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Volume 27, Number 2March/April 1976

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Carving Their Names on the Walls of Time

Written by Richard Usborne

On the Amman/Aqaba road through the desert of Jordan, sign posts point the way in English to "Petra, the rose-red city."

"A rose-red city, half as old as Time" must be one of the best known single lines in English verse, and one would like to say that its author had left his name on Petra. But do you know his name? John William Burgon. There—you didn't know it. In fact it must be one of the least known names in English verse. Burgon wrote the line when he was an undergraduate at Oxford in 1845, 16 years before he actually visited Petra. He became a clergyman. He died as Dean of Chichester Cathedral in Sussex. If there are ghosts in Petra, Burgon's must be one—a ghost in full Anglican canonicals walking on "lissom, clerical, printless toe" through the asphodel.

Another Englishman who did leave his name on Petra is better known: Edward Lear, Victorian landscape artist, writer of nonsense verses for children and popularizer of the limerick. (Be it said that Lear did not use the word limerick, and nobody seems to know why that name became attached in later years to that five-line verse form. Be it also said that Lear's limericks were simple-minded, unsophisticated, and utterly clean.) He went to Petra in 1858 to sketch and paint and his party was surrounded by armed tribesmen shouting for money. Lear thought his last hours might have come and he wrote his name on the wall inside the Treasury, to indicate to later search parties that this was where an artist had perished.

People are paying high prices for Lear drawings and water colors these days. It's a pity they didn't then. He could never quite see himself clear financially beyond the month ahead. And he was a worrier. He traveled a lot because he didn't like the English winter and because, in those days, a landscape artist would get commissions from the rich—"I want the Cedars of Lebanon"... "I want the Valley of the Kings" ... "I want the Taj Mahal." Indeed, before the days of cameras and color TV, it was only through artists, some in words, most in line and paint, that the many could see Abroad. Edward Lear had some rich and appreciative patrons. But he was never in the big time, like Lord Leighton or Landseer or Sargent.

Lear's attitude to Abroad, in letters and journals, was one common for centuries to his class of Englishman: "Abroad is full of good scenery. But all foreigners are funny, and the ones I meet are often rogues and robbers as well."

Still, Lear traveled. He filled sketchbooks, had a studio in Rome and taught drawing to English pupils, came back to London and had exhibitions, briefly gave Queen Victoria drawing lessons, tried to sell his books of nonsense, kept journals, wrote a lot of letters, amusing, full of puns, funny names and made-up words. ("Runcible" is a Lear word—a runcible hat, a runcible spoon.)

Some of his letters were sad beneath a tone of banter. He was an epileptic and suffered from depressions which he called "the morbids." His men friends got married. His lady friends ... well, he could never bring himself to propose to them ... and they got married. He traveled with his sketchbooks in Italy, Corsica, Albania, Greece, Turkey, the Ionian Islands, Corfu, Malta, Egypt, Palestine, India. Lear acquired a Corfiote servant / cook / traveling-companion / carrier-of-sketching-kit / interpreter / sewer-on-of-buttons. His name was Giorgio. It was Giorgio who, if we can believe Lear, said, on first seeing Petra, "Oh, Master, we have come into the world where everything is made of chocolate, ham, curry powder and salmon."

Lear didn't publish the journal of his visit to Petra till nearly 40 years afterwards. Since Burckhardt had "discovered" Petra to the West in 1812, it had attracted not a few visitors from England, with Old Testaments in their hands, sketchbooks under their arms and pistols in their inner pockets. They may have been tracing the itinerary of the Children of Israel, or looking for the shoe that the Lord had cast out over Edom, or seeing the city (Seir) out of which someone in Isaiah hauntingly "calleth to me 'Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night?'," or just sketching as an excuse for escaping the bitter English spring (all the best people visited Petra at Easter). But they felt safer with pistols, to frighten off, if not actually to wound or kill, bandits.

