Archive for November, 2021

I so enjoyed researching this piece, that I thought I’d repost it.

It was the summer of 1618, and the poet and, yes, dramatist, Ben Jonson, was at the height of his fame and powers.
I emphasise dramatist, because shortly before this date Ben Jonson had published his Works, in which he included his dramatic works. This was not done – at that time dramatic scripts were not considered ‘works’ but throw-away pieces. He received a lot of criticism for this; he was by then inured to the extremes that criticism could reach, his part in the ‘War of the Theatres’ had been bloody, hard, and he had had to concede defeat. For Ben Jonson’s character, defeat was not easily admitted, or lived with, and yet he had swallowed it the best he could.

So, in 1618, July 8th, Ben Jonson set out on an epic journey; it was well-advertised to interested parties.

He was to walk from London to Edinburgh. 450 miles.

He took the Great North Road out of London, up country, meeting the coast near Alnwick, Northumberland, whereon he followed the coast road twisting and turning, up and down braes, to follow the road right around to Edinburgh, coming in from Leith, on September 6th.

– A friend of my son’s walked to London from Cambridge one day: it took a punishing 12 hours. Ben Jonson’s walk took him 60 days.
The friend was fit and young; Ben Jonson had acquired his legendary girth of 20 stone in weight. He was also 46 years old, rather older than middle-age, for those times.
At the beginning of his career Ben Jonson was nick-named ‘the anatomy,’ due to his lean-ness: tall and thin.
How time was to change him.

What was the purpose of this walk? It can be considered a huge publicity stunt: he was, as all were, constantly on the look out for patronage, and Royal patronage was the best paid. He was, in effect, purposely celebrating the journey made by King James I/VI of Scotland – in reverse. The name Jonson, was also, through his father’s side, a Scottish Border name, from Johnstone, of Annandale. By acknowledging the Scottish name, he was therefore cementing his link, and also his credentials, to further a further suit with King James.

He stayed in Edinburgh six months, and then undertook the return journey, following the same route.

His journey has been tracked, and meticulously noted: see the map:

It was thought for a long time he undertook the journey alone. Rather recently, though, papers have been unearthed in the Cheshire Archives, which give detailed notes on the journey, in another’s hand.
The paper was not signed, and describes the walk as a Foot Voyage.

For much of the way, then, he had a travelling companion, a member of the Aldersley (sic) Family perhaps, among whose effects the notes were found. Was this a relative of the 1st Baronet, John Thomas Stanley, 1597–1672? The family are connected to the Earl of Derby, and the Baron Sheffield.
The Stanleys came in for some criticism in Alan Garners’ 1976 novella, The Stone Book.

The Alderleys, called, confusingly, the Stanley Family, are connected with what is now the affluent dormitory town of Alderley, properly known as Alderley Edge, and a place well known the readers of young adult fiction, and general fiction writer, Alan Garner. His earliest, and latest book are set there: The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, and the latest, Boneland, (2012).


Ben Jonson noted that his shoes gave out by the time he had reached Darlington, near Newcastle. That was not bad going, actually. He had another pair made, and suffered them for the next few days, until he wore them in.

What we know of Jacobean male footwear is scanty, and restricted to court fashions, and further, to what was depicted in portraits from the period.
During the late Elizabethan era, however,  pamphletting was taking off. One such practitioner was Philip Stubbes, a puritan. He inveighed against  ‘unchristian’ workplace practices. We have to thank him for the details he provides of such practices of the time. One of which was, shoe making.

He tells us the leather was soaked in liquor for hardening, then well greased. The fraudulence was in the use of, for example, the more thinner, fragile, calf instead of cow hide and, controversially, horse skin instead of ox-hides. They were always, he insisted, cat-skin lined.
The sewing was done with hot needles and twine. He says the shoes were then heated by the fire to harden them. We can only presume this was a fraudulent practice.

What of the soles? He does not mention soles. Heeled boots for men became fashionable in the late Elizabethan  period; the heels were of wood. Would workmen’s – brick-layers, as with Ben Jonson’s early life – also use wooden soles? Wooden pattens were still in use in the period.


Ben Jonson’s stay in Edinburgh reached its summit in his long sojourn with William Drummond, of Hawthornden Castle. This lasted from December, 1618, until early Spring, 1619, and his return journey. What eased the familiarity of their company was that William Drummond owned, and continually added to, one of the best libraries in Britain, at that time. Both men were avid bibliophiles.
We also have William Drummonds’ notes on the sojourn: a commentary on Ben Jonson’s conversation, but without his own input.

