Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Nathaniel Hawthorne on Gothic Cathedrals

Since our visit to Lichfield, I've rediscovered Nathaniel Hawthorne's essay on his own visit to Lichfield while he was American consul in Leamington Spa (during the ignoble administration of his college friend, Franklin Pierce). Having seen Lichfield Cathedral, Hawthorne writes:

A Gothic cathedral is surely the most wonderful work which mortal man has yet achieved, so vast, so intricate, and so profoundly simple, with such strange, delightful recesses in its grand figure, so difficult to comprehend within one idea, and yet all so consonant that it ultimately draws the beholder and his universe into its harmony. It is the only thing in the world that is vast enough and rich enough.

Hawthorne also writes about his stay in Lincoln, where he saw all of the things we saw: the cathedral, the Jew's House, the castle, Newport Gate. He said that the cathedral "had taken possession of [him], and would not let [him] be at rest." He had to keep going back to look at it. I know the feeling, having recently taken fifteen photographs of the west front alone. Hawthorne writes:

York Cathedral is comparatively square and angular in its general effect; but in this at Lincoln there is a continual mystery of variety, so that at every glance you are aware of a change, and a disclosure of something new, yet working an harmonious development of what you have heretofore seen. The west front is unspeakably grand, and may be read over and over again forever, and still show undetected meanings, like a great, broad page of marvellous writing in black-letter,—so many sculptured ornaments there are, blossoming out before your eyes, and gray statues that have grown there since you looked last, and empty niches, and a hundred airy canopies beneath which carved images used to be, and where they will show themselves again, if you gaze long enough.

Hawthorne's essays on his travels in England are collected in Our Old Home, originally published in 1863.

No comments: