England - By Famous Graves
( Originally Published 1910 )
IN life, the great are the companions of a few ; in death they become the possession of the many. Is not this the secret of that charm which attracts so many thousands to the resting-places of illustrious men ? There is a satisfaction in standing close by the side of those who have ministered to our imaginative life, even though it be but their dust to which we draw near.
This after-death homage is one of the compensations of genius. How many there have been who have enriched the world with fair thoughts and melodious songs out of a life spent in poverty, neglect, and sorrow. It was not given them in life to enter into the heritage of a people's love ; is it idle to think that in death they are conscious of the affection which we feel today as we stand beside their graves ? Some of the great dead had their meed of responsive love in life, and it is pleasant to think that their passing into the silent land may not have broken the continuity of their reward. Washington Irving observed that visitors to Westminster Abbey remained longest amid the memorials in Poets' Corner. " They linger about these as about the tombs of friends and companions; for indeed there is something of companionship between the author and reader. Other men are known to posterity only through the medium of history, which is continually growing faint and obscure ; but the intercourse between the author and his fellow men is ever new, active, and immediate. He has lived for them more than for himself ; he has sacrificed surrounding enjoyments, and shut himself up from the delights of social life, that he might the more intimately commune with distant minds and distant ages. Well may the world cherish his renown ; for it has been purchased, not by deeds of violence and blood, but by the diligent dispensation of pleasure. Well may posterity be grateful to his memory ; for he has left it an inheritance, not of empty names and sounding actions, but whole treasures of wisdom, bright gems of thought, and golden veins of language."
As there are few countries which have so many famous graves as England, so are there none of the earth's great dead who have more pilgrims to their shrines than those who have clothed their thoughts in the English tongue. There are solitary great graves in the world, such as Dante's, which are cosmopolitan in their interest ; but in English soil is buried a vast army of immortals who are the common possession and glory of two great peoples. And there are no more faithful pilgrims to the famous graves of England than those who journey from the Republic of the West ; their devotion to the memory of the illustrious dead often puts to shame the forgetfulness or apathy of those native to the land in which they rest.
Although the grave of Laurence Sterne is within a stone's throw of one of the most crowded thoroughfares of London, there are few save Americans who turn aside from the stream of life in Bayswater Road to gaze upon his resting-place in the St. George's burial-ground. He had boasted in " Tristram Shandy " that his preference would be to die in an inn, untroubled by the presence and services of his friends ; yet when, in his London lodgings, he began to realize that death might be near, he pined for his daughter Lydia to nurse him. Only a hired nurse and a footman stood by Sterne's death-bed. The latter had been sent to inquire after the health of the famous author, and, being told by the landlady of the house to go upstairs and see for himself, he reached the death-chamber just as Sterne was passing away. Putting up his hand as though to ward off a blow, he ejaculated, " Now it is come," and so died. The story goes that even as he was dying, the nurse was busy possessing herself of the gold sleeve-links from his wrists.
Despite the fame he had won, only two mourners followed Sterne to his grave. But other eyes, it seems, watched the burial ; for it is affirmed that two days later the body was taken from the grave and sold to a professor of anatomy for dissection. Only an accident revealed the identity of the " subject." Happening to have some friends visiting him at the time, the professor invited them to witness a demonstration, and on their following him to his surgery one of them was horrified to recognize in the partially dissected corpse the features of his friend Laurence Sterne. Such is the story, and most authorities agree in thinking it likely to be true. Perhaps it was not unknown to the two masons who erected the first stone over the grave, for their inscription began with the significant words,
" Near to this place lies the body," etc.
How near, or how far away, the actual remains of Sterne at length found a resting-place will probably never be known.
More sudden than the call which summoned Sterne into the unseen, was that to which William Makepeace Thackeray answered. Only a few days before the end, he met his great rival Dickens on the steps of one of the London clubs. They passed in silence, for an estrange-ment had existed between the two for several years. But Thackeray could not endure that this should last any longer. Turning back, he went up to Dickens with outstretched hand, saying he could not bear to be on any save the old terms of friendship. Dickens hastened to grasp the offered hand, and the two had a few minutes' pleasant talk ere they parted — parted for ever.
Two days before Christmas, Thackeray retired to rest earlier than usual, and in the watches of the night, alone, death called. " And lo, he whose heart was as that of a little child had answered to his name, and stood in the presence of the Master." He was buried six days later in Kensal Green Cemetery, in the presence of a vast concourse of mourners. Near the grave stood Lewes, and Trollope, and Browning, and Dickens, and many another famous in the annals of Victorian literature. When a year had passed, the aged mother of the novelist was laid beside her son in the same grave ; and thirty years later it was opened again to receive the body of that wife from whom, because of her sad mental condition, Thackeray had been parted during the last twenty-three years of his life.
