Literature

The Real Meaning of Education

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The French essayist Montaigne’s words of wisdom regarding educating children cannot be lessened by the fact that it was intended as advice to a noble woman on making a gentleman of her son.  After all, he educated his own daughter so well that, unless her father was there, she invariably outshone everyone as the best educated person in any room.

For many years I have thought that cramming 20-30 children together inside our modern schoolrooms too easily leads them to overvalue the opinions of their peers and underappreciate the knowledge (and perhaps the wisdom) of their teachers.  We would do well to heed the advice of thinkers, particularly when they exhibit a singular amount of common sense as Montaigne always does, and jettison all of the fads, experimental cliques, and popular theories regarding something so vital as the education of our children.  Educating my own sons is not a game or a social experiment, nor is it anyone else’s responsibilty.  I have striven to live up to Montaigne’s ideals, and will continue to do so, for my boys’ sakes, for as long as I live.

“…the greatest and most important difficulty of human effort is the training and education of children….Upon the choice of a tutor you shall provide for your son depends the whole success of his education and bringing up.  A gentleman born of noble parentage and heir of a house which aims at true learning should be  disciplined not so much for the practical use he could make of it – so abject an end is unworthy the grace and favour of the Muses, and, besides, bids for the regard of others – not for external use and ornament, but to adorn and enrich his inward mind, desiring rather to form an able and efficient man than a learned man….I would have the tutor make the child examine and thoroughly sift all things,  and harbour nothing by mere authority or upon trust….Study should make us wiser….To know by heart only is not to know at all….A mere bookish knowledge is useless….the society of men, the visiting of foreign countries,  observing people and strange customs, are very necessary….they should be able to give an account of the ideas, manners, customs, and laws of nations they have visited….Let him examine every one’s talent – that of a herdsman,  a mason, a stranger,  or a traveller.  A man may learn something from every one of these which he can use at some time or another.  Even the folly and weakness of others will contribute to his instruction.   By observing the graces and manners of others,  he will acquire for himself the emulation of the good and a contempt for the bad.  Let an honest curiosity be awakened in him to search out the nature and design of all things.  Let him investigate whatever is singular and rare about him – a fine building, a fountain, an eminent man, the place where a battle was anciently fought, the passage of Caesar or of Charlemagne….In this acquaintance of men,  my purpose is that he should give his chief attention to those who live in the records of history.   He shall by the aid of books inform himself of the worthiest minds of the best ages.  History is an idle study to those who choose to make it so,  but of inestimable value to such as can make use of it….It is not the mind, it is not the body we are training: it is the man, and we must not divide him into two parts….”

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Michel de Montaigne, Of the Education of Children, 1575

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Dance of Death

Melencolia I, Albrecht Durer, 1514

Melencolia I, by Albrecht Durer, 1514

Death the white goddess
whirled with Grace, Reason, and Wit
tripping night away –
Love rebuked her with a prayer
while Bard sang and Beauty smiled

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Hargreaves Haiku

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Feldhase (Field Hare), painted by Albrecht Durer in 1502

The hare jumps to hide
within the creekside thicket –
I sit on a stone

Waiting here alone
the icy wind blows my hair –
without her I’m lost

Zipping up my coat
I hike on through Burgess Field –
too damn cold for tears

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The Gift of Spring

One early spring day when I was about 22, I saw a Robin Redbreast, and heard his cheery and happy call echo through the woodland and fields.  As there were no other birds to be seen at that moment, I was unprepared for what happened next.  It seemed to me that every native bird of Georgia suddenly appeared and began singing: cardinals, tufted titmice, chickadees, and all of their friends.  And it struck me then that they had all just been waiting for the herald to announce that Spring had finally arrived!  This idea filled me with such joy that within five minutes the following words had assembled themselves on the page in front of me.  It was a gift; something that flowed through me.  I have long thought of having it published, but it has languished in darkness long enough and needs to be as free as the beautiful bird of Spring that inspired it.

Song of the Robin Redbreast, Spring’s Herald

Hark! O ye beings who inhabit the earth!

Let winter’s woeful wail give way to dance and mirth!

For I the Redbreast, Herald o’ the Spring,

Throw back my head, stick out my chest, and sing:

‘Tis Spring!  ‘Tis Spring!

Let all the earth rejoice!

‘Tis Spring!  ‘Tis Spring!

Let every bird give voice!

