England - Poets Corner
( Originally Published 1910 )
FROM Chaucer to Tennyson ! Between those two names, separated by five hundred years, lies the splendid story of English literature as it is summed up in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey. What a shrine for the devout literary pilgrim ! Here he may stand beside the dust of that poet who ushered in the dawn of English literature, and while he does so his feet are above the grave of him who was its latter-day glory.
Between these two, what suns and stars have swum into the firmament of English verse and prose ! Not all have had their setting in this proud minster ; the greatest of the band sleeps beside his own Avon, and others of the mighty dead are scattered here and there not only over the fair face of that land whose inner life they interpreted but also in the soil of the great Republic of the West. Here, however, are laid to rest, or have memorial, the chief of those who have raised the stately fane of English literature ; here, carved in stone, are the names of those who have left their impress most deeply upon the English-speaking race.
Those who laid Chaucer in his grave in this south transept of the Abbey were the true though unconscious founders of the Poets' Corner. They buried wiser than they knew. Standing, as he does, the earliest commanding figure in English literature, how seemly it was that Chaucer should be the first to consecrate this part of the national Valhalla as the resting place of the poets.
Yet it appears to have been merely an accident which led to the burial within these walls of him who told the Canterbury Tales. In other words, it was not because he was a poet that Chaucer found his resting place beside the dust of kings, but because, for a brief season, he was one of the officials of the Abbey. Although he had enjoyed the favour of three Kings, although John of Gaunt had been his constant patron, although he had been entrusted with several important diplomatic missions, Chaucer's old age was overshadowed by poverty. It was at that period of his life that he held for a short time the office of clerk of the works at Westminster, and it is to that fact, and also to his having breathed his last in an old house in the monastery garden, that his interment within the Abbey is to be attributed. The men of those times could not have been fully conscious of the greatness of him who had passed away. For a century and a half Chaucer's only memorial was a rude slab of lead inscribed with his name ; it was not until 1555 that Nicholas Brigham, a brother of the muse, caused the present tomb and canopy to be placed over that honoured dust. Some three hundred years later, that is in 1868, Dr. Rogers had the window above the monument filled with stained glass representing scenes from the poet's life and works. So through long generations does Chaucer evoke the heart-love of his country-men.
" In the poetical quarter," wrote Addison in his famous essay on the Abbey, " I found that there were poets who had no monuments, and monuments which had no poets." Shakespeare is an example of the last statement; Beaumont of the first — for he lies under a nameless stone. But from Shakespeare's time onwards, monument or no monument, it came to be recognized that in this south transept was the fitting sepulchre of the nation's chief singers, and if circumstances did not always allow of their actual burial here, it was still possible to record their fame by storied urn or sculptured bust. And so we have the glorious Poets' Corner of to-day. It is true there are some names missing from the scroll of fame kept within this narrow space, and the absence of several of those names may give the pilgrim pause. There is Pope, for example — why has he no memorial here ? Because he desired none. It was his wish to be buried by the side of his mother in Twickenham Church, and his epitaph in that building, written by himself, records that it is " For one that would not be buried in Westminster Abbey." But the absentees are not numerous, and he who is well read in all the verse suggested by the names on these walls is to be envied his knowledge of English poetry.
As in the case of Chaucer, the accident that death overtook Spenser in the vicinity of the Abbey rather than in his Irish home was no doubt the chief cause why the author of " The Faerie Queene " was laid to rest close beside the chronicler of " The Canterbury Tales." Spenser had come to London as the bearer of an official dispatch from Ireland, and made his head-quarters at a tavern in King Street, Westminster, the inns of which were the usual resort of messengers to the Court. Here it was appointed he should die, not in poverty as Ben Jonson would have us believe, but outworn by the burden of those distressing experiences which had overwhelmed him in his Irish home. Conscious of his approaching end, so the legend runs, Spenser asked that his resting place might be near the dust of Chaucer ; and the original inscription on his monument, obliterated many years ago, definitely noted that his sepulture in that spot was due to the proximity of Chaucer's grave.
