8. Pope's Grotto

Object type: Foot-tunnel lined with geological specimens

Materials: Brick, mortar, earth and stone

Location: Twickenham, beneath the Radnor House School

© Photo by curator, used with kind permission of the Radnor House School.

Location in MIAC: DESIGN

Alexander Pope in his Grotto, by William Kent.  There has been rich speculation about the little fluttering creatures surrounding the grotto; I suspect they are sylphs, the products of Pope's poetic fancy.

I first learned about the actual existence of Alexander Pope’s grotto while I was still a graduate student.  I had just finished a dissertation on the collecting habits of eighteenth-century poets, which included an extensive section on the so-called “Cave of Pope.”  Over the last ten or so years of his life, Pope collected a mass of stones and mineralogical rarities, cementing and clamping them into the walls and ceiling of a foot-tunnel beneath his Twickenham house and grounds.  It had become a minor tourist attraction in the generation or so following his death, and so turned up regularly in the literary record.  More than one person identified the cool interiority of the grotto with what it must have been like to be in the mind of Pope itself.  I was reading all this stuff just around the time that Being John Malkovich had become such a sensation, and as I told the story of Pope’s grotto, people again and again mentioned the film to me.  Film-maker Charles Stuart Kaufman was himself a fan of Alexander Pope—the title of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is for instance a gesture towards Pope’s Eloisa to Abelard—though connections beyond the repeated gestures to Pope's work become a bit hazy.

The problem was: how to find it?  The place itself had sort of faded from view.  Pope’s grotto had experienced an Indian Summer of celebrity in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, at the same time as the so-called “New Criticism” in literary studies; it was just then that a batch of like-minded scholars, mostly men, were discovering the artistry of Pope’s rhymed couplets, and began the work to rediscover things like his birthplace, the London court where he grew up, and the house he built in his retirement in Twickenham by the Thames.  A few scholars continued to focus on spaces like these, as holding some of the keys to Pope's lyrically particular poetics.  The idea is that, if you could get inside these spaces, you could get inside his head.  My own dissertation advisor, Professor Helen Deutsch, had written what remains the definitive study of the space in its literary allusiveness, calling it Pope's "most representative and elusive self-portrait."  The trick was to find the space, as a record of Pope's eye and his matchless style.

Let me be quite clear; the grotto itself was never lost.  Partly because it was much harder to demolish it than just to leave it there, it remained intact even while Pope's house was torn down and a Catholic boys’ school put in its place.  But the world in general had moved on.  Pope's own neighborhood had been converted from a quiet, tastefully trendy community to an anonymous suburb, with its own forgettable high-street.  We had, that is, sort of forgotten about it.  This is partly because the academic profession had turned its interest from the crude facts of things like caves to the rich lessons to be learned from the analysis of discourse; it is also partly because the very place where the grotto was was no longer interested in old tunnels built by eighteenth-century poets.  Few, it seems, had much interest in a heap of stones laid up in a damp tunnel in a London suburb.

 J. Paul Hunter was one of those who remembered.  He was a senior scholar at the top of his profession whose knowledge summarized an age.  I was in 2008 spending the scraps of my savings touring London, trying to see absolutely everything that had turned up while I was doing the research for my dissertation: some stone inscriptions that had passed through the hands of John Evelyn, a collection of pathological human calculi once owned by William Hunter, a certain stone in the collection of John Woodward, and so on.  (Most of these things, by the way, are now in this museum.)  Pope’s grotto was only on the itinerary in a hazy way; I had heard noises that it was still there, but where "there" was was unclear.  It was in this context that I met Paul—or was really in a conversation over tea at the British Library with some friends among whom he was.  It was then that he shared an anecdote—which, to this day, I do not know if it was a genuine bit of wisdom and craft knowledge, or a bit of a joke and rite of passage for a young scholar.

Paul spoke of the grotto and its wonders, and mentioned that the thing to do was to head out to Twickenham at a reasonable hour and apply at the front door.  When the porter responded, I was to ask for Sister Margaret, who would be glad to show me the grotto.  There was an unspoken understanding that I would present her with a small fee; I was not to forget to take a five-pound note, discreetly slipping it to her whenever the moment seemed tactful.  He didn’t do Sister Margaret the disservice of speculating on what the five pounds might be used for—though I puzzled myself for a while to wonder. 

At the sign of Pope's Grotto, Cross Deep.  Photo by Curator.

At the sign of Pope's Grotto, Cross Deep.  Photo by Curator.

As this was one of my first adventures in this line, I made sure to follow his instructions to the letter.  I headed out to Twickenham at a reasonable hour, with a five-pound note folded in quarters in my pocket—very discreet.  The door wasn’t hard to find; there is in fact a bus stop on the Twickenham thoroughfare labeled “Pope’s Grotto”—which should, by the way, have been a clue that I didn’t need to be quite as cloak-and-dagger as my tip led me to believe.  I applied at the door, clinging to that five-pound note like it was the only certain thing in the world.  My knock was answered by a ruddy, barrel-chested man in his mid-forties, wearing a denim shirt and a carpenter’s belt.  He said something that ended with the word "mate."  I pressed on; I asked for Sister Margaret.  A pause.  “There’s no Sister Margaret here,” he reflected.  I considered briefly whether the five-pound note might still be appropriate, but decided otherwise.  I made my apologies, and spent it on a pint at the pub across the street—which, you might already guess, is called “Pope's Grotto.”

