Sunday, October 26, 2014

Stonehenge

Thirty-five years ago, the visitor's center at Stonehenge was right next to the stone circle, but they've torn that down and built a new one a mile and a half away, which just opened up at the end of 2013. The stones are hidden by a wooded area, so you can't see them from the parking lot - but on the other hand, you can't see the parking lot from the stones now, either. If you don't look beyond the grassy knoll of the monument to the zooming trucks on the A303 less than a quarter of a mile away, it's easy enough to forget it's there and fall under the spell of the standing stones. The path around the circle is only around 500 feet long, but it took me over an hour to walk it, because I kept stopping to take yet another picture as the angles and shadows changed, or just to stand and stare, wondering about who, and why, and how many other feet had traced the same circuit over the past five thousand years.

I walked back to the center down the long flat stretch of green that bisects the wooded area, the Stonehenge Cursus. This site has recently been dated to at least 500 years earlier than the earliest evidence of a circle at Stonehenge itself, and is also aligned east-west with the sun at the summer solstice. The flat grassy plain covers the straight ditches that run nearly two miles underneath, where they have found pieces of the deer-antler picks used to excavate them.

Though the new visitor's center is said to have an interesting collection of artifacts, after my solitary walk back I didn't want to fight the crowds to get in and see them. My head was too full of images to add any more then, and even now I have no words to express those images, no way to explain why this is such an amazing place. Other writers will have to complete this post for me, as I look at the pictures and lose myself in the centuries again.

Another source of greatness is Difficulty. When any work seems to have required immense force and labor to effect it, the idea is grand. Stonehenge, neither for disposition nor ornament, has anything admirable; but those huge rude masses of stone, set on end, and piled each on other, turn the mind on the immense force necessary for such a work.

Nay, the rudeness of the work increases this cause of grandeur, as it excludes the idea of art and contrivance; for dexterity produces another sort of effect, which is different enough from this.
          - Edmund Burke, "On the Sublime and Beautiful" (1756)


I have had twenty times a strong inclination to spend a summer near Salisbury downs, having rid over them more than once, and with a young parson of Salisbury reckoned twice the stones of Stonehenge, which are either ninety-two or ninety-three.
          - a letter from Jonathan Swift to John Gay (1730)
'The People of the Hills have all left. I saw them come into Old England and I saw them go. Giants, trolls, kelpies, brownies, goblins, imps; wood, tree, mound, and water spirits; heath-people, hill-watchers, treasure-guards, good people, little people, pishogues, leprechauns, night-riders, pixies, nixies, gnomes, and the rest - gone, all gone! I came into England with Oak, Ash and Thorn, and when Oak, Ash and Thorn are gone I shall go too.'

Dan looked round the meadow - at Una's Oak by the lower gate; at the line of ash trees that overhang Otter Pool where the mill-stream spills over when the Mill does not need it, and at the gnarled old white-thorn where Three Cows scratched their necks. 'It's all right,' he said; and added, 'I'm planting a lot of acorns this autumn too.'

'Then aren't you most awfully old?' said Una.

'Not old - fairly long-lived, as folk say hereabouts. Let me see - my friends used to set my dish of cream for me o' nights when Stonehenge was new. Yes, before the Flint Men made the Dewpond under Chanctonbury Ring.'

- Rudyard Kipling, "Puck of Pook's Hill" (1906)
After dinner, we walked to Salisbury Plain. On the broad downs, under the gray sky, not a house was visible, nothing but Stonehenge, which looked like a group of brown dwarfs in the wide expanse — Stonehenge and the barrows — which rose like green bosses about the plain, and a few hayricks. On the top of a mountain, the old temple would not be more impressive. Far and wide a few shepherds with their flocks sprinkled the plain, and a bagman drove along the road ... It was pleasant to see, that, just this simplest of all simple structures — two upright stones and a lintel laid across — had long outstood all later churches, and all history, and were like what is most permanent on the face of the planet: these, and the barrows — mere mounds (of which there are a hundred and sixty within a circle of three miles about Stonehenge) like the same mound on the plain of Troy, which still makes good to the passing mariner on Hellespont, the vaunt of Homer and the fame of Achilles. Within the enclosure, grow buttercups, nettles, and, all around, wild thyme, daisy, meadowsweet, goldenrod, thistle, and the carpeting grass ... We walked in and out, and took again and again a fresh look at the uncanny stones. The old sphinx put our petty differences of nationality out of sight. To these conscious stones we two pilgrims were alike known and near.

- Ralph Waldo Emerson, "English Traits" (1856)
Though the sky was dense with cloud, a diffused light from some fragment of a moon had hitherto helped them a little. But the moon had now sunk, the clouds seemed to settle almost on their heads, and the night grew as dark as a cave. However, they found their way along, keeping as much on the turf as possible that their tread might not resound, which it was easy to do, there being no hedge or fence of any kind. All around was open loneliness and black solitude, over which a stiff breeze blew.

"What monstrous place is this?" said Angel.

"It hums," said she. "Hearken!"

