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A Highlander and His Books
ramblingmuser - literature, archaeology, philosophy, exploration

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA

While this site was started over a decade ago as book review space for Scottish books, I must confess “the times, they are a changin” and I find myself  working with a blog by good Burnsian friend Stephen Hammock. This web site has evolved from book reviews into “Chats with Authors”, a couple of Scottish prayers, tributes to old friends, and trips to Scotland and Paris and, sadly, an obituary or two among the articles. But this is my first attempt in dealing with a blog. I was so impressed by Stephen’s work that I post here it in the hope that some of you will be inclined to sign up and view the paths he will be following in the years ahead in the States and in the United Kingdom.

Stephen Hammock is studying at Oxford University for a doctorate and has now completed his first year. He spent the summer months back in Georgia and recently returned to Oxford for the next step in search of his degree. He is a bright young man and we came to know each other when he joined the Burns Club of Atlanta. In our last email exchange he said, “I need to add an article on Burns sometime!” That is something all of us would like to read, Stephen, so I will hold you to it! Best wishes for a great year at Oxford and thanks for sharing ramblingmuser with our readers.

(FRS: 9.26.13)

literature, archaeology, philosophy, exploration

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Highgate Cemetery, London

Posted on by shammock2012

Highgate Cemetery in London, England is a PHANTASTIC treasure of Victorian sculptural sepulchres. A recent visit confirmed my hopes and expectations, although I must say that the overly engineered tour was a bit heavy-handed and I wish it had been possible to just wander around freely. Since black and white photos of Highgate seem to do it the most justice, here is a visual tour of it as nineteenth century photographs might have depicted it.

George Wombwell Monument

The Angels of Highgate

Highgate Cemetery Path

The biggest regret was that the tour group was not taken to see the grave of Elizabeth Siddal, the Pre-Raphaelite muse of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, which we were looking forward to with excitement. Rossetti is rumoured to have painted thousands of paintings of Siddal, whom he later married, including the sensual Beata Beatrix, and his sister Christina once described his obsession with this muse in verse. When she died in 1862, Rossetti buried his sole surviving copies of his poems with her, an act which he later regretted. Another regret that haunted him for the rest of his life was the fact that he had her exhumed so he could reclaim the poetry and publish it. It is said that her flowing red hair had somehow continued to grow after her death, and that the coffin was overflowing with it….

Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

“One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,
A saint, an angel — every canvas means
The same one meaning, neither more nor less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.”

Christina Rossetti, In An Artist’s Studio, 1856

Categories: Cemeteries, Exploration, Literature | Tags: cemetery, Highgate, London, Victorian | Leave a comment

Dante: Poet-Prophet of Love

Posted on by shammock2012

Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car by William Blake

Thomas Carlyle wrote that the greatest poets are also prophets, and experience life on quite another sphere than their fellow mortals. Though others may forget the sacred mysteries of life and come to believe in appearances alone, the true poet cannot forget them because he lives in them and is completely honest and dedicated to their universal power. Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare, surely our three greatest poets, support this idea of the poet/prophet, or Vates, and if we would seek to understand such genius, we would do well to contemplate this truth – that they are attuned to a key that the masses of men cannot or will not hear. It is this that makes them unique even among poets, who are all commonly regarded as having more sensitive natures, and it is this that also makes understanding them a greater challenge.

Of these three most universal of poets, Dante alone combines spiritual depth with intellectual vigor and intense lyrical sweetness. Although he began writing in the Courtly Love tradition that swept across Europe in the Middle Ages – a tradition invented by the troubadours of southern France – Dante transformed this tradition when he wedded to it the dolce stil nuovo (sweet new style), a literary movement popular among Italian poets of his time. The primary characteristics of this style of poetry were not only introspection, puns, and philosophical themes, but also an insistence that the beautiful women about whom these poets wrote were actually angelic beings. Dante took this last theme a step farther than any of his contemporaries by insisting that one angelic lady in particular was literally sent to Earth to show him the way to Heaven. He describes her and his love for her in his poetry manual La Vita Nuova (The New Life) and in his great epic The Commedia (The Comedy). The rest of this essay will explore the life and ideas of this Mediaeval Italian Vates.

