Monday, June 06, 2005 +

City 4

“A rose-red city—‘half as old as Time’!”
—John William Burgon, Petra

According to Bergan Evans, Dictionary of Quotations,

Petra is a rock city in a deep gorge on the NE slope of Mt. Hor. Its temples and dwellings are carved from rose, crimson and purple limestone. It was a great commerical city for several centruries, captured by the Moslems in the 7th century and by the Crusaders in the 12th. Its ruins were discovered in 1812.

Petra was a prize poem, recited and published in Oxford in 1845. The phrase “half as old as Time” is set off with quotation marks and was probably borrowed from the 1838 revision of Samuel Rogers’s Italy (ii.5).

Familiarity with Burgon’s line is regarded as a touchstone of academic literary elegance. The knowledge that it is taken from Rogers offers a splendid opportunity for one-upmanship, especially the knowledge that it was an addition to the original form of Rogers’s poem. However, even further vistas of triumph have been opened with the discovery that Rogers probably borrowed the phrase from a satirical poem entitled Heroic Epistle to Burke, published anonymously in 1791. Therein we are told that

. . . awful grandeur guards the Gothic hall,
And crests and mantles dignify the wall;
Ensigns armorial, pedigrees sublime,
And wax and parchment half as old as time.

This would seem to take the phrase back to its origin were it not that the anonymous author states that there is in his poem “scarcely as single image which is not extracted from Mr. Burke’s celebrated Reflections.” No one has yet found the phrase in Burke, but it may be lurking somewhere—and Burke may have borrowed it; he was a widely-read man!

See also DLS MoM X.

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