The Caves of Elephanta

Letitia Elizabeth Landon 1802 (Chelsea) – 1838 (Cape Coast)

"These celebrated Caves are situated in the beautiful island of their own name. It is composed of two hills, with a narrow valley between them. Ascending the narrow path where the two hills are knit together, there lies below the superb prospect of the sea and the adjacent shores. Gradually an open space is gained, and we come suddenly on the grand entrance of a magnificent temple, whose huge massy columns seem to give support to the whole mountain which is above. The entrance into the temple, which is entirely hewn out of a stone resembling porphyry, is by two massy pillars forming three openings, under a steep rock overhung by reeds and wild shrubs."

What know we of them? Nothing—there they stand,
Gloomy as night, inscrutable as fate.
Altars no more divine, and shrines which know
Nor priests, nor votaries, nor sacrifice;
The stranger's wonder all their worship now.
And yet coeval as the native rock
Seem they with mother earth—immutable.
  Time—tempest—warfare—ordinary decay,
Is not for these. The memory of man
Has lost their rise—although they are his work.
  Two senses here are present; one of Power,
And one of Nothingness; doth it not mock
The mighty mind to see the meaner part,
The task it taught its hands, outlast itself?
The temple was a type, a thing of stone,
Built by laborious days which made up years;
The creed which hallowed it was of the soul;
And yet the creed hath past—the temple stands.
  The high beliefs which raised themselves to heaven;
The general truths on which religions grow;
The strong necessity of self-restraint;
The needful comfort of some future hope
Than that whose promise only binds to-day,
And future fear, parent of many faiths:
Those vast desires, unquenchable, which sweep
Beyond the limits of our little world,
And know there is another by themselves;
These constitute the spiritual of man.
'Tis they who elevate and who redeem,
By some great purpose, some on-looking end,
The mere brute exercise of common strength.
Yet these have left no trace. The mighty shrine,
Undeified, speaks force, and only force,
Man's meanest attribute.

It is impossible to help regretting the desecration of these Titanic temples. Better the imposing presence of any religion than of none. The utter desertion of these cavern shrines is even more extraordinary than their original erection. Architecture was the first wonder of the world. Alike gigantic—the pyramid, the temple, and the tomb are the written language of earth's earliest records. No details of builder or of building have come down to our distant day. Yet the principle in man's nature which led to their erection remains the same. We comprehend the motive of these mighty monuments. But in the Caves of Elephanta not a trace remains, to account for one of the most singular revolutions that ever took place in public opinion; taking place, too, in a country where every thing is so immoveable. Strange, for the religion to remain the same, when its altars are deserted! There are some mysteries, like the statue of Isis, from whose face science never lifts the veil.
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Submitted by Madeleine Quinn on February 14, 2020


Letitia Elizabeth Landon

Letitia Elizabeth Landon was an English poet. Born 14th August 1802 at 25 Hans Place, Chelsea, she lived through the most productive period of her life nearby, at No.22. A precocious child with a natural gift for poetry, she was driven by the financial needs of her family to become a professional writer and thus a target for malicious gossip (although her three children by William Jerdan were successfully hidden from the public). In 1838, she married George Maclean, governor of Cape Coast Castle on the Gold Coast, whence she travelled, only to die a few months later (15th October) of a fatal heart condition. Behind her post-Romantic style of sentimentality lie preoccupations with art, decay and loss that give her poetry its characteristic intensity and in this vein she attempted to reinterpret some of the great male texts from a woman’s perspective. Her originality rapidly led to her being one of the most read authors of her day and her influence, commencing with Tennyson in England and Poe in America, was long-lasting. However, Victorian attitudes led to her poetry being misrepresented and she became excluded from the canon of English literature, where she belongs. more…

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