When I was feeling fragile on a Sunday afternoon as a student, I used to stumble across St. Giles and lose myself in the place. Actually, you could very easily get lost, as the layout of the original building was quite strange, like one of those hotels knocked together out of several adjoining buildings, linked with dim passages and irrational staircases. But I had my touchstones to navigate by: the Anglo-Saxon Alfred Jewel, the enormous Uccello painting "The Hunt", the Cycladic figurines, like maquettes for a children's stop-motion animated series, and above all the little row of Samuel Palmer's visionary landscapes done in sepia and gum.
I even got to see behind the scenes. It had become obvious to my tutors that I was slightly adrift with regard to employability, but when it emerged that I had an interest in museums an appointment was arranged with the director of the Ashmolean, who happened to be a fellow of the college. When he discovered I was a Pre-Raphaelite fan, we had a lovely afternoon in the basement stores, pulling out the sliding racks to admire -- and, indeed, laugh at -- the lesser Pre-Raphaelite paintings not on display upstairs. It was like an upscale version of the wire-cage lockups for residents' junk at home in our block of flats.
It seemed like a good job to me. But in the end I decided to stay on and do some research -- on the poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet, as it happens. It was all sorted -- I had a full three-year grant and everything -- but then I had a crisis of faith in the whole literary-critical enterprise, and went off to study literary theory at the University of East Anglia instead. People thought I had flipped. The jury is still out on that one.
Anyway, there I was, going up the steps to the Ashmolean on Sunday, having first dropped by to see my son. I remembered taking him up those very same steps, aged six months, one drizzly day in 1991 when the Prof was giving a seminar at Ruskin College. The first sign of the renovations was a rather inadequate revolving door, allowing only one person at a time to shuffle through. I stood impatiently while a pair of Japanese idiots attempted to pass through together, causing the emergency stop to halt the door every other step. Once inside, I was asked to carry my backpack, not wear it: "We've had some breakages." Uh oh.
But it was fine. Having once been reminiscent of the world's best bric-a-brac shop, it is now like the world's best gift shop. Wonderful things, wonderful things, all in subdued and subtly lit vitrines or on gallery-style plinths. I took some photographs, but mainly took pleasure in just looking and wondering. A couple of hours later, it was time to go.
As I pushed back out through the revolving door, I had one of those epiphanic moments (I did tell you the jury is still out) as it all came together in a rush of recognition: I remembered the poem by Rossetti, "The Burden of Nineveh", describing a visit to the British Museum that had sparked my interest all those years ago:
In our Museum galleriesReading it now I realise that, if only he'd left it there, it could stand alongside Shelley's "Ozymandias" as a good poem in the ironic archaeological sublime mode. But it plods on for another tumpty-tum nineteen stanzas, to no great purpose. Ah, well. Those could have been a rather wasted three years, after all. Amusingly, I discovered this early draft on the Rossetti Archive (what a magnificent resource):
To-day I lingered o'er the prize
Dead Greece vouchsafes to living eyes, —
Her Art for ever in fresh wise
From hour to hour rejoicing me.
Sighing I turned at last to win
Once more the London dirt and din;
And as I made the swing-door spin
And issued, they were hoisting in
A wingèd beast from Nineveh
I have no taste for polyglot:
At the Museum 'twas my lot,
Just once, to jot and blot and rot
In Babel for I know not what.
I went at two, I left at three.
Round those still floors I tramp'd, to win
By the great porch the dirt and din;
And as I made the last door spin
And issued, they were hoisting in
A wingèd beast from Nineveh.
A useful lesson, that even second rate poems can be third rate to start with. But I do love the way the poem has mutated from a grumpy, wasted hour in Bloomsbury to a redemptive encounter in a busy city centre with the sublime. But that's what museums are for, isn't it?
* including an IKEA table -- do those product names sound less ludicrous in Sweden, I wonder?