Something of the gloom which overshadowed the life of Coleridge seems to abide with him in his resting-place, which is. situated underneath the chapel of the Highgate grammar school. It was in that favoured suburb of London, in the home of the Gillmans, that, it will be remembered, the poet spent the last eighteen years of his life, and when he died in 1834 his grave was made in the burial-ground of the parish. Thirty years later, however, when the grammar-school was rebuilt, a part of that building was erected over the burial-ground, and from that time to this the vault in which Coleridge lies has been overshadowed in perpetual gloom. Nor is that all. The space around the vault has been utilized as a work-shop and a receptacle for all kinds of rubbish, and altogether the surroundings of this famous grave are little less than a disgrace.
Coleridge, more than most sons of genius, seems to need that his resting-place shall not suggest sombre thoughts. Enough such are recalled by his life-story, in which lack of will wrought such havoc with matchless mental gifts. " I am dying," he wrote a little before the end came. " Is it not strange that, very recently, bygone images and scenes of early life have stolen into my mind like breezes blown from the spice-islands of Youth and Hope." Such images, to banish the gaunt spectres of memory, ought his grave to suggest, but never can so long as its sordid surroundings are allowed to remain in their present condition. How would Lamb have grieved over this gloomy grave, Lamb who in the short time he survived his friend was often murmuring, " His great and dear spirit haunts me never saw I his likeness, nor probably the world can see again."
At the foot of the hill on the summit of which Coleridge lies in his melancholy tomb, is the beautiful Highgate Cemetery, where, underneath a plinth of red granite, George Eliot was laid to rest close beside the grave of Lewes. Although she had been in delicate health for many years, and had felt the loss of Lewes very keenly, her marriage with Mr. Cross seemed for a time to renew her hold upon life. Unfortunately she caught a chill in a draughty concert-hall in London on a December afternoon, and in a few days the illness reached a fatal termination. In her writing-case an unfinished letter was found, and its expression of tender sympathy for a friend upon whom a great sorrow had fallen was a fitting finis to the labour of that pen which had given delight and comfort to so many thousands. While the doctors were around her bed, she whispered to her husband, " Tell them I have great pain in my left side," and then became unconscious and spoke no more.
Defiant of the sleet and rain of a wild December day, a great crowd attended the funeral, conspicuous among the mourners being the tall form of that brother from whom she had drawn the portrait of Tom Tulliver in " The Mill on the Floss." One who was present in the chapel has told how impressive the ceremony was, especially at the moment when the preacher quoted the words of her own hymn, and re-minded his hearers how the great dead had joined
" the choir invisible Whose music is the gladness of the world."
Few graves in Highgate or any other cemetery hold so much of genius as that in which several members of the gifted Rossetti family are buried. The notable parents of those richly-endowed children rest here ; and here also the body of Christina Rossetti was laid in the earth. The next grave contains the wife of Ford Maddox Brown, and an infant grandchild for whom a line from Christina's most unforgetable poem, " Remember or Forget," serves as epitaph.
In the Rossetti vault the wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the most famous of all that band, found her too early grave. No passage in the life of the painter-poet was so compact of romance and tragedy as the brief days of his wedded union with Elizabeth Siddal. She was an assistant in a London milliner's shop when first seen by a friend of Rossetti, who had accompanied his mother to the shop. Struck by her unusual beauty, he, through his mother, asked whether the young lady would consent to give him sittings, and it was when she was in his studio that Rossetti saw and fell in love with Miss Siddal. All lovers of his pictures are familiar with her appearance, for his Beatrice was thenceforward consistently painted from her. After ten years' courtship, they were married, but less than two years later she died, the immediate cause of death being an over-dose of laudanum. In the distraction of his grief, Rossetti placed in his wife's coffin the manuscript of a large quantity of his poems : " I have often," he said, "been writing at those poems when Lizzie was ill and suffering, and I might have been attending to her, and now they shall go." As he had no copies of these poems, his friends constantly urged him to consent to the manuscript being exhumed, and more than seven years later he reluctantly agreed. Two or three intimate friends undertook the gruesome task, which was carried out in the night by the light of a fire made beside the grave. When the coffin was raised and opened, the body was seen to be in a perfect state of preservation. The manu-script too, had suffered little by its long burial.
Perhaps some day this strange midnight scene will be perpetuated by the hand of an artist, for the history of literature contains no more striking incident than that associated with the Rossetti grave.
Among the tombs in Chiswick churchyard, close beside the Thames, the most notable and best-preserved is that which contains the remains of William Hogarth. In his home near by, the famous artist busied himself during his last days with designing a tail-piece for his works, that " Finis " which is not the least known of his pictures. Shortly after, towards the end of October, 1764, he was removed to his other house in Leicester Fields, weak in body but cheerful in mind. Here he found waiting for him a letter from his friend Benjamin Franklin, and his last occupation was to prepare a rough answer to that epistle. But the reply in its completed form never reached Philadelphia, for when the painter retired. to bed he was seized with a distressing vomiting. Alarmed at his condition, he rang his bell with such violence as to tear the wire from the wall. In a few moments the summons was answered by Hogarth's cousin, Mary Lewis, and, in her arms, two hours later, he passed away. The monument over his grave was not erected until seven years later, but since then it has been the object of unceasing care. It bears an inscription by Garrick, who probably penned more epitaphs than any other versifier of his time.