‘Tis now time for motherhood,

That gift of greatest worth!

Sing a song of simple joys,

And sing the song of Birth!

Robin Redbreast

The American Robin, Affectionately called the Robin Redbreast

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Muses, Masks, and Magic: The Life & Poetry of William Butler Yeats

WB Yeats, by John Singer Sargent copyYeats’ life and poetry were most influenced by two people – firstly by his father, who consciously sought to educate and shape him into a poet, and secondly by the woman who became the great love of his life. John Butler Yeats was a minor artist of the Victorian period who, although he could never quite achieve the visions he set for himself as a painter, was a great lover of the arts, and imparted his creative gifts to all his children. His was a very strong personality, and it dominated the family like an iron glove. Although they did not get along well in his formative years, Yeats acknowledged his father’s very positive impact on his life and ideas in later years.

Maud Gonne, the other great influence on Yeats’s life, was his partner in many plans and schemes to resurrect Irish nationalism, theatre, and literature. He fell desperately in love with this tall, wild woman, but she never requited that love and broke his heart repeatedly. He pursued her for over a decade, and when she married another it looked at first as if he would never recover.

But Yeats did survive, and his poetry was much richer for the experience of loving, and eventually outgrowing the self-absorbed Maud. Some poets prefer simplicity and are not overly complicated, being fond of wine, woman, and song. But Yeats – who definitely loved the first two, but had no ear at all for music – was a complex man of immense yearnings and dreams, and involved himself in numerous movements and causes throughout his life. He was, first and foremost, one of the driving forces behind the Irish literary renaissance. He was also the co-founder of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, which had an immense impact on drama by providing a place for Irish playwrights “to bring upon the stage the deeper emotions of Ireland.” He was an Irish Nationalist who dreamed of an Ireland independent of Great Britain, but who thought that violence was not the solution. He later came to see the that the “terrible beauty” of the Irish Easter Rebellion of 1916 was, in fact, a bloody means to a greater end.

Yeats was also a magician and mystic who enthusiastically joined Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society, and later was an early member of the Order of the Golden Dawn – a Rosicrucian/Masonic-style occult society devoted to raising its members’ levels of consciousness as high as possible. The Golden Dawn drew upon the Western kabbalistic and esoteric traditions, and his involvement had a great influence on both Yeats the Man and Yeats the Poet.

For instance, he experimented with séances and automatic writing as a means of contacting the spirits he believed helped him unlock his latent powers as a poet and a magician. But his great breakthrough came after he married the patient and witty Georgie Hyde-Lees (whom he called George) as he neared his fiftieth year. It was Mrs. Yeats’ great gift for automatic writing, and well as Yeats’ dogged persistence, that allowed him to develop his system of symbols, and to become a far deeper poet than the simple lyricist he had been in his youth. Yeats’ poetic vision of masks, his gyres (pronounced with a hard “g”) – whirling spirals shaped like two intersecting triangles, his belief in his daimones (spirit guides or perhaps even muses), and his phases of the moon corresponding to levels of human awareness all sound very odd indeed and make one wonder whether or not he was simply mad. These ideas combined, however, to take his poetry to levels he had never before attained. Even more than these, the most important aspect of his poetic maturation was that he actually achieved what he called Unity of Being, and what others might call the Completeness of Character or Personality, by slowly combining the many and various sides of his psyche into a complete whole. Yeats thus forged himself into the great poet he had always longed to be, and achieved a much greater power with his written words than any other writer of his day and age.

As he grew into old age, Yeats became a revered figure and received many awards and prizes, but he was profoundly troubled by what he felt to be a lessening of his poetic powers. For someone who saw all art as “an expression of desire,” these powers were inextricably interlinked with his libido, and so in 1934 at the age of 68, he underwent a new surgical operation called the Steinach operation. This procedure was evidently a variation on a vasectomy, and promised renewed vigour and strength to those who underwent the knife. Whether it was real or all in his mind, amazingly Yeats’ poetic ability rose phoenix-like and sustained him during the last five years of his life, years during which his wife George sustained, nursed, and humored him for the sake of his work and their love.
W. B. Yeats, b&w

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming, 1919



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Poe: Southern Visionary & Macabre Genius

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Edgar A. Poe was simply one of the greatest poets of the nineteenth century, arguably its greatest author of short stories, and the virtual inventor of the detective tale as we know it today.  That he was an American, and a Southerner to boot, may have been accidents of fate, since he himself disdained the prevailing ideas of creating a “national” literature for the nascent United States.  However, his sense of his own “Southern-ness” had a profound impact on his outlook on the world, as well as his relations to the New England and New York Yankee literati. 

