Tuesday, 30 November 2010

A Sapphic leap in Dorset?

Following on from the recent post about Swinburne and chalk cliffs - see Swinburne, Culver climber - yesterday I read Thomas Hardy's poem A Singer Asleep, his elegy to Swinburne written at Bonchurch, Isle of Wight, on the occasion of Hardy's visit to Swinburne's grave there.

The poem, which celebrates Swinburne as a kindred spirit to the Greek poet Sappho, has a particular verse that refers to Sappho's alleged suicide by jumping off a "white cape", Cape Leukas (now called Cape Lefkada) out of unrequited love for a sailor called Phaon - a yarn especially propagated by Menander's mostly-lost play Leucadia (aka The Lady from Leukas). See Sappho and the Leucadian Leap (Gary Hoffman, Opera today, 18 Sep 2005) for more on this.
His singing-mistress verily was no other
Than she the Lesbian, she the music-mother
Of all the tribe that feel in melodies;
Who leapt, love-anguished, from the Leucadian steep
Into the rambling world-encircling deep
Which hides her where none sees.

- from A Singer Asleep, Thomas Hardy
This brings me to another "white cape" at the easternmost tip of the Isle of Purbeck, Dorset; see Google Maps and this excellent aerial photo by Phil Brace. The overall formation is, as a 19th century description puts it, a broken promontory "called promiscuously Foreland, Handfast Point, and Old Harry Head". As described, with further good photos, in Dr Ian West's geological account Harry Rocks and Ballard Point, within it there are various structures including "Old Harry" and "Old Harry's Wife"; and the gap between the mainland and the first offshore rock appears on maps as "St Lucas' Leap".

"St Lucas Leap" is a name of considerable antiquity that appears on the 1580s Richards Treswell map of Studland Parish (see top right here) and, if the map is accurate, predates the collapse of the promontory into separate stacks 1. The stated origin stories reek, to me anyway, of folk etymology. The predominant one is that:
It was close by, at St. Lucas's Leap, that a pair of pedigree greyhounds belonging to a certain squire at Studland, while coursing a hare, are said to have leaped clean over the cliff and have been dashed to pieces, the name St. Lucas being afterwards given to the spot where the tragedy occurred to commemorate the name of one of the favourite hounds which perished so suddenly and tragically. It was said that the old gentleman did not long survive the disaster, as he was so greatly attached to the dog and its fortunes."
- Old Swanage or Purbeck Past and Present: A collection of articles, topographical, historical, antiquarian, biographical and anecdotal, WM Hardy, 1910
A second version, repeated in Anthony Mills' 1977 The place-names of Dorset, is that is refers to Richard Lucas, rector of Studland 1536-78.

I was interested, however, in the earliest appearance of the name in Google Books, which is Thomas Hardy's relatively early comic novel The Hand of Ethelberta.  Set partly on the Isle of Purbeck, it features several vivid descriptions of sailing past the promontory: Hardy calls the whole formation "Saint Lucas Leap" in the original 1876 Cornhill Magazine publication and the first book imprint (see the Internet Archive handofethelberta02hard). In later editions, for some reason, he revises it to the real name, "Old Harry Point".  

I think Hardy's original name gives a glimpse into his creative processes, because the novel concerns a widowed poet called Ethelberta Petherwin who is fending off several suitors.  She is a poet and writer that Hardy twice identifies with Sappho:
He lived by teaching music, and, in comparison with starving, thrived; though the wealthy might possibly have said that in comparison with thriving he starved.  During this night he hummed airs in bed, thought he would do for the ballad of the fair poetess what other musicians had done for the ballads of other fair poetesses, and dreamed that she smiled on him as her prototype Sappho smiled on Phaon.
‘Well, it is an old and worn argument—that about the inexpedience of tragedy—and much may be said on both sides.  It is not to be denied that the anonymous Sappho’s verses—for it seems that she is really a woman—are clever.’
This makes me strongly suspect that Hardy must have had Sappho's "Leukas leap" in mind when he upgraded "St Lucas Leap" to a full promontory.

1. It's not clear when the collapse of the Old Harry promontory happened. HB Woodward, in 1890, contains the anecdote that
"about one hundred and twenty years ago a man could creep along a narrow path from the mainland to Old Harry"- (page 78, in Swanage (Isle of  Purbeck) Its History, Resources as an Invigorating Health Resort, Botany, and Geology, John Braye, 1890).
But this is unreliable, as it appears to be recycling an 1837 anecdote that refers to an entirely different rock a little westward along the coast, The Pinnacle:
"In one place, nearly half way between Ballard Point and Old Harry, is a rock about 100 ft. high, with mould and grass on the top. It is at the bottom a square of, say, 11 yards; and there are 49 tiers of horizontal flint. I was informed that some very old men recollect that, about seventy years ago, they could creep along a narrow path out to this rock; but, about fifty years ago, it was disjoined, but scarcely any other change has taken place." - On the Strata near Swanwich, in the Isle of Purbeck, James Mitchell, page 591, Magazine of Natural History, Volume 1, 1837.

- Ray

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