2022 is the year of Stonehenge. A new exhibit at the British Museum collects artifacts from Neolithic and early-Bronze Age Europe, giving context to “The World of Stonehenge.” I recently took a camera through the gallery, as part of a larger video project about the monument. This culminated in Wiltshire where I spent the morning filming within Stonehenge itself.
The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust has launched a petition for a postage stamp to honor the artist best known for his whimsical and macabre illustrations:
February 22, 2025 marks the 100th anniversary of Edward Gorey’s birth, and we would like to see it celebrated with a U.S. postage stamp recognizing him as one of America’s most inventive and influential cultural figures. And, we need your help!
Please join the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust and our friends at the Edward Gorey House in our joint campaign for a centennial 2025 Edward Gorey postage stamp. To make this stamp a reality, please consider sending a letter of nomination to the United States Postal Service. To petition USPS for a stamp, we all must send in actual letters on paper at least three years in advance of prospective publication.
You can visit the Trust’s website for instructions on how to support the campaign. Alas, we never had a set of postage stamps designed by Gorey. My photo essay on the artist’s house in Cape Cod can be read here at the blog.
On his second tour of the United States in the late 1860s, Charles Dickens took rooms at the Parker House in Boston. This hotel was his headquarters for five months between 1867 and 1868, during which time he traveled extensively among other cities. Next door at the Tremont Temple he gave the first American reading of A Christmas Carol—from memory—together with the trial scene from Pickwick, a perennial favorite with audiences.
The Parker House was torn down and rebuilt in stages during the 1920s, with the present building completed in 1927. Two artifacts related to Dickens and his residency can still be found on site. The first is a mirror in which he rehearsed. On stage he would seem to transform into the various characters from his books, not only in voice, but in body and mannerism.
If you find yourself at the Parker House, you will see his mirror on the mezzanine floor, to the left of the elevator bank.
The second artifact is the very door to the suite of rooms that he occupied, with the numbers 138 and 139 affixed. This was salvaged during the demolition of the original building and stands in a small gallery downstairs from the lobby.
The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has two excellent paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in its collection. I have been in Boston this week and paid a visit to the MFA, as I always do on such trips.
The highlight for any admirer of the Pre-Raphaelites is Rossetti’s 1859 painting Bocca Baciata. This work marked a transition in the artist’s career, away from the narrative Medieval paintings of his youth and toward the sensuous female portraits of his mature period. The title comes from a line in Boccaccio’s Decameron, which is written on the reverse of the canvas:
Bocca baciata non perde ventura, anzi rinnova come fa la luna.
‘The mouth that has been kissed does not lose its good fortune: rather, it renews itself just as the moon does.’
Bocca baciata means, “The mouth that his been kissed,” or “the kissed mouth.”
The model was Fanny Cornforth, who lived with Rossetti at the time. She also sat for the the second painting in the collection: Belcolore, or Girl with Rose, from 1863. It is a fitting companion piece as the subject is likewise drawn from the Decameron. The character of Monna Belcolore is a married woman who is courted by her village priest in one of the stories within the story.
The first and only volume of Best College Verse was published by Harpers in 1931 as a projected annual anthology. I purchased an inexpensive but unique copy recently, mainly for Donald Wandrei’s poem, “Lyric of Doubt.” Wandrei was a correspondent of H.P. Lovecraft (who was of course a prolific letter writer). As it happens, several of the contributors had a connection to Lovecraft. Douglas A. Anderson identifies Richard Ely Morse and Winfield Townley Scott. The former was a correspondent and the latter an early critic and admirer.
My copy belonged to a contributor named Alicia K. O’Donnell from the University of Montana. Her bookplate is pasted into the front cover. The contributor’s copies are quite handsome, quarter bound in leather with marbled boards and endpapers, unlike the trade edition.
Miss O’Donnell’s poem is called “Engines”:
There is in the movement of trains That go silently out from cities And come silently into cities Something that is a blend of efficiency, Manifest in the thoughtless hurry of towns, And of strength that knows its strength And is unforced.
And I have read in the eyes of men who sit Smoking their pipes in cupolas, Sitting and looking out with still eyes Over the curving backs of trains, Something that is not earth’s strength Nor cities’ eagerness, A thing blended of both And greater far.
There is a foreshadowing of Ayn Rand in it, perhaps? Wandrei’s poem by contrast is rather ellegiac and Poe-like. Anderson describes Scott’s contributions as cosmic. The theme of his poem “The Last Man” brings to mind Shelley’s “Ozymandius” with its bitter awe at the vanity and futility of human endeavor. Scott writes:
Slowly and painfully and all alone He climbs the hill to watch the setting sun; Sickly and pale and cold as ancient stone Its final light on this remaining one. He watches it; where clouds were thick with rain A rainbow glimmers—God’s last mockery; He hears below the dim edge of the plain, Far off, the gradual stilling of the sea.