Poe was a literary genius, a magazine hack-writer, a compulsive liar, a perfectionist, a plagiarist, and often a beggar.  He was death-obsessed, a writer of some of the most sensuous poetry ever published, and both the most severe and deeply earnest literary critic America has ever seen. His psychological penetration into the dark side of the human psyche is nearly unparalleled.  He aggressively pursued literary feuds with most of the famous and many of the forgotten authors of his age – ripping his friends and foes to shreds with sarcastic bombast and blistering prose.  At one point or another he publicly attacked most of the people who helped him in his career, but maintained the temerity to simultaneously beg them for money in private! 

His severest and most damning reviews were always reserved for the New England Brahmin – those cultured “Fireside” poets whose ranks included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, and John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.  He also satirized the New England Transcendentalists made up of Ralph Waldo Emerson and his circle of admirers and followers.  And Poe’s taste was simply impeccable and unimpeachable.  Indeed, history has borne out his literary judgments to the last.  He despised third rate poetry and the success of those who wrote for the masses, achieving fame himself only upon the publication of “The Raven” – the poem that catapulted him into superstar status but that did little to pay his family’s bills.

Although born in Boston, Poe was raised in Richmond by an adoptive family, and he always considered himself a Southerner.  In point of fact, it is only through the lens of the South that Poe’s prickly and honor-obsessed personality can be truly understood.  All the same, his writing was not bound by any narrow nationalism, and he was by far the most cosmopolitan American author of the early 19th century.  Ridiculing the notion that America should have its own national literature when the pursuit of this elusive goddess was all the rage among nearly all writers from both North and South, Poe instead followed a dream-like vision of artistic perfection, and became a forerunner to what would become known fifty years after his death as “Art for Art’s Sake.”     

Being raised with genteel expectations by a fabulously wealthy and miserly foster “father,” Poe was left without the means to achieve these expectations due to a familial falling out.  Afterwards, his self-destructive nature often took over, though he was quite a complex alcoholic, as he does not fit the stereotype of the constant drinker.  He could go months without touching a drop, but if he had one small taste, he would dwell in his bottle for weeks and sometimes could not even find his way home.  He would sometimes get so violently drunk and debased that he had little control over anything he did or said.  He would also become terrible sick during these episodes, during which he usually found it impossible to write.  He was brought back from the brink of death many times by his aunt and mother-in-law, Maria Clemm, the person who had the most steadying effect on him over the course of his entire life.

Perhaps emulating the English and Virginia aristocrats with whom he had associated in his youth, Poe married his first cousin Virginia, a young girl he worshipped as his muse and his poetic ideal.  In fact, despite several romantic affairs and marriage proposals after Virginia’s early death, Poe was always drawn to the same type of fragile, beautiful women, and painfully, he witnessed more than one of them die young as Virginia had.  There is even a possibility that Romance was completely a psychological state for Poe, and that he may never have consummated the ethereal bliss he felt in his heart and head for numerous women.  Virginia’s death two years before his own descent into nothingness gave him an intoxicating taste of freedom, but also sent him spiraling soon out of control.

Only twice is he known to have used his full name “Edgar Allan Poe,” the name posterity has assigned to him.   Normally he signed it simply “Edgar A. Poe.”  Regardless of these semantics, however, POE will live as one of the greatest poets and literary geniuses America has ever produced.  And long may his works be read by all citizens of the world!

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love—
I and my Annabel Lee—
With a love that the wingèd seraphs of Heaven
Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsmen came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,
Went envying her and me—
Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we—
Of many far wiser than we—
And neither the angels in Heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea—
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

Edgar A. Poe, Annabel Lee, 1849

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Highgate Cemetery, London

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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

George Wombwell Monument

The Angels of Highgate

The Angels of Highgate

Highgate Cemetery Path

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

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

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Dante: Poet-Prophet of Love

Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car by William Blake

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

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

St. Sepulchre's Cemetery - A Hidden Victorian Gem in Oxford

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

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

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!”

St. Sepulchre's Cemetery

“…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

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Wolvercote Cemetery, Oxford, UK

Wolvercote Cemetery, March 2013 114

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: , , , , | Leave a comment

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