One incident particularly spoiled Ben Jonson’s epic of his walk and sojourn in Scotland. That was the arrival, a few week’s after himself, of ‘self-styled… poet’ (Ben Jonson, His Life and Work, by Rosalind Miles, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986), John Taylor, the ‘sculler’, or water, poet. The name derives from his previous occupation as a Thames waterman. He was born in Gloucestershire, and became a boatman/ferryman in Kent – the Sheppey region.
I am always surprised at the mobility of people in those times: Shakespeare’s travels from Warwickshire to possibly Lancashire, but definitely to London, was seen as no big step.

King James applauded John Taylor’s writing, preferring him above Sir Philip Sidney (perhaps out of a sense of mischief?). Ben Jonson was indeed put out by his arrival, having walked all the way, the same route, as he himself had. He became convinced his London rivals had put John Taylor up to this, to mock his own feat. It was vigorously denied, and to a believable extent. Although John Taylor did indulge later in spectacular stunts, such as manning and sailing a real paper boat into London.
also see

Ah, but John Taylor had not the high connections of Ben Jonson, in Edinburgh; nor was he made Freeman of the City, as Jonson was.

On his return to London he found several things had changed. For one, the Queen had died. This was soon followed by the death of principle Elizabethan actor Richard Burbage. A national loss, and a more localised one; but the public stage had lost two important players.
The Queen’s death put his own suit with King James on a back burner.

If any reader is looking for an introduction, way in, to Ben Jonson’s poetic works, I would heartily recommend the Thom Gunn selection, on Penguin:


(To John Gawsworth)

The rose of all the world is not for me.
I want for my part
Only the little white rose of Scotland
That smells sharp and sweet—and breaks the heart.

Cellar Door

Posted: November 16, 2021 in John Stammers Page


I was watching the film, Donnie Darko, again the other night – lost count of viewings now – those young Gyllenhaal siblings, aw.
And what a soundtrack!

There’s that moment where the young teacher, as she packs her belongings having just been fired, tells Donnie D how the phrase Cellar Door was considered the most euphonious, ‘perfect’ English sound.

‘Cellar Door’ also propels the main characters to their crisis point, before the great ending.

And who was that teacher? Played by Drew Barrymore. She was really vey funny in Santa Clarita Diet.
And who was Donnie Darko’s psychologist Dr Lilian Thurman? Katherine Ross. Among her many credits is one of the important characters in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; in Stepford Wives, that really chilling film. And of course, The Colbys.

Donnie Darko was released in 2001.

On ‘Cellar Door’, Wiki gives us:

The English compound noun cellar door has been widely cited as an example of a word or phrase that is beautiful purely in terms of its sound (i.e., euphony) without inherent regard for its meaning.[12] The phenomenon of cellar door being regarded as euphonious appears to have begun in the very early twentieth century, first attested in the 1903 novel Gee-Boy by the Shakespeare scholar Cyrus Lauron Hooper. It has been promoted as beautiful-sounding by various writers; linguist Geoffrey Nunberg specifically names the writers H. L. Mencken in 1920; David Allan Robertson in 1921; Dorothy ParkerHendrik Willem van Loon, and Albert Payson Terhune in the 1930s; George Jean Nathan in 1935; J. R. R. Tolkien as early as a 1955 speech titled “English and Welsh“; and C. S. Lewis in 1963.[12][13] Furthermore, the phenomenon itself is touched upon in many sources and media, including a 1905 issue of Harper’s Magazine by William Dean Howells,[a] the 1967 novel Why Are We in Vietnam? by Norman Mailer, a 1991 essay by Jacques Barzun,[15] the 2001 psychological drama film Donnie Darko,[16][17] and a scene in the 2019 movie Tolkien.


Back in 1986 there was an English TV series, The Singing Detective, written by Dennis Potter. A nightclub singer who also solved crimes, basically, played by a much younger Michael Gambon, yep, Dumbledore.

Taken to hospital he underwent fevers and recovered, ably assisted by a nurse, played by Joanne Whalley, shortly before she married Val Kilmer.