Standing there, bowed before the thin green light, He looks down were so many million souls Set banners flying and went beating drums And tended fires and sped abroad to fight, All—all for causes over which dust rolls. The sun goes out, and the great darkness comes.
I am not sure why subsequent volumes were not published. Anderson suggests that the commencement of the Great Depression must have curtailed the series, but I am not sure why it would have been affected more than any other publishing venture.
The Granary Burying Ground in downtown Boston is best known for the Founding Fathers interred there: Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock among them. Founded in 1660, it is the third oldest cemetery in Boston and thus contains many more ancient monuments.
The oldest stone marks the graves of four children of Andrew Neal, dated 1666. It is the work of a craftsman known alternately as “The Old Stone Cutter” and “The Charlestown Master.”
Nearby is the grave of Elizabeth Elliot, who died in 1680 aged 96, which means that she was born in the reign of Elizabeth I and died toward the end of the reign of Charles II, a momentous span.
The tombstone of John Checkley gives the date of his decease as January 1684/5. Until 1750 the Civil or Legal Year began on March 25, while popular New Year’s celebrations were held on January 1, so both dates were often given to avoid confusion.
The Granary Burying Ground served the Puritan congregations of Boston and so the stones contain the familiar Puritan motifs seen throughout New England: the winged death’s head in particular.
Douglas A. Anderson at A Shiver in the Archive has republished an anecdote about C.S. Lewis originally told by Frank Arnold.
Arnold was one of a group of science fiction writers and fans who met at the Globe Tavern in Holborn in the early 1950s. On one occasion Lewis joined them together with his (future) wife Joy Davidman and his brother Warnie. Apparently Davidman was a regular at these meetings. Arnold writes:
The first distinguished author to call on us at the Globe was no less a man than C. S. Lewis (Out of the Silent Planet, The Screwtape Letters, etc.). One of the great scholars of his time, Professor Lewis was forthright in upholding his own views on all questions of history, literature and theology. If they happened to coincide with fashionable opinion, well and good, but if they did not – well, it was rough luck on fashionable opinion! When he came to the Globe, Lewis did not really know who we were, nor did he need to – enough that here was The Master enjoying an evening off among admiring pupils. What a feast of conversation we had that evening! Lewis hated and loved SF in almost equal measure, and I shall never forget how his eyes lit up when I chanced to mention Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus. ‘An evil book,’ he called it, with relish, for he was as strongly devoted to it as I am. So far from sharing A. M. Low’s belief in the blessings of science, Lewis believed that science was the especial gift of Satan – a view which has since been propagated by many much less exalted thinkers and agitators.
Lewis’s moderating cynicism about science and science fiction undoubtedly elevated his own brilliant Space Trilogy, which should be read alongside 1984 and A Brave New World.
In a 1958 letter, J.R.R. Tolkien explained his disapproval of an ultimately unmade film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. About the filmmakers, he wrote,
they may be irritated or aggrieved by the tone of many of my criticisms. If so, I am sorry (though not surprised).
But I would ask them to make an effort of imagination sufficient to understand the irritation (and on occasion the resentment) of an author, who finds, increasingly as he proceeds, his work treated as it would seem carelessly in general, in places recklessly, and with no evident signs of any appreciation of what it is all about.
The canons of narrative in any medium cannot be wholly different; and the failure of poor films is often precisely in exaggeration, and in the intrusion of unwarranted matter owing to not perceiving where the core of the original lies.
As the Amazon corporation prepares to release its new Lord of the Rings prequel series, these words seem especially relevant. From the trailer and the marketing, this series seems to be built upon the intrusion of unwarranted matter, incompatible with Tolkien’s meticulous lore.
The celebrated Russian conductor Valery Gergiev has been fired from his position at the Munich Philharmonic because he declined to repudiate Vladimir Putin. He is likewise banned by The Scala in Milan and the Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden. The Metropolitan Opera in New York has blacklisted all Russian performers. The Royal Opera House in London will no longer host the Bolshoi Ballet.
I have never in my life seen such naked bigotry so piously held. I doubt this stings our Russian friends any less for the absurd hypocrisy and pettiness of it. Can you imagine an American or a British artist being told to—what?—appear in a televised hostage video denouncing his country?—or else be fired?
Obviously I am not so naive or idealistic as to believe that the arts are some rarified sphere, capable of bridging cultures when even diplomacy fails. At this point even classical art in the west is buried under propaganda. But more than ever our cultural institutions seem small. They are not only run by ideologues, they are run by philistines.
This year is the eightieth anniversary of the publication of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. Brenton Dickieson has written an excellent history of the work (complete with interesting ephemera) at A Pilgrim in Narnia. The book was wildly successful at the time. It played a crucial role in the establishment of Lewis as a public figure. Dickieson observes that in the famous issue of Time depicting Lewis on the cover, “he is described as a ‘celebrity’ whose platform was built upon The Screwtape Letters.”