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The Vinland Sagas: The Men Who Discovered America Before Columbus

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle heads off to medieval America and the world of the sagas

Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492, when he landed on mainland North America, thus sparking the colonisation of the continent by the Europeans.

This is the mainstream conception, and it’s entirely wrong. Columbus never landed on the mainland of the continent we now call North America. Even if he had, he wouldn’t have been the first European to do so. European settlement in North America had first occurred almost half a millennium before Columbus was even born. In around the year 1000, a group of Icelandic explorers made a series of journeys along the northern rim of the Atlantic, and attempted to found a colony somewhere along the Atlantic seaboard of the continent of North America, probably somewhere around what is now Newfoundland and the Gulf of St Lawrence. Read the rest of this entry

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The Forgotten ‘Pylon Poet’: Stanley Snaith’s Vision of Modernity

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle celebrates a neglected voice in modern poetry

The ‘Pylon Poets’ was the name given to a group of British poets writing in the 1930s, poets whose work deals with technological modernity. The poem which inspired the name of this ‘school’ of poets was Stephen Spender’s ‘The Pylons’, which is itself an enigmatic poem whose legacy is more famous than the poem itself.

But Spender’s wasn’t the only ‘pylon poem’ written in the 1930s about these new industrial features of the English landscape. The forgotten English poet Stanley Snaith also wrote a poem about them.

The name Stanley Snaith, it’s fair to say, isn’t exactly a famous one in the world of twentieth-century English verse. He doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page (not even a ‘stub’), and his name is absent from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB). But let’s sketch out a few of the (sketchy) details of his life. Born in 1903, Snaith worked as a librarian and was also a keen mountaineer (one of the first results that comes up following a quick Google search of his name is this 1937 Spectator review of his book detailing a number of excursions to Everest – the summit, of course, would not be reached for another sixteen years). Read the rest of this entry

Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle gives us a taste of the interesting trivia to be found in his new book…

I spent a lot of time looking into treacle earlier this year. Not literally. But, as it were, literarily. You see, there’s more to treacle than meets the eye. (If treacle ever does meet your eye, I recommend washing it out immediately.) Take Treacle Mines. They don’t exist. At least, not really. But in fiction, they do. It all began at St Frideswide’s Well in Binsey, Oxfordshire, a small village immortalised by Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem ‘Binsey Poplars’. One notable visitor to this well was Charles Dodgson, who worked nearby at Oxford University. One of his companions was probably a girl named Alice Liddell, of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. You see, Charles Dodgson was also Lewis Carroll. (Alice’s nurse, the wonderfully named Miss Prickett, came from Binsey.)

To locals, St Frideswide’s Well was known as Binsey treacle mine, from the original meaning of ‘treacle’ denoting any curative fluid or medicine. The word ‘mine’ was a sort of joke, conveying the idea that treacle could be ‘mined’ like gold or lead or coal. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), the Dormouse Read the rest of this entry