Dante was born in Florence in AD 1265 into a noble but impoverished family. His father made a decent living by leasing out family farmlands just north of the city. Although Dante had the advantages of an urban education and manners, and was fiercely devoted to his hometown, descriptions of country life also fill his poetry and show how deeply Nature touched his great spirit. However, the central event in his life occurred on May 1, 1274, when he was about nine. This is when he met eight year old Beatrice Portinari at a party given by her father, and from that day forward love fired his young heart. Soon he began to seek her out in the markets, churches, and streets of the neighborhood where they lived, and although he probably never knew her well, Dante came to see in Beatrice his ideal lady of beauty, grace, and piety, and wrote a number of sonnets and poems in her honor. In fact, her very name comes from the Latin Beatrix, and literally means “one who makes happy.” Tragically, Beatrice died in 1290 at the age of 24.

Dante wrote a few more poems for her, combined them with prose explanations of how he came to write them, and set them forth around 1295 under the title La Vita Nuova. Though he appears to have tried for a while to forget her, her image was so emblazoned on his mind that he ended up making her the central figure of his poetry and of his life. Over time she has become the most memorable literary character in world history. For it is certain that the immortal figure we meet in his writings is an idealized version of the real girl he loved, and who married someone else and died young. Dante also married, but, as was customary in Mediaeval Europe, his was arranged by his family when he was about eleven. The contract was fulfilled in late 1287, and four children resulted from this union.

Dante studied philosophy and theology deeply in the years after Beatrice’s death, and immersed himself in the Republic of Florence’s politics from 1295-1301. Perhaps he became too involved in the factional struggles that continually rocked his native city throughout the 13th and 14th centuries, but things came to a head when he became outspoken against the secular politics of Pope Boniface VIII. Boniface was attempting to increase the power of the papacy, and sought to undermine any Italian city-states that were independent of his authority. His stratagems were but one episode in the Middle Age struggle between the popes and the Holy Roman Emperors, who argued that popes had power only over religious matters, while the emperors controlled all secular matters. All Florentines nominally supported the church in its endeavors and wars against the empire, but some, like Dante, thought that Florence’s independence was more important than serving either master too well. In this regard, Dante was sent as papal ambassador to Rome in 1301 to argue for his city’s continued freedom. Though the other Florentine ambassadors were soon allowed to leave, Boniface, fearing Dante’s eloquence, purposefully delayed his return until the faction supporting papal authority had time to violently wrest control of the city from Dante’s party. Dante would never forgive Boniface for this, and would later blacken the pope’s very name in a manner unique in the history of the papacy.  Dante was ultimately exiled from Florence and condemned to death by his political enemies. However, the fame of his poetry and other writings had made him a celebrity, and after a few years if intense poverty, he lived comfortably for the rest of his life, though he wandered from city to city and host to host, and became the ultimate example of the exiled intellectual.

Dantean scholars have emphasized particular aspects of his work and influence that make him one of the two or three greatest poets of all time. C. S. Lewis wrote of Dante’s love poetry being a union of divine and sensual love, John Freccero offered that Beatrice reconciles human love with the Divine plan, and Harold Bloom said she is “the allegory of the fusion of sacred and secular, the union of prophecy and poem.” T. S. Elliott wrote that Dante’s poetry has “the quality of surprise” that E. A. Poe said was “essential to poetry,” while Bloom proffered that Dante’s works have “a strangeness” that we can never completely internalize, and that it is this that gives his poetry its startling originality. Carlyle simple wrote that intensity is “the prevailing character of Dante’s genius.” Northrop Frye suggested that Dante’s Commedia is the supreme example in literature of the “marvelous journey,” while Erich Auerbach said that Dante’s poetry is spell-binding, and that readers are charmed into entering a magical world.

