Tag Archives: George Washington

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Welsh Poets, Russian Icons, and Other Points of Confusion

Russian icon.LenaNot because they are boring but because they are sensible, poets usually contrast things that are quite contrastable. In Prif Cyfarch the first ballad of Taliesin, the oldest of Welsh bards (6th c.)—assuming it is his, and assuming it does date from the sixth century, and assuming his name was Taliesin, and so forth (all topics I leave aside here)—posits contrasts from start to bottom. At the very beginning the poet asks, “Which was first, is it darkness, is it light?” Later, in about the middle of that ballad, he vaunts his capacity as a bard to defy time: “I am old. I am young. I am Gwion [a name], / I am universal, I am possessed of penetrating wit. / Thou wilt remember thy old Brython [Britain] (And) the Gwyddyl [i.e. the Irish], kiln distillers, / Intoxicating the drunkards. / I am a bard; I will not disclose secrets to slaves; / I am a guide: I am expert in contests.”[1]

Taliesin is, too, an expert in contrasts. His ambivalence about humankind’s origins in light or darkness, his conflicting statement about the bard’s sempiternal status of being old and young at once, his assumption that (as opposed to the mead-drinking Welsh) the Irish are drunkards because they are the suppliers of the distillations of kilns, and that he is the keeper of secrets (implying there are those who don’t know the secrets, e.g., slaves) and that as such he is a knowledgeable guide (to those who don’t know)—these are just a few of the contrasts that Taliesin sets out in his first poem, a poet that defines itself, as we all do to some extent, by contrast with those around us.

This poem and a lovely gift I received got me thinking this week about contrasts and cases of things easily mistaken. Before I get to the latter two ideas, let me begin first with the gift, a small plaque of Smolensk’s Cathedral of the Assumption. This gift was gently and generously presented to me by the mother of a friend of mine. That friend, Lena, and her mother both hail from Russia, from Smolensk itself, a modestly sized city of 327,000 most famous, perhaps for the Battle of Smolensk in 1812 when it was besieged by Napoleon where he was opposed by the Russian general Barclay de Tolly. Its most famous monument is the now-lost portrait of “Our Lady of Smolensk” attributed to St. Luke himself. Napoleon assumed that the Russians would defend the church at all costs and therefore stay close to the town, but they came out on the plane to oppose him. The Russians allowed their city to burn as their army retreated. Thus, while Napoleon won the battle, it was a high price to pay, a Pyrrhic victory.

Hodegetria virgin
Virgin Hodegetria, 13th c.

Golden eyeThe Cathedral, however, is not so much famous for that battle (or for the James Bond film “Golden Eye”). The icon itself went missing after the Germans conquered Smolensk in 1941. Was the icon destroyed?[2] Was it simply stolen (and still exists somewhere in some hidden Nazi vault)?[3] These questions are, of course, beyond the purview of this blog.

But I wax art-historical. Let me return to what I wanted to say about the confluence of the portrait of the lovely gift of the Cathedral of the Assumption, now on my desk, and the idea of contrasts that the quite old Welsh poet Taliesin brought to my mind. That idea was the question of anyone’s perception of “otherness,” on the one hand, and anyone’s confusion of contrasting ideas such as foreignness and familiarity, or, more especially, mildly contrasting ones, such as strength and power.

I’ll begin with the former, starker contrast. As I gazed at that image of the church this week, I had to think to myself how different Lena’s life must have been, growing up in Smolensk, and how even more different that of her mother, living much of her life in Soviet Russia. How for her mother, in particular, she had learned of Lenin and Stalin as heroes of the state and of Barclay de Tolly as a local hero—though he was not born in Russia, as he was born in modern day Estonia—as opposed to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr. How different than my own—did I really mean “inferior to my own”?—Lena’s mother’s worldview must be.

And then it donned on me, how appallingly provincial my thoughts were and how, inasmuch as I am myself of Welsh descent, I should never indulge in such thoughts, as my forebears came from the tiniest of tiny and “meaningless” places. Though the poets of my tribe may from time to time playfully reference the Gwyddyl’s propensity for strong drink and have made uneasy alliances with Brython, mine is of a surety but a heritage of humility. My family comes from a small and, to most of the world, insignificant place (Llanelli) where, by all accounts, the beautiful if highly guttural and for me, at least, hard-to-pronounce language is waning, perhaps dying. There’s a lesson here somewhere. It’s a lesson of humility.

Napolean at the Battle of Smolensk, 1812 Jean-Charles Langlois – The Bridgeman Art Library, Object 159150 (public domain)

Then I thought about the easily confused ideas of strength and power. Undoubtedly puffing out his chest with pride, pompously perched on prancing steed, Napoleon watched most of Smolensk burn to the ground in August of 1812. Just over a century later, the Germans destroyed much of the city when they occupied it in 1941. It wasn’t a strong place, it doesn’t have a history that proclaims martial superiority. Rather, like most of the world, it suffered loss, it suffered humankind’s inhumane ravishes. Its most beautiful and famous icon is lost. Though after the Second World War it was proclaimed a Hero City, from all external appearances Smolensk lacks power. Yet I have a feeling that Smolensk and the people of Smolensk have great strength. I have a feeling that they have become much stronger from the losses that they endured. I have a feeling their strength is much greater than those of us whose towns have not endured such trials can know.

