The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Twickenham’

Beneath the Yew Tree’s Shade

October 31, 2015 | by

In the first of three excerpts from The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, Thomas Laqueur explores the necrobotany of the yew tree, “the tree of the dead”—found in churchyards across the United Kingdom, France, and Spain.

William Turner, Pope's Villa at Twickenham, 1808.

A churchyard was adjacent to a church; both held the bones of the dead. The three—the building, the ground, the dead—were conjoined by a common history that made them part of what by the eighteenth century was a given; if ever there were an organic landscape, it was the churchyard.

The long-lived European yew tree—Taxus baccata, the tree of the dead, the tree of poisonous seeds—bears witness to the antiquity of the churchyard and shades its “rugged elms,” and the mounds and furrows of its graves: The yew of legend is old and lays claim to immemorial presence. We are speaking here of two or three dozen exemplary giants, some with a circumference of ten meters, that have stood for between 1,300 and 3,000 years but also of many more modest and historically documented trees that have lived, and been memorialized, for centuries. At least 250 yews today are as old or older than the churchyards in which they stand. Some were there when the first Saxon and indeed the first British Christian wattle churches were built; a seventh-century charter from Peronne in Picardy speaks of preserving the yew on the site of a new church. Read More »


May 21, 2014 | by


A sketch of Pope’s grotto.

Today marks the day of Alexander Pope’s birth, in 1688. We remember Pope as a poet, essayist, satirist, translator, and one of the most quotable men in English. He’s responsible for, among many other aphoristic gems: “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” “What Reason weaves, by Passion is undone.” “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” And, yes, the phrase “Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind.”

In his time, he was also known for his amazing home, a Palladian villa at Twickenham surrounded by elaborate gardens and grottoes. Pope’s wealthy family was ostracized for its Catholicism, and his numerous health problems—he suffered from Pott’s disease, which stunted his growth to only four foot six—somewhat limited his social life. His home seems to have been a refuge, as well as a definitive indicator of his success.

The house, a Classical mansion surrounded by vast grounds, was grand enough, but it was the Homeric grotto that really got Pope’s heart racing. As he wrote at the time of its construction,

I have put the last hand to my works … happily finishing the subterraneous Way and Grotto: I then found a spring of the clearest water, which falls in a perpetual Rill, that echoes thru’ the Cavern day and night …When you shut the Doors of this Grotto, it becomes on the instant, from a luminous Room, a Camera Obscura, on the walls of which all the objects of the River, Hills, Woods, and Boats, are forming a moving Picture … And when you have a mind to light it up, it affords you a very different Scene: it is finished with Shells interspersed with Pieces of Looking-glass in angular Forms…at which when a Lamp…is hung in the Middle, a thousand pointed Rays glitter and are reflected over the place.

Later, he added, “Were it to have nymphs as well—it would be complete in everything.” Read More »