Part of the detective/singer’s recovery was the revelation that the most perfect English sound is carried by the word 


Incidentally this ‘elbow’ gave name to the English band:
They changed their name a second time to ‘Elbow’ in 1997, inspired by a line in the BBC TV drama The Singing Detective in which the character Philip Marlow describes the word “elbow” as the loveliest word in the English language.[12]

So, is it Cellar Door, or Elbow?
This would suggest it is all a matter of subjective judgement.

They do both carry the same sound sequence, however: the short e: ce… and el…, followed by the lingual ‘l’, then there is the discrepancy between plosive ‘b’ and dental ‘d’, to be followed by a rounded o : door, and bow.
Does this b-d discrepancy tell us how vocalics have changed over time between England and USA? How has usage changed the palate?


And ‘Aye but’, I thought, watching the film, ‘Cellar Door is so obviously a French sound’. 
Think of cela d’or : ‘that gold/golden’.

You can’t really go wrong with this French one
Both sound and meaning.

That muted sibilant ‘c’ of ‘cellar’ that is absent in the more direct English English ‘elbow’… is not that, perhaps, more… French?
In the meld of American English, is there an aesthetic echo remaining, of French?

It could, of course, be that the English English ‘elbow’ is the corrupt version. It retains more clearly the mouth movements of front front to inner – bite-off to mouthful, as the gestural origin of language would have it, but misses so much else.
The American English ‘cellar door’, with its echoes of French, of romance sounds, is certainly the version to prefer. N’est ce pas?

And… in America… is it cellar, or basement… door?

In the Egyptian section of my small local museum I came across two odd little objects.  
These are artefacts from the Marianne Brocklehurst Ancient Egyptian collection.

There are unglazed ceramics, quite crudely made at first glance. But when you look closely they are full of detail – there is an outside stair to the roof, on one; another has domestic details.

Both has a dark chamber behind pillars. This is what caught my imagination: imagine if… souls exist, if a soul still dwelt there!

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I looked up some background details on this objects.

From Egyptian prehistoric times to the Vth Dynasty (Old Kingdom 2750-2625 or 2494-2345BCE) for the wealthy merchants and inhabitants, there was a mat laid on the grave, and on the mat a sort of flat pan for food offerings.

Running concurrently with this was the use of a carved stone table for offerings (III Dynasty, 2980-2900 or 2686-2613).

The stone table was copied in the form of a pottery tray (X Dynasty, First Intermediate Period, 2445-2160 or 2181-2160)

A shelter was added, copied, it has been suggested, from the form of  a Bedawy tent.

A shelter on columns was added (?)

The shelter gained columnar foreground.

A ‘hut’ was put into the portico.

Chambers were added.

Wind openings were added

It gained roof courts.

Verandahs were added to the roof.

It became a complete two-storey house/building.

Furnishing and furniture were added: couch, chair, stool, fireplace, water jars. It even gained the figure of a woman making bread.

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There were two Death books in ancient Egypt: what we know as The Book of the Dead, which is a collection of coffin texts, spells and incantations. The other is an earlier piece known as the Book of the Two Ways. These two ways were two means by which the soul (ba) or spirit (ka) negotiated the after-death existence. In one the ba could take residence with the sun during the day, but must return to the tomb at night. The other was far more dangerous, here the ka travelled through the night land with the sun on its journey back to day. It had to negotiate dangers and challenges, monsters and evil spirits. The end of this was a paradise, a ‘field of offering’ from where the spirit could possibly be accepted to spend eternity with the great spirits.

In each case the families of the deceased had to leave offerings of food, as well as grave goods. The food offerings had to be regularly renewed. The ka and ba partook of the essence of the food to sustain it on its journey, and through its travails.

This also demonstrated that the family of the deceased were of sufficient quality, had respect for tradition, and the deceased, and sufficiently wealthy to keep up the food offerings through the lean parts of the year, and periods of scarcity.

Soul houses were then the constructs of wealthy merchants; they became the desirable resting place of what could be called more upwardly mobile people.

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I cannot check, as yet, what period(s) the ones on display are from, or from what vicinity.

I do wonder, though, whether they should be returned to Egypt. Copies can be made, though perhaps not that easily.
As for the inhabitants… do the souls of the dead, long dead, recognise territories? Would they not recognise, instead, the family, its devotions? Families can travel anywhere/everywhere; devotion to a memory/ancestor travels with them.

And after all this time, is not that soul’s traverse of the underworld now completed, no longing needing the sustenance of offerings?

