“Beautiful shells from the shore” Thomas Jefferson’s Sacred Grotto of 1771

Wednesday 24 January 2018:  A Presentation by Alley Jordan, University of Edinburgh.

In 1771, the twenty-eight-year-old Thomas Jefferson drew up plans for a classical grotto on his Virginian estate.  The scheme embraced a physical and an imaginary world, profoundly influenced by the literature of the ancient world.  Sadly for posterity, the ideas were never realised-financial constraints saw to that – but his original plans and additional notes of 1787 provide a tantalising glimpse into Jefferson’s neo-classical vision.  In a fascinating paper, Alley Jordan, a second year PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, considered Jefferson’s grotto in its eighteenth-century context:  what was its purpose? what was nature of the Grecian ideal which had inspired it? And how does the physical creation of a neo-classical grotto relate to notions of Enlightenment?

The grotto, Alley argued, served many purposes but ultimately it was a place where Jefferson could materialise or re-create his own imagination. Jefferson was steeped in a classical tradition, his grotto a conscious attempt to bring classical antiquity to life. In ancient Greece, the grotto had represented a place of escape.  Situated in the mountains, it was a world away from the toils of everyday life. Its life-healing waters were associated with the god Asclepius and connected with the rivers of the Underworld.  In early modern times, the grotto came to be associated with melancholy, but Jefferson wanted to recreate the classical idea.  In his mind’s eye, he visualised a world removed from the day to day burdens of running a plantation where he could act out his own Theocritan idyll.  He believed in the healing powers of spring water and, as the ancients, imagined the presence of Asclepius.  Jefferson’s grotto, however, would be both healing and ornamental. He planned a tiered water fall which would make use of the natural waterfalls of Virginia and a sacred temple, similar perhaps to the Queen’s Temple at Stowe.  Music and musical instrument would be present in the temple, a conscious echo of a world reflected by the poetry of Theocritus and Virgil. As Alley argued, the grotto was an artistic work which enabled Jefferson to imagine himself in an artistic dreamland.

Ttumblr_inline_oounqzFEf41rt5uaz_540he plan for Jefferson’s grotto, consistent with the classical notion of a locus amoenus,  comprised a physical and mystical experience. Each part of the cave would elicit a different emotional response;  a visit represented a journey from dark to light and from cold to hot, whilst the presence of stone provided an important connection with geology and geography.  As Alley argued, the grotto was a place of transformation and enlightenment in the 18th century.

Alley’s paper generated animated discussion from an appreciative audience.  The Graduate Workshop  wishes Alley well with her continuing research.


Our next Graduate Workshop takes place on Wednesday 7 February 2018 when our speaker will be Gintare Venzlauskaite from the University of Glasgow. Her paper is entitled:

From Post-War West to Post-soviet east: Manifestations of Displacement, Collective Memory, and Lithuanian Diasporic Experience Revisited

It considers WWII displacements from Lithuania.  To what extent did they have an effect on the country’s memory landscape? By providing a retrospective view of discursive patterns regarding population losses and their role in national identity construction, Gintare’s study travels across the US and Russia where a significant part of these losses has been transformed into diasporic communities and their networks.

lettersiberiaThe workshop will take place at 1 pm in G 16 in the William Robertson Wing of the Old Medical School in Teviot Place.

Everyone is welcome to attend!

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Spring 2018 Graduate Workshop Programme

We have now posted details for the spring 2018 programme of the Graduate Workshop.  You can find full details on our page:

Spring 2018 Programme

The series begins on Wednesday 24 January at 1 pm in Room G 16 in the William Robertson Wing of the School of History, Classics and Archaeology, the Old Medical School (Doorway 4) , Teviot Place, Edinburgh.

Alley Jordan, of the University of Edinburgh, will speak on:

“Beautiful shells from the shore” Thomas Jefferson’s Sacred Grotto of 1771

Everyone is most welcome to attend.

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“Imprest on vellum”: Lowland language and the early American republic, c. 1800-1830.

Sean Murphy from the University of St Andrews spoke to the Diaspora Studies Graduate Workshop on Tuesday 1 November.  Sean has a particular interest in the relationship between the Scots language and British imperialism. He is a graduate of the Universities of Glasgow and Oxford, and will shortly submit his PhD thesis at the University of St Andrews.  We were delighted to welcome back Sean.

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The new circumstances under which we are placed, call for new words, new phrases, and for the transfer of old words to new objects. An American dialect will therefore be formed.

Thomas Jefferson 16 August 1813

In the early decades of the 19th century, Thomas Jefferson argued that the growing United States of America, a nation of considerable size and cultural diversity, required a language to express all ideas.  Would new words and new phrases “adulterate” the English language?  Had the language of Burns “disfigured” the English language?  Did the Athenians consider the Doric, the Ionian, the Aeolic, and other dialects, as disfiguring or as beautifying their language?”  Jefferson thought the latter. Developing an analogy based on the richness of the Greek language, he argued that a variety of dialects enriched a language. The learned writers of the contemporary Edinburgh Review, who eschewed new words were, in his view, mistaken.

        Sean Murphy used the words of Jefferson as both the introduction and cornerstone of his presentation. Jefferson had expressed the desire to “enlargen our thomas-jeffersonemployment of the English language”.  Moreover, a dignified American dialect was comparable to the Scots of Robert Burns whose writing had been readily available in the young United States of American from the 1790s.  The poetry of Burns, Sean argued, fostered a sense of nostalgia, in emigrant Scots.

          The work of two Scots/Irish poets provide an important insight into the social and diasporic world of Scots/Irish.  David Bruce from Pennsylvania was a first generation emigrant who may have had roots in the north-east of Scotland, possibly in Caithness.  A contemporary of Burns, his poetry expressed the post-colonial political concerns of a Scots/Irish diaspora.  Bruce defended the Scottish Irish community which had been blamed for the so called Pennsylvania “whiskey rebellion of 1794”. Fiercely anti Jacobin, his work reflected an earlier age and showed a Scottish pride in rationality.

    Robert Dinsmore of New Hampshire, was a third generation emigrant Scots/Ulsterman.  If Bruce was a Scottish American, then it might be argued that Dinsmore was an American Scot.  Sean’s readings of Dinsmore’s poetry tended to suggest that the vowel sounds of a third generation Scot might have developed, or, in any event, have been different from the Scots American of Bruce.  Dinsmore looked to the past and made a connection between his ancient Irish ancestors and the tribes of the native American Indians.  He was more of a rustic bard.  Both poets – Bruce in more pastoral vein – were influenced by the poetry of the elder Alan Ramsay, of Gentle Shepherd fame, who was known for his use of the Scottish vernacular two generations before Robert Burns. Nostalgia, perhaps even exoticism, were the hallmarks of these poets.  If the English had crafted Athenian, then the Scots excelled at the Doric.

         A wide-ranging discussion considered the publication and marketing of the poems and the extent to which other diasporic groups may have been represented in contemporary periodicals.

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Please note:

 The Graduate Workshop originally scheduled for Tuesday 15 November, has been cancelled.

Unfortunately, our speaker, Micheal Hopkirk of the University of Dundee, is indisposed.  Michael was due to speak on “Highland Adventurers to the Caribbean: Estimating the Scale of Highland-Caribbean Economic Migration, 1780-1830”

Our next Graduate Workshop will  now take place on Tuesday 29th November (further details below)

                                                                                             Alastair Learmont