Speak Giant-mother!

Some thoughts for a Sunday:

The monument commonly called Long Meg

A weight of Awe not easy to be borne
Fell suddenly upon my spirit, cast
From the dread bosom of the unknown past,
When first I saw that family forlorn;
Speak Thou, whose massy strength and stature scorn
The power of years – pre-eminent, and placed
Apart, to overlook the circle vast.
Speak Giant-mother! tell it to the Morn,
While she dispels the cumbrous shades of night;
Let the Moon hear, emerging from a cloud,
At whose behest uprose on British ground
That Sisterhood in hieroglyphic round
Forth-shadowing, some have deemed the infinite
The inviolable God that tames the proud.

William Wordsworth, 1822

It’s not exactly ‘visualisation’ but isn’t it lovely. It is by the notable William Wordsworth (I’m sure you’ve all heard of him!) and it speaks of Long Meg herself looking over her ‘family forlorn’. Wordsworth describes his ‘weight of Awe’ and expresses his trouble at ‘the unknown past’ (something many archaeologists may sympathise with). He tells the story of Long Meg and how she came to be turned to stone: “The inviolable God that tames the proud.” He describes the elemental nature of the site in a way only a Romantic poet could: “…whose massy strength and stature scorn.” The poem is more than just a phenomenological account or a descriptive narrative.

Anyone who’s been to the Lake District knows that Wordsworth is a key figure in the history of the area. The associative heritage values which are forcefully inflicted upon every place which Wordsworth visited, or touched, or was possibly seen, make up a huge part of the Lake District’s overall heritage. Just the fact that he wrote a poem about Long Meg tells of the significance of the site to the poet, and this, through association alone, raises the profile of the site to the level of the wider heritage of the Lake District. On a smaller level, it also tells of a singular past perception of the site – that of Wordsworth’s himself. It is a significant addition to the layers of meaning entwined within the stones and provides us with a link to the temporal existence of the place – a moment in 1882 when Wordsworth trudged around the stones as we do today. It is a powerful document of this encounter.

Let’s briefly acknowledge the power of poetry and its potential in archaeological discourse. Recently in class we’ve been thinking about text in museum displays which has led me to start thinking about how we describe and inform visitors about what they’re looking at. Perhaps poetry is underrated as a means of narrative.

Surely, in its own semi-ambiguous way, poetry can encourage deeper thought – and therefore deeper engagement with the subject matter in hand? This comes back to the question of intended meanings and personal self-contextual interpretations. I could get dragged into the ‘Death of the Author’ theory here (I frequently get jolted back to my brief stint in History of Art and sitting in a stuffy seminar room learning about Barthes whilst drinking coffee which I inevitably let go cold) – but let’s keep this simple. Whatever meanings Wordsworth wanted to convey about Long Meg and Her Daughters, we as modern day readers read his words in our own ways, and we probably don’t read it as he would have wished. However we’re ‘supposed’ to read it though, it still remains subjective and we bring our own baggage to the interpretation table.

I want to suggest that poetry is more powerful in helping us to engage with sites and objects on a deeper, more meaningful level. Even the style of language elicits more work from the reader to decipher what Wordsworth is describing and what story he is telling us.  So should it be used more as a creative way of describing sites and collections in museums – in order to make the viewer work harder for their sought-after archaeological knowledge. and hence provoke a deeper level of engagement? Or shall we stick to the simple less-than-75-word plaques which get the job done and tell the visitor what the curators want them to know about the objects in from of them?

No doubt somewhere, at some time, poetry has been used in a museum as a narrative medium and this isn’t a novel idea at all. I congratulate any curator(s) who have used it – I just hope it gets used more often, especially at the premise of the ‘post-museum.’

Despite all that, it’s just a lovely poem about a lovely site!

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