Tangent on a Line by John Burgon

Amit Majmudar
August 13, 2013
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Consider the one-hit-wonder nature of some lines, poems, and poets. Like the famous description of “A rose-red city half as old as time,” which comes from the now-forgotten sonnet “Petra” by the now-forgotten poet John Burgon. Other poets, like Thomas Gray, persist in a single, endlessly anthologized, taught and re-taught poem.

…Burgon’s line, by the way, survives not because of its likening of the organic (the masonry of a city) to the inorganic (the red rose), a common enough effect in poetry–its emblem being Yeats’s golden, mechanical bird, singing to a Byzantine emperor of “things past, and passing, and to come.” It’s the second half of Burgon’s line that earns its permanence. The phrase “half as old as time” does more than switch up the expected concrete noun with an abstract one. It sets up a chronological relationship that gets weirder the more you think about it.

If the city is half as old as time at the moment it is described, and time continues to increase, the moment of its foundation must be shifting, constantly, toward the future to keep pace.

To keep the numbers simple, if time began at a specific point and has gone on for 4 years, and Petra was founded in the year 2, then Petra was half as old as time. But for Petra to stay half as old as time (as the poem, whenever it is read, asserts) then in the year 8, Petra would have to be 4 years old—that is, founded in the year 4. As time heads into the future, so does the Petra, trailing behind it, unable to catch up.

Unless you deny that the poem, and poetry generally, exists in the eternal present. If you do, then we can take Burgon’s assertion about Petra as being made in the year 1845, which is the year he won the Newdigate Prize for it. Given that Petra was founded 312 B.C. (quoth Wikipedia), the poem suggests that 1845 yrs. + 312 yrs. = half the age of time, meaning that 2 x 2157 yrs., or 4317 years, is the age of time. What is weird about this is not (or not just) that Creationists actually do think this number is close to reality; it’s that a random person (screen name “Natchez Hawk”), arguing the ol’ Science vs. the Bible debate on a message board at a right-wing website, on October 10, 2008, actually threw this number out as an example of a wildly-thrown-out Creationist guesstimate of the world’s age.



To: valkyry1

“How old?”

Well we can keep examining evidence and see where it leads, or we can just make something up—say about 4,317 years.


10 posted on 10/28/2008 4:37:55 PM PDT by Natchez Hawk



It never fails to amaze me how Google turns up weird coincidental shit like that. Of course, in the year 2008, according to Burgon’s poem-math, time would have been 164 years older than it was in 1845, that is, 4481 years. I realize this whole discussion falls below any standard of literary criticism. In fact, I started out intending to write about the nature of one-hit wonders in poetry, and what it says about the nature of poetic creativity. But I got sidetracked by this line by Burgon. Bizarre coincidence. Bizarre line, really.

Because the slippery-foundation-date theory has some very interesting implications. If you remember that some physicists talk about the universe contracting and the arrow of time reversing direction, you’d see that Petra, as the far endpoint of time began to approach it, would have to regress the date of its founding toward the date of the universe’s creation / the Big Bang.

If we go with that scientific explanation, Petra’s rose-red towers, its streets and its spires would approach the origin of time and matter asymptotically—until its stubbornly half-as-old-as-time existence antedated the river Jordan and the earth itself. Stars and stray cosmic debris would swirl and vortex, and Petra would float freely in the great void. Finally all matter and time would crush into one primordial ur-egg, and at that moment Petra and time would be nearly co-eval, separated by half a nanosecond, half a picosecond….

Gone. The stubbornly intact rose-red city would vanish all at once as roses, redness, and time all regressed to nothingness. But as soon as the contraction exploded into the universe again, the cycle restarting, Burgon’s Law would exert its weird physics, and Petra would reappear in its entirety, almost but not quite at the same instant as time itself. The gap between them would widen, time 2 years old when Petra was 1, 4 years old when Petra was 2, 100 years old when Petra was 50, and so on.

At some point, let’s say 312 B.C., the city would find a fixed resting-point in Jordan, and the Nabataeans would imagine they built a city which had existed long before them and would exist long after them.

…And two millennia later, the makers of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade would film their final action sequence in Petra. There, Indy would find the Holy Grail—the Grail which was said to grant, coincidentally enough, immortality.


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