Dante’s influence has been immeasurable, largely through the impact he had on Petrarch, whose sonnets and poems in turn created romantic poetry as we understand it today. Dante’s philosophy and theology have cast a giant shadow upon subsequent thinkers, visionaries, churchmen, and authors. His use of the vernacular Italian, as opposed to the more acceptable Latin, linguistically changed just about everything. But more than anything else, it is Dante’s great lyrical power as a poet that gives him his charm, his darkness, his hope, and his radiance. All of the writers quoted above touch upon some of the aspects that place Dante’s poetry in a class by itself. But perhaps Bloom, the most eloquent of Dante’s admirers after Carlyle and Elliott, summed it up best when he wrote that Beatrice was “a Christian muse” and that for Dante, “love begins and ends” with her.

For Dante’s greatest works, The Commedia and La Vita Nuova, are first and foremost poems about love, and Dante is primarily a poet/prophet of love, whether earthly or spiritual, whether of the flesh or of the soul. No one wrote anything like he did before he lived, and no one has come close to his daring or his depth since he died. When one considers that the girl Dante loved only uttered a handful of words to him during their lives, it is almost impossible for us to comprehend that with words alone, he created a poetic vision so unique and so influential that it is best summed up with the one word he made synonymous not only with himself, but with Love itself. That word is simply the name of the Muse who made him happy and who led him beyond himself even after her death and his exile from Florence: Beatrice. Without Dante’s vision of Beatrice, Love as we understand it today – if we can be said to understand it at all – would be but a shadow of itself, and we would be immeasurably poorer both philosophically and poetically for this loss. Bless Beatrice! Bless Dante! And bless all those who risk their hearts in the great adventure known as Love.

Her color is the pallor of the pearl,
A paleness perfect for a gracious lady;
She is the best that Nature can achieve
And by her mold all beauty tests itself;
Her eyes, wherever she may choose to look,
Send forth their spirits radiant with love
To strike the eyes of anyone they meet,
And penetrate until they find the heart.
You will see Love depicted on her face,
There where no one dares hold his gaze for long.

Dante, an excerpt from the poem “Ladies who have intelligence of love” in La Vita Nuova (The New Life), circa A.D. 1295, translated by Mark Musa, 1973

Categories: Literature | Tags: Beatrice, Commedia, Dante, dolce stil nuovo, La Vita Nuova, William Blake | Leave a comment

Pusey House Chapel, Oxford, UK

Posted on by shammock2012

Pusey House is a very special chapel that shares facilities with St. Cross College at the University of Oxford. Established in 1884 in honor of one of the founders of the Oxford Movement, which sought to return the Anglican Church to the more formal service of the early days of the English Reformation – before the rise of the Puritans – it was named for Dr. Edward B. Pusey (1800-1882), who took up the mantle of leadership of the Anglo-Catholic tradition within the Church of England after John Henry Newman converted to Catholicism. Pusey House Library comprises Pusey’s own vast library and many other books acquired or donated since Pusey’s death.

The service is beautiful and traditional, with Solemn High Mass on Sunday mornings that some would say is more Catholic than Catholic, something which has surprised even those familiar with the modern Anglican church, including a friend with whom I attended. The sermons/homilies are engaging and quite often penetratingly witty and apropos, as befits the grandeur of this old university city. But I must say that the music is the part that is truly ethereal and hauntingly beautiful, and the small ensemble making up Pusey House Choir fill the chapel with the sounds of Byrd, Tallis, Mozart, Vaughn Williams and others every week during term time. Even those familiar with the masses of these composers receive a chill upon hearing such sounds during the solemnity of a High Mass, in the midst of the “smells and bells” of the Anglo-Catholic rite. Simply put – I have never heard such singing and pipe organ playing in a church of this size, and only very rarely in the greatest cathedrals. Ironically, perhaps only the word “magic” can possibly describe the hard work and pain-staking practice that inevitably results in such spine-tingling sacred song.