So you might wonder if I ever managed to see the grotto itself.  And the answer is yes, of course.  For a couple of years, the Twickenham Museum had been raising money to restore the grotto, which had fallen into disrepair.  This was largely through the efforts of one man, Anthony Beckles Willson, FSA and archivist of St. Mary’s Church (where Pope lies now).  He kindly agreed to show me the grotto—on his 90th birthday, it turned out—where we swapped a few theories about the placement of stones and the changes that had occurred in the years following Pope’s death.  The grotto has undergone numerous changes—it has for instance been made to house a number of statues, electricity has been put in, and so on—so it can be hard in some cases to pose an argument about Pope or his practices based on the surviving structure.  The grotto served as a bomb shelter during the blitz, which would I hope have made Pope proud; it sheltered a handful of people even while a German bomb leveled the house that had formerly belonged to Pope’s neighbor, the Duke of Radnor.  In other words, much restoration was necessary, and Tony was establishing himself as the authority on what needed to be done.

A stone from the grotto of Egeria, now beneath the Twickenham main road.  Photo by curator.

I was interested in one thing in particular.  Because of a childhood ailment that left him bent and weakened, Pope was himself unable to travel.  But his mind was always roving to classical Rome and Greece-- including one place which, I suspected, he particularly associated with his own grotto.  Pope never left the island of Great Britain, so he couldn't go there, but he had friends that regularly made the journey.  Following Pope's instructions, therefore, Joseph Spence made a special trip to this special spot, which was Egeria's Grotto, near the Porta Capena just south of Rome.

From Serle, "A Plan of Mr. Pope's Grotto" (London, 1745).

Spence made the visit, and brought something back-- cracking off a head-sized chunk of marble and packing it up in his luggage.  The gift must have thrilled Pope, who installed it in his grotto.  My question was: where?  I suspected that it would be pretty prominent, at least if my hunches about Pope were right.  Pope’s grotto had a number of gadgets and properties that suggest that he thought of it as a mental space in a number of respects.  For one, because it passed arrow-straight from his garden to the lawn below his house, it framed a perspective of the Thames, where boats might be seen passing along (see right).  When closed up, it also became a camera obscura, with the same image projected upon the walls.  It was a sort of summary of mental metaphors, all gathered improbably into one place; if one wouldn't do, simply open the doors and another would present itself.

Later remodelings, however, seem to most present-day scholars to have aimed for a different aesthetic.  Rather than a collection of special effects, Pope attempted to incorporate nature more directly into its design; it was to become a collection, Pope insisted, of all nature’s works under ground.  He swept out most of the gaudy technologies, installing instead a collection of stones, gathered from all over England (and in some cases, the world).  It was in this context that Egeria became an important muse, a sort of aesthetic principle.  For Egeria’s grotto-- the one in Rome-- was the site of the first civic humanist education.  This is why Pope spent so much of his mental energy there; it was where the first scholar-king, the mythical Numa, met his Egeria for lessons in the humanities.  What is more, Egeria's grotto was also, in classical verse, an important place where poets might reflect upon the advantages of nature over luxury or the complications of urban life.  Juvenal’s third satire was just one such poem, staged explicitly at Egeria’s grotto (Johnson's "London" was, by the way, based on this same satire).  Each longs for a simpler time; each prefers the aesthetic of nature to the luxuries of and corruptions of Rome.  These were the sorts of things that made Egeria's grotto such an important object of inspiration for Pope's restless mind.  

Seldom in the field of historical literary studies does one get any sort of confirmation—at least not of a concrete variety.  A reading is interesting, or it isn’t; people are persuaded, or they aren't; an insight sheds a bit of light, or it doesn’t.  The conversation continues, which is maybe the important thing.  But, in this case, the confirmation could not have been more concrete.  I walked into the very center of the grotto, and there was Spence's chunk of repurposed marble, affixed to the ceiling with what Pope called “invisible cramps.”  So this stone, I was pleased to find, had a prominent place in the Cave of Pope, linking, like a wormhole or conduit, one grotto with another.  This was the hunch that was confirmed on that day. 

Notes: Efforts to restore the grotto are still.  I myself made a symbolic five-pound donation to the fund to restore the grotto; I have heard there is to be (or was?) a staging of a short play in the grotto to raise money for its restoration.  If you’d like to see it yourself, it is open, on-and-off, through the Twickenham local history museum.  Tony's many publications on the topic are models of their type, though John Serle’s handbook, composed in the year or so following Pope’s death, is also indispensible.  Finally, no study of Pope or his grotto is complete without Helen Deutsch's Resemblance and Disgrace (Harvard, 1996).