Removing the exclamation mark


Joined July 2010

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(Good luck reading this description in full in the new RB layout… Technical details right at the very end.)

John William Burgon was a tedious theologian in the standard Victorian “muscular Christian” model. Whilst at Oxford in the mid-1840s he published a long and ungainly poem about the newly rediscovered troglodytic city of Petra (in modern Jordan), then thought to be the oldest city in the world.

(Petra is an extraordinary place – you can see it as the backdrop for the final scenes in the third Indiana Jones movie, among others. It’s Hellenistic and Roman, by the way, not truly ancient.)

There are fourteen lines (I’ll spare you the other 350-odd) which became famous:

“They seem no work of Man’s creative hand,
Where Labour wrought as wayward Fancy planned;
But from the rock as if by magic grown,
Not virgin-white—like that old Doric shrine
Where once Athena held her rites divine;
Not saintly grey—like many a minster fane
That crowns the hill, or sanctifies the plain:
But rosy-red,—as if the blush of dawn,
Which first beheld them were not yet withdrawn:
The hues of youth upon a brow of woe,
Which Man call’d old two thousand years ago!
Match me such marvel, save in Eastern clime,—
A rose-red city—’half as old as time!’ "

They may in part explain the otherwise baffling award of the prestigious Newdigate prize to the poet. Perhaps the jury didn’t notice the plague of exclamation marks ravaging the text and infecting even its one decent line. Good poetry doesn’t need punctuation for emphasis. Well, that’s what I think.

A rose-red city, half as old as time sounds like a wonderful place, and the expression captured my imagination as a child well before Indiana Jones et al. Unfortunately, Burgon meant it quite literally. He subscribed to the belief that the Bible was factual and to Ussher’s dating of creation in 4004 BCE. It’s worth noting that Sir Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, the foundations of modern geological science, had been best-sellers for fifteen years prior to the publication of “Petra”.

We see what we want to see.

Or nearly. I have yet to see Petra and sometimes dream about it.

Canon 5DII + Voigtländer Ultron 40 mm. Post-processing in LR3. The subject is contemporaneous with Petra, a cracked pediment on a votary shrine in Glanum (3rd century CE), Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France.

Artwork Comments

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