After each Sunday morning mass a reception is held where juice, wine, and sometimes champagne are served and where visitors and members can meet the priests, sacristan, and the Friends of Pusey House. There are also periodic suppers and dinners within the House and the priests, who are fellows of St. Cross College, can often be seen and met whilst entertaining their guests at various St. Cross dinners.

As the sacristan’s emails say to the elect, as those simply on the email list may be called, it truly is beautiful and intelligent religion!

“I was glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord….”

King David of Israel, Psalm 122, ca. 1000 B.C. (King James Version, A.D. 1611) (This psalm has been set to music several times and is traditionally sung during the coronation of British monarchs)

Categories: Churches | Tags: Choir of Pusey House, Dr. Edward B. Pusey, Oxford Movement, Pusey House Chapel, Solemn High Mass, St. Cross College, University of Oxford | Leave a comment

Exploring Little Cumberland Island, Georgia

Posted on by shammock2012

Last summer I took a trip to visit a friend on one of Georgia’s Golden Isles to record archaeological sites. Little Cumberland Island (LCI) is a private island owned by an association of homeowners, so it was a wonderful privilege to be invited there at all! The purpose was to record the coordinates of a few surface scatters of artifacts that had become exposed by waves and wind on the beach and in the sand dunes.

After crossing over from Jekyll Island by boat and a lovely evening with my hosts, we started bright and early on our peregrinations, as we knew the day would be hot. There was still no way to imagine just how hot! It felt like 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, with 100% humidity, by eleven o’clock in the morning! But we pushed on through, and visited several sites including a couple Archaic period shell middens, a prehistoric ceramic-making site, a Union sailor’s relocated grave, and the lovely tabby lighthouse.

An Archaic Shell-Midden on LCI

LCI Lighthouse

It was a unique experience that I hope to repeat some day, and I am indebted to my hosts for their hospitality and the opportunity to visit a special place that even most Georgians never see. And we even got to see the wild horses on the beach!

LCI’s Wild Horses

“The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright….”

Lewis Carroll, The Walrus and the Carpenter, 1872

Categories: Archaeology, Exploration | Tags: archaeology, Georgia, Jekyll Island, Little Cumberland Island | Leave a comment

St. Sepulchre’s Cemetery – A Hidden Victorian Gem in Oxford

Posted on by shammock2012

Two of us ramblers recently took a walk up Jericho way looking for a hidden cemetery called St. Sepulchre’s, a Victorian graveyard on the site of an old farm. Despite containing still more examples of vandalism and neglect amongst Oxford cemeteries, as well as a great many graves completely overgrown with grass and briers, it was a beautiful spring day and we were able to take some charming photographs of the scene and setting. Quite a few leading Oxonians, masters of colleges, and mayors are interred at St. Sepulchre’s, the most famous probably being Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol College and arguably the most famous translator of Plato’s dialogues and other classical works into English.

Grave of Benjamin Jowett

Additionally, a highly interesting group of stones mark the places where the Sisters of the Society of the Holy and Undivided Trinity (commonly called Sisters of Mercy) were laid to rest. These Anglican nuns had deep-rooted connections to the Reverend Dr. E. B. Pusey and the Oxford Movement, and were led by Mother Superior Marian Rebecca Hughes – the first woman to take vows as an Anglican nun since Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries during the English Reformation. Interestingly, Mother Marian was also the sister of Thomas Hughes, the author of the classic Victorian school boy novel Tom Brown’s School Days.

Grave of Eight Year Old John Henry Silliman

Ah – the gems of largely forgotten places and memorials to our predecessors that exist in “this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England!”