We human beings all too easily confuse strength with power. Smolensk’s famous Lucan icon did not have power in and of itself. Rather, it preserved the record of power, it embodied strength. Strength? The strength of a baby sitting on the lap of a mother? Yes, that very strength, not simply the image of the powerful relationship of mother and child, but the allusion to the strength that that particular Child would show as an adult in the face of the abuse of power by religious authorities and political figures: in His suffering, in His weakness, strength, admirable strength, masking but presaging cosmic power.

So I close this blog as I began, with a double-hinged idea: a challenge to myself to see the world from the point of view of another—some might even say “the other”—and to all of us to recognize that an apparent dearth of power does not imply a lack of strength. Rather, in may in fact imply an extraordinary Source about which we have but slender understanding.

[1] Trans. by William Forbes Skene, The Four Ancient Books of Wales (1868) from the fine and thoroughly Welsh website of Mary Jones at http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/t01w.html. I thank Mary Jones for the proper reference.

[2] http://www.bookdrum.com/books/war-and-peace/730/bookmark/128924.html

[3] http://www.russian-icon.com/index.php/en/icon-gallery/general-collection/1dng-mother-of-god-of-smolensk-hodegetria-1-89


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Ghost of New Hope

New Hope, Pennsylvania, was our home for the better part of our life. I say our, but I really mean that of Elaine Jakes, for I, her son, resided there but during my childhood. Still, most of my formative years were lived there, and it is a town with a particular, even peculiar name that sanguinely points beyond itself to a better place, a vision of a better future. Though one might find a different account on the Internet, I, as a lad, heard on more than one occasion a story that the town is haunted by the ghost of the great patriot John Coryell, who in the second half of the eighteenth century had owned the ferry that provided crossing of the Delaware River.

Coryell's Ferry in cement
Perhaps the ghost story is true.

Washington’s troops often found refuge in Coryell’s Ferry, a town that had only some ten years or so before the founding of the United States, changed its name from the previous designation, Wells Ferry. Even that name seems to be second in the sequence of names, as it had hitherto been known, it seems, as “Robert Heath’s (tract of) land,” which Heath had received from William Penn himself. Indeed, the name Coryell’s Ferry obtained for a mere twenty years—though some sources say twice that—but not just any twenty (or even forty) years. During a lustrum or so of those years, one far from minor event known as the Revolutionary War took place, during which the town, by then called Coryell’s Ferry, saw a number of American troops crossing to and from Lambertville (then also called Coryell’s Ferry) en route to New Jersey and New York. The name Coryell’s Ferry abode until the Pennsylvania-side settlement was renamed “New Hope,” a name derived from a mill built afresh on Ingham Creek by an important young investor.

Benjamin Parry
Benjamin Parry

That investor was none other than Benjamin Parry, who poured his life into the community, and whose descendants have remained in the area for many generations, holding as family property the “Parry Mansion” until 1966, when it was converted into the town’s historical museum that it remains today, located on the borough’s principal “cardo” (N/S street) directly across from Farley’s Bookshop. That corner of Ferry and Main is still the town’s intellectual and cultural center, as Farley’s Bookshop represents the continuance of learning, reading, wit, and culture, while the Parry Mansion

Parry Mansion (now a museum). Photo by Wally Gobetz.

serves as the guardian of the town’s rich and unique history, which includes figures such as Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton (admittedly not the best of friends), along with James Monroe (during the Revolutionary War a mere lieutenant but later American president). In the course of that war, Lieutenant Monroe had, at a certain point, stayed at Thompson-Neeley Farmhouse at Washington’s Crossing, a mere stone’s throw south of Coryell’s Ferry. Add to all this that a Revolutionary War canon, placed on a street island just in front of the Perry Mansion, serves as a fitting symbol of the American resistance and, ultimately, victory.

The canon. Courtesy of David Hanauer at http://www.davidhanauer.com/buckscounty/newhope/
The canon. Courtesy of David Hanauer

Yet the precise reason for the change of the town’s name, I suppose, is at least slightly shrouded in mystery, mystery that likely gave birth to the undoubtedly spurious story—a ghost story, after all—I heard in my childhood about John Coryell, whose son George, was the last living pallbearer of George Washington, passing away in 1850. Roy Ziegler records that John was a “colorful” figure (Ziegler, p. 10). However colorful the historical John Coryell was, the tale of his ghost is equally colorful, at least in the account that Elaine relayed every All Hallow’s Eve: Coryell, she would say with an eerie storytelling pitch in her voice, had taken to drink (her storytelling emphasis not my own) and had become the scandal of both towns that bore the name Coryell’s Ferry, i.e. New Hope, and across the Delaware River, the town that would later be called Lambertville. Add to this unsavory detail that Coryell gambled as well and generally behaved like a bad fraternity boy, even though fraternities other than Phi Beta Kappa had not yet quite been invented.* He managed the inn (and tavern) that his noble father Emanuel, a French Huguenot, had owned and that John inherited at an early age, as Emanuel had died young, in 1748, leaving a brood of several children behind. It was said that John, after an appropriate period of mourning for his too-early-deceased father and, perhaps, as a strange expression of his grief for him, would dance on that tavern’s tables whenever he wanted to, especially when he was inebriated. In such a state, he would sometimes hook ropes, borrowed from his ferry business, over the roof beams of the tavern and swing from them as if a daring young man on a flying trapeze. And this, so Elaine’s story went, was something that happened quite often, so often in fact that business at the tavern thrived, as many a patron simply came to be entertained by this forerunner of the Blue Man Group, as much as they did to eat or drink.

