Pictures and Poems : Volume 9
In the British Museum by Thomas Hardy
Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley
When we were at junior school we had history books that asked us to pretend to be time travellers. We were invisible and unable to interact with the travelled-to-world. It worked well. I enjoyed making the imaginary leap. I’ve just been listening to Brian Cox explaining how forward time travel is possible (and once we’ve built rockets that can get close to the speed of light we can really start motoring). It would be one way so no coming back to cash in on what we learnt. I think I’d pass. I’ve spent most of my life travelling through time using books and buildings as my vehicles of choice. They work remarkably well. Unlike HG Wells’ Time Traveller or Marty McFly, I can be in several different zones simultaneously without much danger of committing an act that makes my existence impossible and causing a vortex in the space time continuum.
Old churches do it for me, from the humblest chapels to the mighty minsters. I like to sit and smell the wood and ancient stones and contemplate and sometimes pray, and often I can feel either the sense or presence of those who also sat and thought of time and the apostle Paul a century or two before. Not ghosts. Nothing physical or supernatural. Just ideas. But real. Real at least in idea form, and that’s a sort of reality.I get it in galleries. I’m standing – me, yes me! – in the self same spot that Turner stood with brush in hand. Those are the marks he made. He’s present as much as I am. More so in some ways. In books the writer is with me, in the self-same room. I hear their voice. And the characters, the locations. Hardy doesn’t describe Egdon Heath to me, or Mellstock Church, he takes me there. I hear Clym Yeobright preaching or the hymns sung by the choir.
I don’t care to travel beyond my own country. I thought I would when time and funds were there but I don’t. Modern transport doesn’t appeal and I find plenty to interest me within an hour or two of home. And when I take the train to London I don’t get far from St Pancras where my two favourite buildings are: the British Library and the British Museum. The library an endless source of inspiration and reference but the museum sends me travelling like a temporal astronaut.
I lose all sense of time in there. I feel connected to everything both now and then. I’m in Bloomsbury in 2017 and Athens in 483 BC. I move along though Babylon, Egypt, Rome. I’m there (to a greater or lesser extent with each object) and the masons/carvers/sculptors are here. They are present in their work. ‘Look on my works ye tourists and say, “Wow! This is amazing!”‘
What time is it Dr Wolf? What time is it among the Elgin Marbles? Is it 5th century BC and the world that carved them and placed them on Parthanon pediments? Is it the early years of the nineteenth century as they are removed from the temple and shipped to Britain? Is it 1817 and they are on display? Is it now, the very present moment as I stand and gaze in troubled awe? Is it even earlier in time or legend when Lapiths fought Centaurs? And it is all of these, and more.Poets have been drawn to this national treasure house. They’ve shared the feelings of wonder and doubts that question the presence of artefacts from other cultures, countries and civilisations sitting (beautifully safe, conserved and respected) in a country much further to the north. And they time travel too.
I’ve chosen just two; Thomas Hardy and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Between them they cover a range of thought and time but share a sense of awe and wonder.
In his poem Hardy creates (and partly adopts the persona of) a rustic some decades before his (Hardy’s) own time and places him in front of sculptures taken from Areopagus and sees only ‘ashen blankness’; a time stained stone from the base of a pillar. There’s a dialogue going on in the poem. Is there someone else in the museum with our rustic labourer? Maybe? Or maybe the dialogue is between an imaginary labourer around 1817 and the poet many years later. So we have a dislocation in time. At least two time zones. Add in ourself, in the present as we read, and we have three – all simultaneous. At which point the antiquity of the stone comes into focus. Not just from Ancient Greece but from Areopagus; a mighty rock in ancient Athens. And the rustic knows of the teachings of the apostle Paul; that he gave a sermon from the Areopagus and he knows it well. So well that it has a great significance for him. We can now add the time zone of Paul; a very specific time when he said that God does not live in objects made by man. Where has the rustic labourer learnt of Paul? The likely answer is either church or school. Or both. Many characters in Hardy’s works take church going and the lessons from the bible seriously which provides support for the church theory. Thus we have our labourer on a Wessex pew listening to the scriptures and transferring this knowledge to an ancient object before him in the museum and bringing them both alive. In a few lines of simple and apparently rational verse Hardy has got us travelling through time like a ball bearing in a pinball machine. And yet the poem seemingly follows a straightforward beginning, middle, end, straight line.
There are many reasons for loving the poem. Many perhaps more important than this. But existing in different moments simultaneously is an idea that appeals to me almost as much as Hardy’s revolutionary idea, in 1893, of having a working man enter the glorious portals of the British Museum to have a look. And significantly, to respect his thoughts.
In the British Museum
But as if you heard,
Parting your lips, and treading softly
As mouse or bird.‘It is only the base of a pillar, they’ll tell you,
That came to us
From a far old hill men used to name
Areopagus.’I know no art, and I only view
A stone from a wall,
But I am thinking that stone has echoed
The voice of Paul,‘Paul as he stood and preached beside it
Facing the crowd,
A small gaunt figure with wasted features,
Calling out loud‘Words that in all their intimate accents
That marble front, and were far reflected,
And then were gone.
‘I’m a labouring man, and know but little,
Or nothing at all;
But I can’t help thinking that stone once echoed
The voice of Paul.’
by Thomas Hardy
My second British Museum poem is one of the most requested on Radio 4’s Poetry Please. Ozymandias is widely studied and loved by students and non students alike.
If anything the time zones and scales in this poem are even more complex. Here is a poem written about an object in the museum that was still on board ship bound for England when the poem was written. Thus the poem already (without making it obvious) extended into an unknown future as it left the poet’s pen. The past includes the following separate periods of time (and the list is by no means complete) : the discovery of the broken statue (widely believed to be The Younger Memnon statue of Ramesses II)* as a historic fact, the poet’s version of the discovery (including a fictional traveller from an antique land), the thousands of years that it remained undiscovered, the parts of the statue that remain lost in real life, the vast and trunkless legs of stone from the poem, the period of time when the statue was originally on public view, the carving of the statue, the reign of the semi-fictional king, Ozymandias and the reign of the actual king, Ramesses. Oh then there is the modern reader reading the poem in the present, the modern reader contemplating the poem later on over a cup of coffee and even the modern visitor to the British Museum doing what I did and standing before the very statue and reading the poem (which is conveniently included in the information plaque to one side). And I did say “Wow!” …several times.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away
Percy Bysshe Shelley
- * My photograph is not of the Young Memnon statue. I was so taken by suddenly being confronted by Ozymandias that I forgot to take the picture and I didn’t want to break from my rule of only using my own photographs in these posts.