“…either death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness, or, as men say, there is a change and migration of the soul from this world to another. Now if you suppose that there is no consciousness, but a sleep like the sleep of him who is undisturbed even by the sight of dreams, death will be an unspeakable gain….Now if death is like this, I say that to die is gain; for eternity is then only a single night. But if death is the journey to another place, and there, as men say, all the dead are, what good, O my friends and judges, can be greater than this?…What would not a man give if he might converse with Orpheus and Musaeus and Hesiod and Homer? Nay, if this be true, let me die again and again.”

Plato, Apology, Socrates’ Last Words, ca. 399 B.C.

Translated by Benjamin Jowett, 1871

Categories: Cemeteries, Exploration, Literature | Tags: cemetery, Jowett, Mother Marian, Pusey, St. Sepulchre's, Thomas Hughes, Tom Brown | Leave a comment

The Globe Theatre, London

Posted on by shammock2012

The reconstructed Globe Theatre is a magical place! Although it does not sit on the exact location of the original, Elizabethan construction techniques and architectural details were researched and followed as closely as possible. Ironically, this new vessel for presenting the plays of Shakespeare’s genius and those of his brilliant contemporaries like Marlowe, Beaumont & Fletcher, Jonson, Middleton, Kyd, and the rest was the vision of American actor Sam Wanamaker. Based on contemporary drawings and descriptions of Elizabethan theatres like the Swan, and on modern archaeological investigations of the Rose and original Globe, the new Globe, which opened in 1997, is truly a beautiful work of architecture.

And to watch a Shakespearean play performed there, as I did recently, is an enthralling and mystical experience. For despite the Oxfordians and others who crop up like termites from time to time insisting that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare because he was not educated well enough and came from the lower middle classes, it is abundantly clear to anyone with less than half a brain that the glover’s son from smalltown Stratford-upon-Avon, through the hard work of his hands and an explosion of creativity in his mind, is indeed the playwright of Hamlet, Macbeth, and the rest.

The Tempest was on the night a friend and I were in attendance at this new “wooden O” after a wonderful day in London visiting various landmarks. It was authentically enacted in Elizabethan garb, and performed so well that it brought out ideas that had not occurred to me merely by reading this play of magic and illusion numerous times. The actors were surely, to paraphrase Shakespeare’s friend, rival, and inspiration Chrisopher Marlowe, “no spirits but the true substantial bodies” of Prospero, Miranda, Ariel, Trinculo, and the rest, until the spell was broken and the magic scene disappeared from the stage forever – except perhaps in the minds of the playgoers!

“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”

William Shakespeare, The Tempest, 1611

Categories: Archaeology, Literature, Theatre | Tags: Globe, Marlowe, Oxfordians, Prospero, Shakespeare, The Tempest | Leave a comment

Visiting with the Ancestors: The Blackfoot Shirts Project, Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, UK

Posted on by shammock2012

This is an amazing new exhibit in England that I just happened to walk by when I was at the Pitt Rivers recently. These shirts date to around 1850, when they were given to British officials operating near the U.S.-Canadian border (Montana/Alberta), and they eventually found their way across the pond. The Blackfoot themselves seem to have had no knowledge of them until a few years ago, when some dignitaries were invited to inspect them and help contextualize them for the museum. It was immediately apparent that these were sacred items that should be shown to the Blackfoot people at large, so the five shirts (three of which are currently on display in Oxford) were loaned out to local museums in the U.S. and Canada so this could happen. The impact was tremendous, as Blackfoot men, women, and children responded powerfully to these shirt their ancestors had made by hand and generously given away. It was another outstanding example of Native American heritage abroad that I have been overjoyed to run across thousands of miles from home here in the UK!

Blackfoot Shirt

Side of Shirt

Shirt Detail showing bows and musket

Painting Depicting One Shirt

Blackfoot Shirt

“A little while and I will be gone from among you, when I cannot tell. From nowhere we came, into nowhere we go. What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.”