To support his alleged gambling habit, he increased the number of his acrobatic shows from Friday and Saturday nights only to four days a week and, when not hung over, he would often rise early to practice. This went on for many years, in fact, beginning as early as 1750, shortly after his father’s death. During that time, John raised a family, drank a bit too much, and kept on gambling (though, Elaine averred, only “lightly”), but nevertheless vigorously and firmly supported General Washington during and after the Revolutionary War, helping the American cause in whatever way he could—from feeding and (as a prototype of the USO) acrobatically entertaining the troops, gratis of course, to smuggling weapons and spies via his ferry barges. During the war, in fact, Coryell’s Ferry played a vital role in assisting the Americans but denying the British passage over the Delaware.

The end of this noble, patriotically speaking, but, in terms of vices, perhaps somewhat indecorous life came when John Coryell’s swinging practice simply got the better of him in 1799. When privately rehearsing for a Houdini-like trick (an anachronism merely for effect) involving extricating his left hand and foot from being bound together when swinging on the rope with his right arm only, John Coryell managed to get so entangled that he hung himself. The suggestion of suicide swiftly ensued; but such an act his son George (named after the first president) and all John’s friends, particularly those fervent for the American cause, firmly denied.

So much did the mere rumor, however, vex John Coryell’s mostly noble (though beset-with-a-few-vices) soul that, unlike his son, who rests in peace in a grave alongside that of Sam Holcombe, one of Washington’s spies, he knows no rest, and to this day haunts the landing of Ferry Street,

View of Ferry Street. Courtesy of David Hanauer. http://www.davidhanauer.com/buckscounty/newhope/
View of Ferry St. Courtesy of David Hanauer

and sometimes, too, can be heard moaning even across the river in the environs of what is now the Lambertville Station Restaurant and Inn, which was, when Elaine told the story, an old-fashioned railway station. All this in spite of the fact that everyone, especially General Washington, no doubt rightly insisted on death by acrobatic error. Washington’s avowal notwithstanding, it is said that one can, at the ferry docks, still ascertain his ghost howling in the most disquieting fashion, “Where is my rope, my rope? I want to swing, to swing again!”

So the story was told, and to it was added the rumor of a curse, a most improbable one, that his untimely (if probably accidental) death brought upon the city a greater ignominy and shame than mere gambling and drink had brought upon Coryell himself during his lifetime. And, that if the redundant (and thus confusing) names of both towns were not changed from Coryell’s Ferry, the curse would obtain, one of blight, drought, gnats, mosquitoes, and general lack of prosperity. And that’s the real reason that Benjamin Parry called the city New Hope—not simply because of the rebuilding of “New Hope Mills” on Ingham Creek. Unfortunately the requisite change of the name did not ward off gnats or mosquitoes.

Farley’s Bookshop

Such a ghost story was the one I heard as a boy. Yet what has all this to do with the lofty opening of this particular installation of the blog? That bit, the bit about “hope” being something that looks beyond itself, I shall have to come back to next week. Suffice it to say, that in the coming weeks—specifically on Memorial Day from 1 to 4 p.m. at Farley’s Bookshop, right across the street from the Parry Mansion and just around the corner from the very ferry launch that Coryell’s shade is still said by some to frequent, there will be a launch not of a barque but rather of a book: The Curious Autobiography of Elaine Jakes, whose historical details are at least as true as the story of the change of the name of Coryell’s Ferry to New Hope, Pennsylvania. I hope to see you there where I will be signing copies of the book, and in the meantime, beware of ghosts in need of rope, even noble and patriotic ghosts!

*Please note that I have no evidence that John Coryell was anything less than a patriot; this is a mere ghost story, and I certainly have no desire to misrepresent this man’s undoubtedly noble character.

Further Reading:

Hannah Coryell Anderson, “General Washington at Coryell’s Ferry,” (Lambertville, NJ: Hunterdon Historical Society Reprint, 1969 [originally published 1928]). http://catalog.lambertvillelibrary.org/texts/American/coryell/coryell.pdf

Roy Ziegler, The Parrys of Philadelphia and New Hope: A Quaker Family’s Lasting Impact on Two Historic Towns (2011).

Ingham Coryell, Emanuel Coryell of Lambertville, New Jersey and His Descendants. Philadelphia, 1943.