It was at Hebron that Lear negotiated, through his dragoman Abdul, for a camel-cade to get to Petra, to stay there a week, to return via the Dead Sea (another four days). The party totaled 15 including Abdul and Giorgio. The cost of the round trip, Hebron/Petra/Hebron all found, was to be 30. This covered servants, six camels, tents, food and everything else.

Early on April 8 they rode out from Hebron on horses to meet their camels. One of these camels, which Lear called Grumpy ' or Hubblebubble, was for baggage only, and got a cage of live poultry as part of his burden. This offended his dignity all the time and sometimes scared the daylights out of him when a cock crowed on the march. Lear himself walked as often as possible. He didn't like camel-riding. He did like botanizing and found it easier at ground level.

At night, in desert encampments, they discharged their firearms to warn potential robbers what would happen if they approached. During the day Lear's retinue and suite quarrelled loudly and Lear put cotton wool in his ears so that he could enjoy the charm of the Moab mountain scenery, with Mount Hor and Wadi Musa in the distance but getting nearer. "Petra is before me."

Gazelles, roe deer, jackals, eagles, storks, owls, wild doves, rock partridges, hoopoes. An Arab boy chased a gazelle, caught it and brought it alive to Lear. But it wouldn't eat and it wilted. Lear gave orders for it to be killed and cooked: its four feet he kept to make handles for paper knives when he got home.

They entered Petra. "I own to having been more delighted and astonished than I had ever been by any spectacle." They pitched their tents and Lear sketched and painted ardently. But Abdul spotted a line of figures on the rocks above their tents. They were the front rank of bandits who were now to make havoc of the peace of Petra for Lear and his men. Daily they encircled the tents. Finally, before his contracted week was up, Lear gave orders for the tents to be struck and the camels loaded for leaving. He himself hurried through his last sketchings of the Roman theater and then faced the angry mob. They had disputed his right to be there. Now they disputed his right to go away. There was a scuffle. Someone hit him in the face with one of his own live chickens and he had everything taken from his pockets except his pistols and his watch. The "everything" included dollars, penknives, handkerchiefs and, for some reason, hard-boiled eggs. At what moment, where, and with what paint or ink, Lear wrote his name on the wall of the Treasury, he does not specify.

Lear and his party in fact got out of Petra without perishing, after all. In the desert, by sunset, they felt safer. Two hours later they camped, but "only sleeping winkily, prepared to start again long before dawn."

Lear had seen Petra.

The epitaph of the great Greek poet and playwright Aeschylus does not mention his writings: only his military prowess at the battle of Marathon. Lord Alfred Douglas in a sonnet prayed that, before he died, he might have planted "one naked phrase like a lean dagger in the ribs of time." But people know his name today only as the young man who caused Oscar Wilde's downfall. The two-volume Life of John William Burgon, published in 1892, is a monument to a churchman, Bible scholar and dean of a cathedral, and it was written by another churchman, Bible scholar and dean of a cathedral. The "rose-red city, half as old as Time" line comes into Dean Goulburn's Life of Dean Burgon only in a footnote.

Burgon wrote the poem "Petra," 371 lines of it, as an entry for the Newdigate Prize for Poetry for undergraduates at Oxford, in 1845. Petra was the subject set that year. Burgon had written occasional verse and poetry from boyhood and had competed, unsuccessfully, for the Newdigate in the three previous years. At his fourth attempt he won it. He was 32, an advanced age for an undergraduate. But he had dutifully worked in his father's business for 11 years before the collapse of the business gave him a chance to fulfil what had always been his ambition and dream ... to go to Oxford and read for the Church. Winners of the Oxford Newdigate Poetry Prize have included, besides Burgon, John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, Oscar Wilde, the father of Alec and Evelyn Waugh, P.G. Wodehouse's elder brother and Julian Huxley.

It is clear that Burgon relied (as probably all the other competitors did) on the Old Testament, Dr. Robinson's Biblical Researches and the sketches of Petra that David Roberts had made in 1839.