The Mabinogion’ as we now have it comprises of three parts. There are the Four Branches: Pwyll Prince of Dyfed; Branwen, Daughter of Llyr; Manawydan Son of Llyr; and Math Son of Mathonwy.

Then there are the Four Independent tales: The Dream of Macsen Wledig; Lludd and Llefelyn; Culhwych and Olwen; and The Dream of Rhonabwy. Lastly there are Three Romances: The Lady of the Fountain; Peredur Son of Efrawg; and Gereint Son of Erbin.

The stories that make up ‘The Mabinogion’ are to be found recorded in two books/manuscripts: ‘The White Book of Rhydderch’, and the ‘Red Book of Hergest’. ‘The White Book (…)’ was written sometime between 1300 and 1325AD, whilst ‘The Red Book (…)’, between 1375 and 1425.

 Portions of the tales also have been found in manuscripts. It is estimated that the tales of the four branches were complete from 1050 onwards.

The title ‘Mabininogion’, however was a nineteenth-century coinage of Lady Charlotte Guest. Her version of 1838-45, also contained The Tale of Taliesin.
She was a phenomenal woman. Certainly worth looking up.

The current, possibly best, translation, is by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones.

Pwyll Prince of Dyfed.

Part 1 

Pwyll rode out hunting. He came across another’s pack of hounds which had brought down a stag. He drove them off and ‘baited’ his own hounds on it. The other hunter rode up; it was Arawn, King of Anwm (the underworld), and was incensed: Pwyll had broken protocol and dishonoured them both. The only way he could repay was to change places for one year (and a day). They each took on the form of the other and took each other’s place. After the year, on the last day, Pwyll was to meet Arawn’s rival King Hafgan at a tryst. Pwyll was to strike one blow, no more.

Pwyll spent the year in pleasantry, hunting and fine talk; each night with the queen, though, was spent chastely. At the time of the tryst, Pwyll ordered the retinue that under no circumstances were any to aid him against Hafgan. The blow was dealt, and King Hafgan pleading innocence of any wrong, died. Pwyll took over Hafgan’s province alongside the one he was already looking after.

The two re-exchanged forms and places, the debt of honour was paid.

Part 2

Prince Pwyll was still unmarried. Amongst his retinue was tale of a mysterious mound nearby, where anyone who spent the night was either set upon or found some marvel. They set out to test it. On the first night a woman came past on a horse, finely arrayed. Pwyll sent a follower to see who she was. Try as he might though, and although her horse ambled he could not catch up with her. The next night the same. On the last night he himself resolved to do the job. He could not catch up her with either, so hailed her, at which she stopped for him. She was Rhiannon, daughter of Hefydd the Old. She was to be betrothed against her will; her heart was set only on Pwyll. Pwyll was agreeable. They set off for her father’s house to discuss the matter. A feast was ordered. A young man came, greeted Pwyll; Pwyll greeted him as honour demanded. The man asked a favour of Pwyll; he agreed to grant it. But it was Rhiannon’s hated betrother. Pwyll, on his honour had granted a favour without asking who he might me. He had to delay his marriage to Rhiannon for a year, whilst she spent it with the man, such was his request; but chastely. After that year they must meet at a tryst.

At the tryst the man was tricked and captured, and only let go once he agreed to releasing Rhiannon. He did so, and the marriage was allowed between Pwyll and Rhiannon.

Part 3

After three happy years Pwyll’s retinue became uneasy; they needed an heir, and there did not seem to be any appearance. Put her by and find another wife, they said. He asked for another year. During that time a boy was born. The six midwives watching mother and baby fell asleep. Upon waking they could find no child. To save themselves they made it look as if Rhiannon had eaten the child in the night. She was distraught, sought counsel. As no body was to be found they advised her to take penance, over punishment. It was to last seven years: at the town gate she had to tell who would listen her tale, and offer to carry them in on her back.

In another part of the country lived Teyrnon Twryf Liant, Lord of Gwent Is-Coed. He noticed that whenever his prize mare foaled the foal disappeared. He resolved to discover what happened to them. His mare was ready to foal, so he spent the night with her. As she foaled a claw came through the window and grabbed it. He cut off the arm with his sword and he heard a great howling; he looked saw no one only a baby in fine covers that had been dropped. They looked after the child; he grew prodigiously. It was only when the child was at age of four they heard the tale of Rhiannon and her child. Seeing the resemblance, they took the child to court and returned him to his mother. They would take nothing in return: they had done the honourable thing.