He listened. The wind, playing upon the edifice, produced a booming tune, like the note of some gigantic one-stringed harp. No other sound came from it, and lifting his hand and advancing a step or two, Clare felt the vertical surface of the structure. It seemed to be of solid stone, without joint or moulding. Carrying his fingers onward he found that what he had come in contact with was a colossal rectangular pillar; by stretching out his left hand he could feel a similar one adjoining. At an indefinite height overhead something made the black sky blacker, which had the semblance of a vast architrave uniting the pillars horizontally.
They carefully entered beneath and between; the surfaces echoed their soft rustle; but they seemed to be still out of doors. The place was roofless. Tess drew her breath fearfully, and Angel, perplexed, said —

"What can it be?"

Feeling sideways they encountered another tower-like pillar, square and uncompromising as the first; beyond it another and another. The place was all doors and pillars, some connected above by continuous architraves.

"A very Temple of the Winds," he said.

The next pillar was isolated; others composed a trilithon; others were prostrate, their flanks forming a causeway wide enough for a carriage; and it was soon obvious that they made up a forest of monoliths grouped upon the grassy expanse of the plain. The couple advanced further into this pavilion of the night till they stood in its midst.

"It is Stonehenge!" said Clare.

- Thomas Hardy, "Tess of the d'Urbervilles" (1891)
I set out immediately, with my Son for London, and we only stopped a little by the Way to view Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain, and Lord Pembroke’s House and Gardens, with his very curious Antiquities at Wilton. We arriv’d in London the 27th of July 1757.

- Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)


I have no objection to go to see ruins, aqueducts, pictures, in company with a friend or a party, but rather the contrary, for the former reason reversed. They are intelligible matters, and will bear talking about. The sentiment here is not tacit, but communicable and overt. Salisbury Plain is barren of criticism, but Stonehenge will bear a discussion antiquarian, picturesque, and philosophical.

In setting out on a party of pleasure, the first consideration always is where we shall go to: in taking a solitary ramble, the question is what we shall meet with by the way. 'The mind is its own place'; nor are we anxious to arrive at the end of our journey. I can myself do the honours indifferently well to works of art and curiosity.

- William Hazlitt, "Table Talk" (1821)
At Purbright, and many parts of the surrounding country, loose blocks of a stone is found similar to what has been called the grey weathers This stone, composed of siliceous particles cemented together without any intervening substance, may be considered as a granular quartz. It has more the appearance of an original formation, or peculiar crystallization of siliceous matter analogous to that of sugar, than to a substance composed of the detritus of other rocks. Numerous large and loose masses of this rock lie scattered over the surface of the chalk country, particularly in Berkshire and Wiltshire, but a bed or continuous stratum of it has not yet been observed. These stones were much employed by our ancestors in building, and before the ground was cleared for the purposes of agriculture they were much more numerous than at present. The huge erections of Stonehenge, which have so much exercised the conjectures of our antiquaries, are chiefly composed of it, and the blocks were no doubt found on the spot. It is not a little singular that some of the smaller upright stones of Stonehenge consist of a sort of greenstone, and must therefore have been brought from very great distance, no such rock occurring in the neighbourhood.

- Transactions of the Geological Society: 1st series,
    "On the Strata lying over the Chalk" (1814)
The old man with a hammer and the one-eyed man with a spear were seated by the roadside talking as I came up the hill. "It isn't as though they hadn't asked us," the one with the hammer said. "After all these years," said the one-eyed man with the spear. "After all these years. We might go back just once." "O' course we might," said the other.

When they saw me the one with the hammer touched his greasy cap. "Might we make so bold, sir," he said, "as to ask the way to Stonehenge?" I was bicycling there myself to see the place so I pointed out the way and rode on at once, for there was something so utterly servile about them both that I did not care for their company. They seemed by their wretched mien to have been persecuted or utterly neglected for many years, I thought that very likely they had done long terms of penal servitude.

When I came to Stonehenge I saw a group of about a score of men standing among the stones. It was three miles back where I left those strange old men, but I had not been in the stone circle long when they appeared, coming with great strides along the road. When they saw them all the people took off their hats and acted very strangely, and I saw that they had a goat which they led up then to the old altar stone.
And the two old men came up with their hammer and spear and began apologizing plaintively for the liberty they had taken in coming back to that place, and all the people knelt on the grass before them. And then still kneeling they killed the goat by the altar, and when the two old men saw this they came up with many excuses and eagerly sniffed the blood. And at first this made them happy. But soon the one with the spear began to whimper. "It used to be men," he lamented. "It used to be men." And the twenty men began looking uneasily at each other, and the plaint of the one-eyed man went on in that tearful voice, and all of a sudden they all looked at me.

I do not know who the two old men were or what any of them were doing, but there are moments when it is clearly time to go, and I left them there and then. And just as I got up on to my bicycle I heard the plaintive voice of the one with the hammer apologizing for the liberty he had taken in coming back to Stonehenge. "But after all these years," I heard him crying, "After all these years..."

And the one with the spear said: "Yes, after three thousand years..."

- Lord Dunsany, "The Return of the Exiles" (1915)

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