Stone circles

The poetry of Edmund Spenser

There are quite a few Bronze Age stone circles in Cornwall,' said Quintin, looking anxiously at the weather. They had left the car in a car park following a long climb up a narrow lane and were now on the very edge of Bodmin Moor. It was quite bleak, and the clouds were rolling in.

'I love it,' said Miranda. 'There is an atmosphere here. I didn't feel it at the Merry Maidens. I don't know why.'

They had walked for about five or ten minutes across close-cropped grass and scrubby dry moorland and had reached a group of stone circles called the Hurlers. In the distance were some sheep, and a single Aberdeen Angus, nonchalantly grazing.

'It's like walking backwards in time,' said Miranda, suddenly. 'There are supposed to be three stone circles here, but we seem to be surrounded by them. There are standing stones everywhere; all of them about four thousand years old.

They will probably be here forever,' said Quintin, rubbing his fingers over a spread of lichen on the standing stone next to him.

'There is no such thing as permanence,' replied Miranda, provocatively. 'Everything crumbles into dust eventually. Pythagoras taught this, according to the Roman poet Ovid. In one of Edmund Spenser's poems even the spirit of the old British Roman town of Verulamium complains that her old buildings now lie hidden beneath meadows, where the Thames used to flow. Everything of value on Earth is doomed to decay. In his mind's eye, Spenser sees a statue dissolved by the rain, a tower crumble to dust, a beautiful garden become a wilderness, and then: Soon after this a Giant came in place, of wondrous power, and of exeeding stature, that none durst view the horror of his face, yet was he mild of speech and meek of nature... but as he strides over the sea, he trips over and drowns.'

'But then it all gets even more peculiar,' said Quintin, walking over to another stone. He had been reading the same work. 'Spenser makes a clear allusion to William and the Werewolf and to Sir Tristrem, in my view; William and Emelior as white bears, or Tristrem and Isonde in an 'erthe hous':'

'I saw two bears, as white as any milk,
lying together in a mighty cave,
of mild aspect, and hair as soft as silk,
that savage nature seemed not to have,
nor after greedy spoil of blood to crave.
Two fairer beasts might not elsewhere be found,
although the compassed world were sought around.
But what can long abide above this ground
in state of bliss, or steadfast happiness?
The cave in which these bears lay sleeping sound,
was but earth, and with her own weightiness
upon them fell, and did unwares oppress,
that for great sorrow of their sudden fate,
henceforth all world's felicity I hate.

'And so he goes on, in these Visions of Bellay. A diamond spire is destroyed by lightning, a great doric temple ruined by an earthquake, the revered Oak of Dodona in Ancient Greece cut to the ground: And since I saw the root in great distain, a twin of forked trees send forth again. A ship is sunk: And all that treasure drowned in the maine. But I the ship saw after raised again.

'He's started to change his tack all of a sudden, don't you think?

I saw the bird that can the sun endure,
with feeble wings assay to mount on hight,
by more and more she began her wings to assure,
following the example of her mother's sight.
I saw her rise, and with a larger flight
to pierce the clouds, and with wide pinions
to measure the most haughtie mountains height,
until she raught the gods own mansions;
there was she lost, when sudden I beheld,
where tumbling through the air in fiery fold,
all flaming down she on the plain was felled,
and soon her body turned to ashes cold.
I saw the fowl that doth the light dispise,
out of her dust like to a worm arise.

'An owl emerges from the body,' said Quintin. 'But everyone knew what the Phoenix was. The bird that flies up to the sun and rises again from its own ashes!'

See for yourself

The Ruines of Time, by Edmund Spenser
Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature

The Visions of Bellay, by Edmund Spenser
Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature

Edmund Spenser – Wikipedia

Phoenix – Wikipedia

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