There are here three episodes of loss: Pwyll of his Princedom, of his marriage, and of their child.
The first and third Parts depict the loss by magical/otherworldy means: Pwyll must enter the otherworld for a year; the child is abducted by otherworldly means. Both are returned at the end of a set time: four years for the child reflects the three years of marriage before the child’s birth and possibly the year previous spent apart. Alternatively the fourth year reflects the last year allowed by the retinue for the birth before more steps would be taken to procure an heir. 

There are two trysts which decide the fate of Pwyll’s fortunes. Can we expect a third such bond or agreement in the last Part to complete a pattern? There is no tryst, nor need of one. What there is though, and this proves the intent of the whole, is Lord Teyrnon and wife returning the child they had given a name to and raised for four years – as the honorable thing to do. 

Honour is the key to the whole tale: it is lack of honourable conduct allows Pwyll to bait his hounds on another’s kill. Restitution proves Pwyll’s readiness to rule: he acts out Arawn’s kingly role in the otherworld, including adapting chastity, and also wrests another realm from King Hagfan.
Honour without wisdom brings about the calamity of the marriage betrothal in Part two: Pwyll acted honourably to his guest, but not wisely in granting a stranger a favour.

The tale opened with Prince Pwyll; his first act was to go out hunting.
Part three echoes the seeking a wife of Part two. This raises the question of whether the stag hunt is to be read as, in chivalric texts, the seeking/hunting of love. Otherworldly agency occurs also in the central Part: Rhiannon’s horse cannot be caught up with, no matter how strong the pursuing horse.

In Part one Pwyll spent a year chastely with the wife of Arawn – in two, Rhiannon spent a chaste year also.
The symbolism of the deer hunt that opens Part one is repeated in the supernatural capture of Pwyll by Rhiannon and her magic horse in two. In both parts one main character must spend a year in shadow, as it were.
There is a similar repeat of images in Parts two and three.
What is the central theme of Part 3? Is it… Justice, perhaps? Or Self-Sacrifice?

What of the midwives? The midwives are shown as scheming, and willing to implicate Rhiannon, queen, in the cannibalistic murder of her new born. There is clearly some cultural theme being alluded to here. Midwives were connected with witchcraft; the implication, I think, is in the part played by luck, good fortune, in a good birth – these are chance elements, and birth an event of chance, mysterious and beyond control. By implication midwives must have transactions with the realm of chance, and mystery, both of which are otherworld elements. Murder, cannibalism, mystery; and luck/fortune/chance. Arawn’s realm by contrast differs not a jot from the known world. It is woman: Rhiannon with the mystery of speed, who embody the real otherworld; until, that is, Rhiannon took up residence in the ordinary world. There she lost her special abilities, and became subject to chance like any mortal. This also accounts for why midwives were considered to be witches/ witchlike in the terrible witch times. The midwives in the tale are portrayed almost with the qualities of bacchantes; we clearly have a call-back to orgiastic rites, later connected with the debasement of the Satanic mass; either that, or a contemporary figurative re-conception of true evil. 

The mysterious claw which seizes the baby/foal, and loss of the arm, immediately calls to mind Grendels’ arm in the hall of Heorot in ‘Beowulf’. The theme of honour, and honour combined with wisdom, as the true epithets of a ruler, are also pertinent to ‘Beowulf’. We can only speculate that the composer or transcriber of this tale was equally au fait with aspects of the ‘Beowulf’ tale.  

Wisdom would seem from this tale to be a virtue of the capacity of sight: the young man was not recognised in Part two, and so calamity befell Pwyll and Rhiannon’s betrothal.
Because Teyrnon recognised the child’s resemblance to Pwyll in three, he could be restored to his place and parents.
Greek Athena, goddess of, yes, hunting, as well as wisdom was known for her keenness of sight, an ability of super-natural penetration. 

On a more contemporaneously culturally-accessible level there are many Biblical references to sight and wisdom, mostly connected with the omnipotence of God and his all-seeing. Especially-keen sight, second-sight, and all-sight are epithets of the divine/supernatural/otherworldly; that none could recognise Pwyll or Arawn in their opposite forms in Part one is important in this respect.

Wisdom comes with honour, but also, and especially, with experience of both the natural and super-natural; it is also shown here that wisdom is an epithet of royal lineage, and that it is a part of good rule, respect and stable government.
Not necessarily age, note.