Friday, 24 September 2010

Literary limekilns

A Lime Kiln at Coalbrookdale, c.1797, Joseph Mallord William Turner: see

Wayland Wordsmith just featured a post on limekilns by the Exe Estuary - see Limekilns - that proved quite thought-provoking.  Around this district there are quite a few examples of these arched cliffside structures whose purpose - local production of lime (for agricultural and building) - is so completely obsolete that it's hard to imagine their environmental impact. Their three-day coal-fired burns, calcining limestone or shells to quicklime (see the South Devon AONB leaflet) emitted copious smoke and carbon dioxide; as Wayland Wordsmith says, they were a regular cause of death.

Dr. O'Connor, of Carlow, has recently directed attention to another prolific source of destruction to health and life which especially exists in rural districts and in the neighbourhood of small towns. The kilns for burning lime, dotted everywhere over the face of the country, directly cause the death, in every ten years, of between two hundred and three hundred persons. Their warmth attracts to them wayfarers, who, falling asleep, so die, from the poisonous fumes of carbonic acid emitted, of which an admixture of only one-sixth renders the atmosphere unfit to support life. All this would be at once remedied by a law requiring lime-kilns to be surrounded by a fence. The attention of Parliament was directed to the subject fourteen years ago, and it has been repeatedly urged on their notice during the interval. Surely the evil has attained a sufficient maturity to entitle it to notice, even though the sufferers by it be only the homeless and friendless poor.
- page 551, The Lancet, Volume 2, Medical Annotations, November 15, 1856

As such - ubiquitous, intrusive, and scary features, a kind of pocket hell-mouth - they seem to have acquired enough metaphoric symbolism to appear in literature, going back at least to Shakespeare. A search of Project Gutenberg - here - finds hundreds of occurrences, either as passing locations or as now-defunct similes/metaphors for dryness. However, it's interesting to take a brief look at more specific occurrences:

FALSTAFF: Thou mightst as well say I love to walk by the Counter-gate, which is as hateful to me as the reek of a lime-kiln.
- The Merry Wives of Windsor

THERSITES. Why, his masculine whore. Now, the rotten diseases of the south, the guts-griping ruptures, catarrhs, loads o' gravel in the back, lethargies, cold palsies, raw eyes, dirt-rotten livers, wheezing lungs, bladders full of imposthume, sciaticas, limekilns i' th' palm, incurable bone-ache, and the rivelled fee-simple of the tetter, take and take again such preposterous discoveries!
- Troilus and Cressida

Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story Ethan Brand—A Chapter from an Abortive Romance, was inspired by the sight of a limekiln on a walk - see his Passages from the American Note-Books.  A fine little Gothic tale, it makes full use of the limekiln as a setting and as instrument of destiny for its eponymous protagonist, who is guilt-ridden from his "Unpardonable Sin" of a having made a young woman, a circus performer, "the subject of a psychological experiment, and wasted, absorbed, and perhaps annihilated her soul, in the process". Ethan Brand's fate is that of many villains, such as Malitius in the story of Fulgentius and the Wicked Steward, who end up being burnt in the kiln.

A little after the Hawthorne story, there's Great Expectations, in which the unpleasantness of the limekiln figures in Pip's confrontation with Orlick, and in the later metaphor for the confusion of Pip's fever.

It was another half-hour before I drew near to the kiln. The lime was burning with a sluggish stifling smell, but the fires were made up and left, and no workmen were visible. Hard by was a small stone-quarry. It lay directly in my way, and had been worked that day, as I saw by the tools and barrows that were lying about.

Coming up again to the marsh level out of this excavation,—for the rude path lay through it,—I saw a light in the old sluice-house. I quickened my pace, and knocked at the door with my hand. Waiting for some reply, I looked about me, noticing how the sluice was abandoned and broken, and how the house—of wood with a tiled roof—would not be proof against the weather much longer, if it were so even now, and how the mud and ooze were coated with lime, and how the choking vapor of the kiln crept in a ghostly way towards me.
"... I left her for dead, and if there had been a limekiln as nigh her as there is now nigh you, she shouldn't have come to life again..."
But the vapor of a limekiln would come between me and them, disordering them all, and it was through the vapor at last that I saw two men looking at me.

On a different note, a burning limekiln gets centre-stage as a kind of sexual metaphor in an episode in Bayard Taylor's 1864 John Godfrey's fortunes: related by himself. A story of American life. Here, in "the episode of the lime-kiln", the schoolteacher protagonist thinks he's being invited to a cosy gathering by the kiln, where he hopes to meet the woman he is attracted to; instead he finds he has been conned into courting Verbena, sister of the gruff lime-burner Tom Cuff, so has to make a getaway from the top of the kiln, chased by Cuff's dog.  And later, as described on pages 109- in Robin Hackett's Sapphic primitivism: productions of race, class, and sexuality in key works of modern fiction, an encounter with the kilnman and "the red winking eye of the lime-kiln" serve as pagan and sexual motifs in Sylvia Townsend Warner's 1963 Summer Will Show.

In rather less heated form, limekilns figure in poetry too, as in Francis Skurray's topographical poem Bidcombe Hill (much ridiculed in Blackwood's Magazine, September 1828) ...

In looking round to catch the varied scene
Which seem to crave admittance to my song,
A rival hill appears, rais'd as it were
By magic hands, amid the level plain;
Against its shelvy side the lime-kiln leans,
And stains with pitchy smoke the azure sky.
- Bidcombe Hill

... as well as John Bradshaw Kaye's Songs of Lake Geneva: and other poems (written in 1881, his The Old Lime Kiln on the Lake Shore isn't at all bad as an elegy on the past); and Jervis McEntee's rather sanitised The Lime Kiln, from Sarah Carter Edgarton Mayo's 1855 The Rose of Sharon: a religious souvenir.

Night by night,
The fire from the lime-kiln, burning bright,
Illumines the solemn gloom ;
Leaping and waving, its wonderful light
Seems like a fire of doom.

Through the night,
When the resting pond lies breezeless and still,
It gleams on its silver tide,
And it lights the end of the gloom-buried mill
And the willow standing beside.

In the night,
When the moon is low, and the stars are gone,
And the road is lonely and drear,
The driver, winding his midnight hour,
Blesses its kindly cheer.

All the night,
The murmur of voices is heard to chime
With the roar of the leaping flame,
And the tardy traveller, time after time,
Has wondered whence it came.

The livelong night,
Who nourish the fires and tend the blaze,
And watch the wonderful light ?
Are they spirits that hide through the long bright days,
And meet at the lime-kiln at night?
- Ray


  1. Had to go read up on lime. Interesting.

    "the rotten diseases of the south, the guts-griping ruptures, catarrhs, loads o' gravel in the back, lethargies, cold palsies, raw eyes, dirt-rotten livers, wheezing lungs, bladders full of imposthume, sciaticas, limekilns i' th' palm, incurable bone-ache, and the rivelled fee-simple of the tetter"

    Little did I know that I see imposthume and tetter of a day (abscesses and impetigo). I also like dirt-rotten liver. Shakespeare had a way with words.

  2. "The quarry was white with chalk, which was burned in large kilns for the lime to dress the fields. As they reached it they saw that one was burning; a lambent flame rose now and again, licked the darkness, and disappeared. near the circular rim a glow beat upwards, a reflection from the white-hot lime. They lay on the stones, and soon a lovely feeling of warmth and security stole over Willie. Jim had slept there before. The hovering blue and red and gold flames rose like spirits in the night, and the boy watched them with dreamy contentment."...
    (The Beautiful Years, Henry Williamson, Chapter 30.)