On 'The Ring of Brodgar'

by Sebastiaan Verweij

The Ring of Brodgar is a stone circle on Orkney, dated 2500 BCE (Early Bronze Age). Until the 1840s it was known as the Temple of the Sun, perhaps alluding to the unknown purpose of the circle. For Morgan, it appears to be primarily a symbol of sacrifice. The first four lines of the poem are spoken by an unknown speaker in a far-away future, at least later than the twenty-second century mentioned in line seven. Lines 5-14 function as evidence for the speaker's claim that 'no voice is lost', the fact that everything leaves its mark and nothing goes unrecorded. 'If these stones could speak' of course is a commonplace, a platitude that for us normally implies that in fact they cannot. In the world of the poem, however, the stones relate their own history. The 'timeprint' referred to by the speaker appears to be some type of medium, which can be played back and was made in the twenty-second century. 'White with dust / in twenty-second-century distrust / of truth' conjures up an image of the 'timeprint' being stacked away on a shelf somewhere until it was rediscovered. Douglas Dunn links timeprint and playback together, which seems a sensible reading, but it is not the only possibility.(1) The timeprint might be something similar to growth rings on a tree. If this is the case, the fourth line interestingly connects to 'white with dust'. As the 'fearsome sweat' evaporates and produces the literal and metaphorical shroud, the salt remains behind, and the residue found on the stones then is a tangible leftover from those sacrificed in the circle. Their pain and sacrifice is still evident on the stones. The question is whether the timeprint is an artificial process, such as carbon dating, or a natural phenomenon. Perhaps the first reading is more consistent with the poem as a whole, but there is enough space left between the lines for the second reading to remain an interesting option.
Morgan offers the reader a confusing perspective: the Ring was built in the past, the reader is in the present, but the narrating voice is in the future. The offhand remark 'twenty-second-century distrust' cannot be placed in any frame of reference of a present reader. Morgan's imagining history through an unconventional set of eyes is typical of the sonnet sequence as a whole. It is already evident from the first poem of the collection, 'Slate'. Consider Dunn's comment:

The speaker and his companions are witnesses from another world. They observe the birth of geography and evolution. […] To imagine the pre-human mediated through a presumably non-human speaker calls for an adventurous mind, which is the main integrating link between Sonnets from Scotland and Morgan's more overtly experimental work'.(2)

Much of 'The Ring of Brodgar' is left to the imagination, and in between the lines it can come to life in a number of ways. Morgan recreates the pain of sacrifice while in fact we know nothing about the actual events, but the experience is human and appears eternal, so even a future people, of whom we know nothing, must turn away, and switch the playback off.

 

(1) Douglas Dunn, 'Morgan's Sonnets', in Robert Crawford and Hamish Whyte, eds., About Edwin Morgan, Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1990.

(2) Dunn, 'Morgan's Sonnets', p. 79-80.

 

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