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Petra -- John William Burgon

A couplet from
(Poem #487) Petra
 Match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,
 A rose-red city - half as old as time!
-- John William Burgon
"This must be the most quoted couplet from any of the poems to have won the
coveted Newdigate Prize for poetry at Oxford University. Burgon wrote it in
1845, before becoming a clergyman and disappearing into obscurity. None the
less, this is a fine piece of verse to be remembered by."

        -- Kenneth Baker, 'Unauthorized Versions', Faber 1990.

Regular readers of the Minstrels will know the word I'm dying to use to describe
this snatch of verse (Hint: adjective, 9 letters, starts with an e, falls
between 'evince' and 'evolve' in the dictionary)...


[On the Newdigate Prize]

Other winners include Matthew Arnold, for 'Cromwell', in 1843; Oscar Wilde, for
'Ravenna' in 1878, and Laurence Binyon, for 'Perse.

[On Petra]

Here's what the Encyclopaedia Britannica has to say:

 "Petra: ancient city, centre of an Arab kingdom in Hellenistic and Roman times;
its ruins are in southwest Jordan. The city was built on a terrace, pierced from
east to west by the Wadi Musa (the Valley of Moses)--one of the places where,
according to tradition, the Israelite leader Moses struck a rock and water
gushed forth. The valley is enclosed by sandstone cliffs veined with shades of
red and purple varying to pale yellow, and for this reason Petra was called by
the 19th-century English biblical scholar John William Burgon a 'rose-red city
half as old as Time'.

The Greek name Petra ('Rock') probably replaced the biblical name Sela. Remains
from the Paleolithic and the Neolithic periods have been discovered at Petra,
and Edomites are known to have occupied the area about 1200 BC. Centuries later
the Nabataeans, an Arab tribe, occupied it and made it the capital of their
kingdom. In 312 BC the region was attacked by Seleucid forces, who failed to
seize the city. Under Nabataean rule, Petra prospered as a centre of the spice
trade that involved such disparate realms as China, Egypt, Greece, and India,
and the city's population swelled to between 10,000 and 30,000.

When the Nabataeans were defeated by the Romans in AD 106, Petra became part of
the Roman province of Arabia but continued to flourish until changing trade
routes caused its gradual commercial decline. After an earthquake (not the
first) damaged the city in 551, significant habitation seems to have ceased. The
Islamic invasion occurred in the 7th century, and a Crusader outpost is evidence
of activity there in the 12th century. After the Crusades, the city was unknown
to the Western world until it was rediscovered by the Swiss traveler Johann
Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812."

        -- EB

A more romantic account of Burckhardt's expedition is this:

"The Swiss explorer who rediscovered Petra in 1812, Burckhardt was a classic
nineteenth-century adventurer, the kind of man who would spend years polishing
his disguise as an Arab so he could pass unnoticed through the Middle East, a
land not always hospitable to curious Europeans. Under contract to the African
Association, a private group of wealthy men in Britain who sponsored
exploration, Burckhardt planned to cross the Sahara and seek the source of the
River Niger. He first perfected his traveling persona as an Arab trader named
Sheikh Ibrahim Ibn Abd Allah, then set off from Damascus toward Cairo. On the
way he decided to take a look inside the Wadi Mousa (the Valley of Moses) in
hilly region north of the Red Sea, rumored to contain the ancient ruins of a
lost city. Burckhardt told his reluctant guide that he had promised to sacrifice
a goat at the tomb of the prophet Aaron, which lay on a mountaintop inside the
valley. Although his guide grew increasingly suspicious of his charge's interest
in the archeological wonders, Burckhardt's ruse allowed him to become the first
European to see Petra in a millennium."

        -- Tom Huntington,


A couplet as famous as today's is, naturally, not without its fair share of
parodies. For instance:

'Match me such marvel'

Match me such marvel save in college port,
The rose-red liquor, half as old as Short.

        -- William Tickell Jones

William Short was an Oxford don and 'character'. He had taught at Rugby around
1800, became a tutor at Oxford around 1820, and still lectured at Trinity
College in the 1860s.

Tickell Jones later became Bishop of St Davids.

20 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Marion Kroukam said...

Where can I find the full text of Burgon's Petra? Please help me...
From Marion - Pietermaritzburg, South Africa

Norman Ross said...

Hello Marion, did you ever find the full text to Burgon's Petra. I would
be extremely grateful if you would be so kind as to tell me where to
find it. Norman.

Shirley Feibleman said...

Does anyone know where I can find the full text of this poem?

a8784277 said...

"It seems no work of Man's creative hand,
by labor wrought as wavering fancy plnned;
But from the rock as by magic grown,
eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!
Not virgin-white like that old Doric shrine,
where erst Athena held her rites divine;
Not saintly-grey, like many a minster fane,
that crowns the hill and consecrates the plain;
But rose-red as if the blush of dawn,
that first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;
The hues of yough upon a brow of woe,
which Man deemed old two thousand years ago,
match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,
a rose-red city half as old as time."

Anonymous said...

There is a book called: "Petra, a poem: To which a few short poems are now added"
You can find it for free on Google Books.


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