Friday, February 17, 2017

Dryden on Stonehenge

John Dryden in 1693, portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller

[In the National Portrait Gallery. Image source: . I've slightly lightened the image.]

Dryden's interesting poem prefixing Walter Charleton's Chorea Gigantum (1663), ends thus:

Nor is This Work the least: You well may give
To Men new vigour, who make Stones to live.
Through You the DANES (their short Dominion lost)
A longer Conquest than the Saxons boast.
STONE-HENG, once thought a Temple, You have found
A Throne where Kings, our Earthly Gods, were Crown’d.
Here by their wondring Subjects They were seen,
Joy’d with their Stature and their Princely meen.
Our Soveraign here above the rest might stand;
And here be chose again to rule the Land.
These Ruines sheltered once His Sacred Head,
Then when from Wor’ster’s fatal Field He fled;
Watch’d by the Genius of this Royal place,
And mighty Visions of the Danish Race,
His Refuge then was for a Temple shown:
But, He Restor’d, ’tis now become a Throne.

"To my Honour’d Friend Dr. Charleton, on his learned and useful Works: and more particularly this of Stone-heng, by him Restored to the true Founders."
 Complete poem:]

The story of the future Charles II being at Stonehenge was perfectly true.

"On 6 October (1651) the King, Julia Coningsby and Henry Peters, Colonel Wyndham's servant, left Trent for the home of Mrs Amphillis Hyde at Heale House between Salisbury and Amesbury. Though sleeping at Heale, Charles spent his days at Stonehenge, returning to the house each evening after dark." []

Charles was 21. He was icognito, fleeing across England following final defeat at the Battle of Worcester. His black hair was close-cropped and he wore countryman's clothes. His unusual height  (to which Dryden's poem alludes) was apt to draw unwanted attention: Charles was 6' 2".

Charles left Heele House on 12th October; he boarded the Surprise at Shoreham on 15th October.

Whether he really spent five full days at Stonehenge I am not sure.  Aubrey Burl says only that he was there on 7th October with Colonel Philips, "reckoning and re-reckoning the stones".

Walter Charleton's book disputed Inigo Jones' claim that Stonehenge was a Roman temple (Jones' claim was made back in 1620, following his survey, but not published until 1655, three years after his death) .

In fact, Charleton alleged, Stonehenge was clearly Danish. And it was not a temple but a place of royal ceremonial,  where kings sat publically in state. (Charleton was the first of many to claim that the Altar Stone was originally upright: it was a throne, he thought.)

Charleton's claims were assailed in their turn by John Webb, Jones' nephew. Stuart Piggott called it "a forgotten controversy conducted on forgotten lines of argument . . . It is is a microcosm of the battle of the ancients and Moderns, with Jones, Webb and Charleton on the far side of the intellectual gulf, Aubrey and Stukeley on the near side..."  (quoted in Aubrey Burl, A Brief History of Stonehenge, p. 37).

Charleton made no independent survey of Stonehenge and the main value of his book, maybe, was that it made him aware of John Aubrey's discovery of Avebury, which he mentioned to the king. Charles, as we've seen, had become interested in the mysteries of Stonehenge. Charles summoned Aubrey for an audience, and shortly afterwards met him at Avebury to explore the site.

The clear-minded Aubrey made short work of the Jones/Charleton theories. He knew about stone circles in parts of the UK that neither the Romans nor the Danes ever occupied. It was clear to him that they were the work of pre-Roman people. For him that simply meant Druids. No earlier phases of British prehistory were known at the time.

Charleton was a royal physician and a Fellow of the Royal Society. But in 1663 it was easier to talk the talk of science than to walk the walk. (Something that's not unknown even today..!)

Still, Dryden's poem shares the excitement of science, the feeling of liberation. Here's how it begins:

THE LONGEST Tyranny that ever sway’d
Was that wherein our Ancestors betray’d
Their free-born Reason to the Stagirite,
And made his Torch their universal Light.
So Truth, while onely one suppli’d the State,
Grew scarce, and dear, and yet sophisticate;
Until ’twas bought, like Emp’rique Wares, or Charms,
Hard words seal’d up with Aristotle’s Armes.
Columbus was the first that shook his Throne;
And found a Temp’rate in a Torrid Zone,
The fevrish aire fann’d by a cooling breez,
The fruitful Vales set round with shady Trees;
And guiltless Men, who danc’d away their time,
Fresh as their Groves and Happy as their Clime. Had we still paid that homage to a Name,
Which only God and Nature justly claim,
The Western Seas had been our utmost bound,
Where Poets still might dream the Sun was drown’d:
And all the Starrs, that shine in Southern Skies,
Had been admir’d by none but Salvage Eyes.

When science, empire and capitalism got together, there wasn't much future for the "guiltless Men" and the "Salvage Eyes". To discover, explore, and exploit... That was what science meant at the sharp edge, just as it does today (its prime victims now being industrial animals, natural ecologies, the earth, the seas and the climate -- though human material is not neglected either.)

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