His heroic couplets are not at all bad:

Where rocks on rocks, on mountains mountains piled
Have form'd a scene so wondrous and so wild . . .
The rough, rude ocean frozen into stone . . .

But rosy-red, as if the blush of dawn
Which first beheld them was not yet with drawn . . .


The hues of youth upon a brow of woe
Which men called old two thousand years ago!
Match me such marvel, save in Eastern clime,
A rose-red city half as old as Time.

The famous single line of verse presents us with two minor mysteries. The phrase "half as old as Time" had twice appeared in published poems before 1845, the more recent occasion being in the work of Samuel Rogers, a friend and benefactor of Burgon's father. One early printed edition of Burgon's "Petra" has the phrase inside single quotation marks: which may have been Burgon's brief acknowledgement of its being an echo. And, when Burgon did at last go to Petra, he wrote to his sister that there was "nothing rosy in Petra by any means." It is difficult to account for this statement. Roses come in 50 shades of red, and Petra, in various strata, various places, and various lights matches most of them, as any visitor will vouch for.

A major mystery, still unsolved, is how a single line from an undergraduate poem found its way into all the dictionaries of quotations. Burgon died in the odor of sanctity, a man of God who had dabbled in verse, not as John Donne, say, a poet with a pulpit. Yet the London Times gave him, in addition to an obituary, a leader which recalled his "Petra" line. It had already become famous. How? A good question. I have been looking, sporadically, for an answer for 15 years.

Burgon graduated at Oxford to a fellowship at Oriel College. He had planned a trip to Egypt and Syria with a pupil for six months in 1848, but "cholera and war" in those parts stopped them.

A good man (Goulburn) writing the life of another good man (Burgon) is faced with the difficulty of showing his man in the act of being good. None of Goulburn's snapshots of Burgon treading the way of the saints is very convincing.

As a curate in West Ilsley near Oxford, Burgon succored the sick, the faint and the weary, and Goulburn catches him at it. The nearest railway station to West Ilsley was at Steventon, seven miles away. Burgon himself liked to do these seven miles on foot for his journeys to and from Oxford. Once he brought back with him from Oxford a West Ilsley boy who had been in hospital. They left the train at Steventon and set out to walk the rest of the way to Ilsley. But the boy wilted after two miles and sat down and cried: so Burgon carried him on his back the remaining five miles and delivered him safe to his anxious mother.

Burgon's mother died in 1854, and he wore her wedding ring on his little finger ever afterwards: thus occasionally giving people to believe that he might be engaged to be married. Burgon took a ministry in Rome and there he met a rich lady parishioner, Miss Webb. One guesses, reading between Dean Goulburn's lamentably discreet lines, that Miss Webb set her cap at Burgon. It may have been mutual. He and Miss Webb, without doubt amply chaperoned, spent a blissful fortnight in Naples, and Burgon refers to it in letters, "O that never-to-be-forgotten fortnight" and "I can see the finger of God in it all." Then Miss Webb asked him to accompany, as chaplain, a party that was going for six or seven months in 1861 and 62 to the Holy Land, via Venice, Trieste, Alexandria, Cairo, the Nile, Sinai, Petra, Hebron, Jerusalem, Jaffa and Beirut. If Miss Webb paid Burgon's way, it was certainly no hardship to her. She had, Burgon wrote, "a considerable fortune . . . and was the niece of Sir John Guise."

The party left Shepeard's Hotel in Cairo, for Sinai and points east and north, with 35 camels, a horse, a foal and a donkey. There was Miss Webb (no Christian name ever mentioned by the discreet Goulburn; he leaves a blank on one occasion for the pet name with which Burgon addressed his sister in a letter), her cousin Miss Guise, their two English lady's maids, one with a bullfinch in a cage, a Captain Bayley, RN (retd.) and his wife, Burgon the chaplain, AH the dragoman, one cook, two manservants, one groom and 18 Arabs who managed the animals and served as guards and guides.

