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Hallo again to all.

Dean John William Burgon (1813-1888) is remembered today—if he is remembered at all—for a handful of things:

For his authorship of The Lives of Twelve Good Men, an omnibus biography of a dozen of his worthy contemporaries.John William Burgon

For his patronage of the Burgon Society for the study of academic dress. (Burgon hoods are a traditional MA hood pattern.)

For his vehement opposition to the Revised Version of the scriptures in English—and his modern adoption by the King James Only movement in the United States.

For his 1845 Newdigate Prize poem Petra, with its famous phrase about 'a rose-red city half as old as time'.

Until Indiana Jones, it was through this poem that Anglophone readers knew very much at all about Petra, an ancient Nabataean city in what is today Jordan. At just under 600 lines, the poem has 61 footnotes in support of its imaginary exploration of the fate of a city that had been known to European cartographers and explorers since only 1812. It does not make for easy reading to modern ears, and the prize-winning effort was composed by someone who had never visited the place about which he conjured such rapturous detail.

When we discovered this wrinkle in the back-story of Petra and Petra, we marveled that the good dean had written the whole thing in Oxford with the help of the Bible and the then-recent exploratory-archaeological accounts of Johann Ludwig Burckhardt and his followers. The dream of the rose-red city was hatched in the Green and Pleasant Land.

Before a recent visit to south-central Jordan and a brisk visit to Petra itself, we had thought to use the 170 year old poem as a guide for our own exploration—'Eternal—silent—beautiful—alone!' the 'skies of sapphire mantling overhead'

Petratill the desert wide
Shrinks to a valley; and on either side
The rude rock springeth, and a long array
Of tombs, forgotten, sadden all the way.
Then the earth yawns, terrific: and a path,
By Nature fram’d in waywardness or wrath.
In silent awe the Arab steals along,
Nor cheers his camels with their wonted song.
Well may the spirit, left alone to brood
On the dim shapes which haunt that solitude,
O’erflow with joy—that dreary pathway past—
When Petra bursts upon the gaze at last.

This was nothing doing: Burgon's imagination produced a Victorian Orientalist fantasy useless to the modern traveler. The city does indeed burst upon the gaze at last, but within that gaze are also the crowds of tourists, the free WiFi signs, the children skipping school to sell trinkets, the resettled Bedouin offering horse-and-buggy rides to the faint of strength or limb, the Japanese instant noodles for sale across from the Treasury, the stench of human sweat and burdened beasts, the question marks that hang above each tomb and building, bridge and path.

We were disappointed about this until we weren't. Do we not spend our Christian lives singing about, hoping for, preparing to see a 'sweet and blessed country, the home of God's elect' which none of us have ever visited? With his books and his active mind, Burgon wrote of Petra as he might have written of Heaven. If poetry written in an Oxford college can be founded on the evidence of things unseen, how much more can faith be the substance of things hoped for?

See you again next week.

Our Signatures

Richard Mammana


All of us at Anglicans Online

22 October 2017

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