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  • My Name Writ on Glass January 15, 2016

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback


    One of the eternal human problems is how to transmit facts – history, fame, infamy, love… – from one generation to another. We have tried to do it on calf skin, on papyrus, on the tongues of the tribal singers and on stone. But never forget we have also tried to do it on glass. Of course, there are the odd reference. Perhaps the most famous instance – at least all collections of quotations have it – is Walter Raleigh writing

    ‘Fain would I climb, yet fear I to fall’, on a window to which Elizabeth allegedly wrote (with a tilt at flirtation?), stay out of that spiderweb, Walter!

    ‘If thy heart fails thee, why then climb at all?’

    Elizabeth herself had also written on glass. In that terrible time when she was a prisoner and feared (with good cause for her life) she wrote (at Woodstock):

    Much suspected of me,
    Nothing proved can be,
    Quoth Elizabeth, prisoner (recorded in Holinshed).

    Why write on glass at all? Today glass seems something rather transient, though surely less so than paper or digital imprints. But in that time glass was actually something semi-permanent. If you bought a pane for your family residence then there was a good chance that the glass would last for three hundred years: not all grave inscriptions last that long. The result was that glass was regularly resorted to leave little intimations to the generations: not least because it was very unlikely that they would be changed even if the message was resented. There was perhaps also a certain aristocratic tinge to such messages as they best way to scratch on glass was to use a diamond.

    Sometimes they seem to have been left surreptitiously: Benjamin Fenton memorably caught site of the word ‘Carpe Diem’, on the glass of Saxton’s Hotel, Matlock in 1778: he wrote a poem about them. Beach imagines a visitor to the bath who had fluffed an encounter with a beautifully dark-eyed woman in that ‘watering hole’: only someone with regrets writes those words, not those who are actually busy seizing everything they can get.

    Sometimes they were left offensively. The great Swift after being annoyed by a landlady left this gem (perhaps with a gem). They didn’t have Trip Advisor.

    ‘To the landlord – there hang three crosses at

    thy door, hang up thy wife and she’ll make four.’

    There were incantations such as that which Hookham Frere left at Holland House in 1811.

    May neither fire destroy, nor waste impair.
    Nor time consume thee till the twentieth heir;
    May taste respect thee, and may Fashion spare.

    Sometimes there were annalists, bit players, attempting to record history. There is a case to be made that John Wilkes Booth wrote ‘Abe Lincoln departed this life August 13th, 1864, by the effects of poison’, in his hotel room. The glass was, in any case, treasured as an artifact.

    Others sensed that history was slipping away from them. Mary Queen of Scots on her last trip through Buxton is said to have written a couplet in Latin. Here it is in English:

    Buxton, whose fame thy mild-warm waters tell,
    Whom I perhaps shall no more see, farewell.

    Others were asked to commemorate themselves: Charles II left a kind-of Latin phrase ‘eras ero lux’ (an anagram of Carolus Rex) at a royalist house at Newton.

    Sometimes there were rushed messages or reminders. John Hancock wrote the simple but affecting: ‘You I Love and You alone,’ to his sweetheart, Dorothy (later his wife). The revolution was about to begin…

    Then, there were poets letting off creative steam. The young John Evelyn wrote, in his early twenties, a series of glass graffiti at Wotton including the characteristic omnia explorate (explore all things) and some images of a tear. Burns had the alarming habit of actually writing entire poems on glass, such as the one that heads this post at the Cross Keys, Falkirk.

    Sound be his sleep and blythe his morn,
    That never did a lassie wrang;
    Who poverty ne’er held in scorn,
    For misery ever tholed a pang.

    His editors presumably had to chase around much of Scotland to check hotel rooms.

    And then there was simple autographing:

    Ann W. Morris, and Maria Abercrombie, 1807 (from Germantown, Philadelphia).

    Miss Abercrombie was the daughter of a pastor!

    Other examples of glass messages from the past: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    23 Jan 2016, Chris from Haunted Ohio Books writes in with this classic:


    The following lines were written on seeing a farrago of rhymes that had been scribbled with a diamond on the window of an inn : —

    “Ye who on windows thus prolong your shames,
    And to such arrant nonsense sign your names,
    The diamond quit—with me the pencil take,
    So shall your shame but short duration make;
    For lo, the housemaid comes, in dreadful pet,
    With red right hand, and with a dishclout wet,
    Dashes out all, nor leaves a wreck to tell
    Who ’twas that wrote so ill! — and loved so well!”
    The jest book: the choicest anecdotes and sayings, Mark Lemon 1866, but undoubtedly much older