Saturday, July 16, 2016

Back from Vacation

Early twentieth-century memorial
cross, in the Anglo-Saxon style: Bamburgh.
Chancery Hill Books and Antiques (by which I mean me) was lucky to go on a kind of vacation recently, two-and-a-half weeks in Sweden, Estonia, and England, accompanied by two academic conferences: the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research conference, in Tallinn, where Rosemary gave a paper on students protesting at WVU after the Kent State shooting, and I gave a paper at the Leeds International Medieval Congress on Old English and Old Saxon verse. 

In the UK, we had a rental car, which we picked up from what the Manchester airport cheerfully called the "Rental Car Village," which made me think of nothing so much as a J. G. Ballard-style dystopic novel, in which the protagonist would find himself or herself stuck in such a village, with every opportunity to rent a car and escape, but somehow never managing to do so before all of civilization had collapsed. We, fortunately, escaped not once, but twice, though not without some dystopian moments of our own.

The highlight of our trip, we thought, was staying up in a tiny little village called "Brownieside" in Northumbria, though we never did see any brownies. But we went out each day, walking along the coast, at Dunstanburgh Castle, at Bamburgh, and on Lindisfarne. It was just what we wanted: a lot of walking, to find and see places we didn't know anything about (like the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle, which we'd never heard of), with time, too, for reading and relaxing. 

Mary Elliott's grave marker, Bamburgh.
Though I went into a book store or antique store in every country we visited, I bought only three books, so you know it was a real vacation. Perhaps my favorite textual moment on the trip was in the churchyard in Bamburgh, where a variety of interesting headstones and monuments may be seen: not only the Anglo-Saxon-inspired cross pictured above, but the elaborate memorial for Grace Darling, an early-nineteenth-century lighthouse keeper's daughter, made famous by a daring rescue in the aftermath of a local shipwreck. My favorite, though, was a humbler stone, Mary Elliot's marker, from 1778.

The poem carved on Mary Elliott's headstone reads "It is my lost to rest me here/Till my Redeemer Christ appear/With troops of Angels from on high/Resounding loud his great Majesty."

Perhaps I have spent too much time, lately, thinking about textual identity and textual change, and perhaps I am far too focused on form and meter, but I could not help marveling, when I read this little poem, about the astonishing act of textual emendation perpetrated upon it:

The word "great," it appears, has been chiseled away, though incompletely. This change, of course, improves the meter of the poem, although the act of erasure leaves a legible trace, a Change that all readers can Track. The expunged word has not truly been expunged: we readers may choose, each time we read this, which form of the line we prefer.

It's no wonder I am fascinated with the materiality of texts: this stone gives us two poems for one, as the word "great" is both present and absent simultaneously. The inscription, as it stands today, does not need to choose between the readings at all. And neither, in truth, do we. 

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