this peculiar illustration depicts O'Reilly himself, disregarding all but the experience of this spectral encounter.