It was at the charge of the Earl of Essex that Spenser was buried, and tradition tells how he was followed to his tomb by a great company of poets, who cast their elegies on his coffin and the pens with which they had been written. Jonson, and Beaumont, and Fletcher, and most likely Shakespeare too, were of the band. Queen Elizabeth gave orders for the erection of a costly tomb for the poet who had shed such lustre over her own person and reign, but official jealousy and " curst avarice " robbed " our Colin " of that monument. Twenty years later, however, the Duchess of Dorset supplied the omission, and when that memorial fell into decay a century and a half later the poet Mason raised a subscription which resulted in the erection of the present monument.
Some fifteen years after he had followed Spenser to his grave Francis Beaumont was laid to his too-early rest in this sacred spot. His dust lies under a nameless stone, for no brother of the muse or noble patron thought fit to raise a memorial to his fame. Bishop Corbet, however, composed an epitaph to his memory, the moral of which will be missed unless it is remembered that Beaumont was not thirty years old when he died.
He that hath such acuteness and such wit
Goldsmith, it will be remembered, makes his intelligent Chinaman exclaim, while on a tour of the Poets' Corner, " Drayton ! I never heard of him before." Yet when, in 1631, the author of " The Poly-Olbion " joined Chaucer and Spenser and Beaumont he was held in as high repute as either of the three. Fuller coupled Michael Drayton with Spenser and described the two as " a pair of royal poets, enough almost to make passengers' feet to move metrically, who go over the place where so much poetical dust is interred." Another eulogist declared that the name of Drayton alone was sufficient to give England poetical equality with the land of Dante and Petrarch !
Probably " The PolyOlbion " was mainly accountable for Drayton's remarkable contemporary fame. Certainly it was an amazing under-taking for a writer to narrate in verse those facts and curiosities of geographical antiquities which are now presented more suitably in prose. He took for his theme the rivers, mountains, forests and other parts of Great Britain, and devoted such immense labour to the acquisition of his materials that his poem is still a mine of reliable information. A part of his reward was to be eulogized in such strains as these :
Drayton, sweet ancient Bard, his Albion sung,
How confident his contemporaries were of his abiding fame is evident from the glowing epitaph on his tomb :
Do, pious marble, let thy readers know
Yet, such are the vicissitudes of literary judgment, Drayton's works were forgotten " before his monument is worn out," and many a modern visitor to Poets' Corner may excusably repeat the exclamation of Goldsmith's Chinaman.
Far otherwise is it with Ben Jonson, whose bust, had it life, could shake hands with that of the forgotten Drayton. But the dust of the two poets is in no danger of mingling, for Jonson was buried not in Poets' Corner but in the north aisle of the nave. There, in one of of his meditative wanderings, Hawthorne suddenly found it. " Lingering through one of the aisles," he writes, " I happened to look down, and found my foot upon a stone inscribed with this familiar exclamation, ` O rare Ben Jonson ! ' and remembered the story of stout old Ben's burial in that spot, standing upright — not, I presume, on account of any unseemly reluctance on his part to lie down in the dust, like other men, but because standing-room was all that could reasonably be demanded for a poet among the slumberous notabilities of his age. It made me weary to think of it ! — such a prodigious length of time to keep one's feet ! — apart from the honour of the thing, it would certainly have been better for Ben to stretch himself at ease in some country churchyard."
Several stories are told to account for Jonson being buried in such an unusual position. One credits the dramatist with asking a favour of Charles I. " What is it ? " demanded the King. " Eighteen inches of square ground," rejoined Jonson. " Where ? " asked the King. " In Westminster Abbey." Another version asserts that the poet wished to be so buried that he might be in readiness for the Resurrection ; and a third relates a conversation between Jonson and the Dean of the Abbey, in which, on being rallied by the Dean about his being buried in Poets' Corner, Jonson said he was too poor to purchase a resting place there. " No, sir," said the poet, " six feet long by two feet wide is too much for me : two feet by two will do for all I want." To which the Dean rejoined, " You shall have it."