Chief Crowfoot of the Blackfoot, Deathbed Speech, 1890

Categories: Archaeology, Museums | Tags: Blackfoot Indians, Blackfoot Shirts, Crowfoot, Native American, Pitt Rivers | Leave a comment

Wolvercote Cemetery, Oxford, UK

Posted on by shammock2012

Exploring cemeteries has long been a favorite pasttime.  Recently I chose a blustery wintry day in early Spring to walk to Wolvercote Cemetery, north of Oxford, to visit the grave of one of the greatest imaginative storytellers of the 20th century – J. R. R. Tolkien.  I savour these moments so much, however, that I only went to his grave after exploring the rest of the cemetery for over an hour, building up the suspense!  Seeing the graves of children along the way, decorated with their toys and cards from their parents, is always so touching.  I cannot fathom the sadness those families must have felt and will always feel.  Oxford scholars, priests, rabbis, mothers, and fathers – all are represented at Wolvercote.  Even a minister from Kentucky with a Cherokee motto on his tombstone!  The grave of Tolkien and his wife was worth the wait – especially because of the copies of his books and notes and tokens left by his readers.  Such an ordinary British grave in an ordinary British cemetery.  That speaks volumes.

Another thing has struck me about Oxford’s cemeteries, and it is not at all positive.  There are far too many vandalized graves here for such an affluent community.  Rose Hill Cemetery, just east of Oxford, is no different.  What possesses the living to destroy the houses of the dead?  I have long been a believer that the callousness of those who would destroy graves for no reason is not far removed from the hatred and reckless destruction that causes others to take the lives of of living human beings for no reason.

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

“Not all those who wander are lost.”

“It’s a dangerous business…going out your door….You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 1954

Categories: Cemeteries, Exploration, Literature | Tags: Cemeteries, graves, Oxford, Tolkien, Wolvercote | Leave a comment

Exploring Georgia Rivers

Posted on by shammock2012

Exploring the Ocmulgee, Oconee, and Flint Rivers of Middle Georgia is not for the faint of heart, but for the adventurer! Whether by kayak, canoe, or motor boat, by foot on trails or along densely wooded banks where no path has been trodden, in the water with a mask and snorkel or SCUBA gear, or in the sky by helicopter or plane, there are many ways of looking for long lost traces of Native American dwellings, mounds, fishing weirs, and towns, and for the forts of the soldiers and homes and ferries of the early settlers who followed in their wake. The most important aspects are obtaining the landowner’s permission and knowing someone on the ground in any given locale. This person is the key to the success of any explorer, and it is they who serve as escort and guide through the snares and tangles not just of briars and brambles, but of local indifference or misapprehension. When it becomes clear that knowledge and the subsequent enrichment of the community are the ONLY goals, then most are interested in helping sooner or later.

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 1790

Categories: Archaeology, Exploration, Literature | Tags: doors of perception, Flint, Kayak, Ocmulgee, Oconee, River, William Blake | 1 Comment

Clovis Spear Point, Jones County, Georgia, ca. 13,400 Years Old

Posted on by shammock2012

“There is scarcely a square rod of sand exposed, in this neighborhood, but you may find on it the stone arrowheads of an extinct race that has preceded us….Time will soon destroy the works of famous painters and sculptors but not the Indian arrowhead….They are not fossil bones but fossil thoughts, forever reminding me of the mind that shaped them….I know the subtle spirits that made them are not far off, into whatever form transmuted….Originally winged for but a short flight,….it still wings its way through the ages….bearing a message from the hand that shot it. Myriads of arrow-points lie sleeping in the skin of the revolving earth, while meteors revolve in space….The footprint, the mind-prints of the oldest men.”
Henry David Thoreau, Journals, 1859

Categories: Archaeology, Literature | Tags: arrowhead, Clovis point, Georgia, Henry David Thoreau, Jones County | Leave a comment

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