Poem of the Week: ‘Arthur’s Seat and Geology’ by Alexander McCall Smith

  10 Aug '21   |  Posted by: Birlinn
Arthur’s Seat, a lion crouching. Photo by Jim Divine on Unsplash

Alexander McCall Smith’s 2020 poetry collection In a Time of Distance contains a sequence of seven poems, each about one of Edinburgh’s seven hills. In June 2021, Alexander announced the Seven Hills Project, in partnership with St Mary’s Music School, which will see the poems set to music commissioned from young Scottish composers and performed by the students of the music school. (Read more about the project here, at Alexander’s site.)

The first commission has been released, a setting of the poem ‘Arthur’s Seat and Geology’ by Jay Capperauld. Here it is, for your reading, listening and visual pleasure.

Arthur's Seat and Geology
Alexander McCall Smith

(In 1788, James Hutton, the founder of modern geology, published his “Theory of the Earth”, a work that unseated long-held religious notions of the Earth’s age.)

This is a crouching lion, watching,
As crouching lions will do, over
The territory of a circumscribed back yard; 
This hill had the crusty lion-heart
Of a volcano, now no more,
It lives on memories of long-cooled
Fiery moments; it never vitrified
A city, as Vesuvius did; its belches 
Frightened nobody, as there
Was nobody then to frighten;
Now we climb, innocent children,
On rocks that once glowed red,
Follow an easy route to the summit,
Close our eyes and feel the breeze
That whips round the Pentlands
Or goads us with its North Sea taunts.

Even in retirement, though,
The crags that frown on Holyrood,
Made something happen
When James Hutton looked at them, reached 
A moment of understanding,
And realised the theology of creation
Was all wrong; the earth to Mr Hutton 
Seemed punished by its energy;
Twisted into shapes imposed by a molten 
And unforgiving heart; here and there
In efforts of escape mountains shrugged off
The constraining mantle, displaying for us to see – 
If only we would look – the history of all things
In lines of rock, layers of magma, fossils, littered 
Paths of glaciers. How it humbled him
To read that past, and see how long it was.
Click the image for more information about In a Time of Distance
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