They spent four and a half "delightful" days at Petra, including Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Burgon wrote, in a letter, that Petra was "the most astonishing and interesting place I ever visited, and may well stand alone." Burgon and his friends had their periods of anxiety as Edward Lear had four years earlier. The three tribes between Cairo and Hebron had to be "conciliated." A levy of £2 each was imposed for pitching tents in Petra, and "lawless men with swords and guns" watched Burgon when he sat and sketched in the ruins.

But, strangely, in none of the letters that Goulburn quotes, does Burgon ever once say anything like "Petra ... ah ... that reminds me, I won the Newdigate with a poem about Petra." Nor does Goulburn, apparently, think this extraordinary. It seems that the 1845 Poem had sunk virtually out of its author's memory by 1862.

Burgon was not well when he left Petra, and he thought it might have been something he caught when bathing in the Red Sea at Aqaba. Miss Webb had been planning a trip to Abyssinia the following year. If she went, Burgon didn't. Perhaps it was because rumors were already round in England that he was planning matrimony: this must have referred to Miss Webb, though of course Goulburn mentions nothing so specific. At all events we read a letter of Burgon's to a friend begging him to take all opportunities of denying the rumor.

Burgon published several books on church matters, and many of his sermons were printed as pamphlets in Oxford. He was, or tried to be, a scourge of the rationalists who, in the Canute wave of what might be called Darwinism, allowed themselves to doubt the strict, sentence-by-sentence truth of the Old and Authorized New Testaments. Burgon's last words were alleged to have been "It is a consolatory reflexion that I have been able to crush the Revised Version of the New Testament, so that I believe it will never lift up its head again."

Burgon spoke out sharply against the legalizing of marriage with a deceased wife's sister. And against women having the same status as men at universities: "a thing inexpedient and immodest" and, terrible thought, exposing girls to the obscenities of the great Latin and Greek authors, the filth of old-world civilizations and irreligious systems of philosophy. To the women of Oxford he stated his case from the pulpit of St. Mary's (apparently without getting hassocks thrown at him) ... "Inferior to us God made you, and inferior to the end of time you will remain." He remained a bachelor to the end of his life.

Burgon campaigned at Oxford against undergraduates going out of College into lodgings. In his fulminations for this (now lost) cause it is not clear what his priorities were: whether he wished to protect landladies' daughters from the lust of unsupervised undergraduates, or protect undergraduates from the wiles of landladies' daughters. Oxford came to laugh at Burgon.

When Benjamin Disraeli transferred Burgon to the deanery of Chichester, he lost his good Oxford pulpit (sermons at Oxford got printed), but perhaps he was safer from unkind laughter down in Sussex by the sea. There is a story that at Chichester, on his way to the Cathedral one Sunday in all his robes for Matins, the Dean saw one of his friends, a very young girl, coming behind him. He hid behind a buttress and, when he heard footsteps on the gravel, he jumped out and said "Boo!" But the little girl had taken another turning, and Dean Burgon was left to explain his odd behavior to a startled grown-up parishioner.

His biographer has to record that Burgon was a man of books rather than a social force. He was no leader of men. He quarrelled with his canons at Chichester. He died before the publication of what could have been his most important work, An Exposition of the True Principles of the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, and the Vindication and Establishment of the Traditional Text by the Application of Those Principles. Beyond his calling he had been a good Shakespearean scholar. He could draw well. He made a lot of friends among young girls (as Lewis Carroll did, and perhaps many bachelor clerics). And, as a parlor trick, he could imitate the noise of an angry gnat in a bedroom.

A quiet life. And what's to show for it today? A single line in the books of quotations. It is something.

Richard Usborne is a British writer with experience in advertising, broadcasting and magazine editing. He has contributed frequently to Punch, both prose and verse, and is the author of Clubhouse Heroes and Wodehouse at Work.

This article appeared on pages 30-33 of the March/April 1976 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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