Whatever the cause, it is indisputable that Jonson was buried in an upright position. When the ground next his grave was opened in 1849 to prepare for another burial, the clerk of the works " saw the two leg-bones of Jonson, fixed bolt upright in the sand, as though the body had been buried in an upright position; and the skull came rolling down among the sand, from a position above the leg-bones, to the bottom of the newly-made grave. There was still hair upon it, and it was of a red colour."
Less enduring than the fame of Jonson is that of Abraham Cowley, though he, like Drayton, went to his grave amid the high plaudits of his own age. Milton is said to have bracketed Cowley with Shakespeare and Spenser as the three greatest poets of England ; even the dissolute Charles II when informed of his death said he " had not left a better man in England ; " and his epitaph, after comparing the poet with Pindar, Virgil and Horace, attributed the immunity of the Abbey from the great Fire of London to the fact that it contained Cowley's grave. Thus :
That sacrilegious fire (which did last year
As was the case with several of his predecessors, " glorious John Dryden " passed from a death-bed of poverty to the companionship of kings. Elaborate preparations had been made for his funeral by the Dean, who had " the Abbey lighted, the ground opened, the choir attending, an anthem ready set, and himself waiting." But there was no corpse. An in-famous prank by the son of Lord Jeffries was responsible for this untoward incident, which was extenuated by the author on the plea that he did it to make the funeral more splendid !
So empty was Dryden's purse when he died that it became necessary to raise a fund to pay for his obsequies, but that service was readily undertaken, and twelve days after the poet's death his body was taken first to the College of Physicians, where it was honoured by a Latin eulogy, and then to the ancient Abbey, whither it was kept company by " an abundance of the quality, in their coaches and six horses," who, to the accompaniment of funeral music, chanted the Ode of Horace : Exegi monumentum aere perennius.
Something of the perplexity which had distressed Dryden in his choice of a religion perturbed his eulogists in deciding upon his epitaph. Pope and Atterbury divided the labour between them, their efforts being devoted to discovering the most suitable inscription for the monument which Sheffield, Duke of Buckingham, under took to erect. Atterbury offered a Latin epitaph, but varied it with the following lines :
This Sheffield rais'd to Dryden's ashes just,
Pope, however, was able to improve upon Atterbury's effort in the following couplet :
This Sheffield raised : the sacred dust below
Even that brief encomium, however, eventually gave place to the present simple inscription.
How truly the Abbey is the " temple of reconciliation and peace " is not alone illustrated by the close proximity of the dust of Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots, but also by the fact that Dryden's bust looks across to that of his one time rival, Thomas Shadwell, the poet of whom he wrote :
Others to some faint meaning make pretence,
Shadwell represents those monuments which have no poets, for he was not buried in the Abbey.
Could Milton revisit the earth with his principles unchanged he would probably be surprised to find himself commemorated in a building so linked with the traditions of royalty. His body was not buried here, it is true, and the author of " Paradise Lost " had been in his grave more than sixty years before the growth of his fame and the decay of prejudice made it possible for his medallion to find a place on these walls. Some thirty years earlier an innocent effort to introduce Milton's name in an inscription to another poet prompted a royalist.
Dean of the time to exercise his authority in erasing the obnoxious name. But Addison opened the eyes of England to the superb genius of Milton, and such was the change of opinion, as Dr. Gregory told Dr. Johnson, that he had " seen erected in the church a bust of the man whose name I once knew considered as a pollution of its walls."
Many poets besides Milton have had to wait long years for recognition in Poets' Corner. There was Samuel Butler, for example, the author of " Hudibras," who, buried elsewhere, had no memorial here until half a century after his death ; and Coleridge, whose bust was the gift of an American admirer, Dr. Mercer, fifty years after the poet was buried at Highgate; and Addison, who had no monument in Poets' Corner until ninety years after he had passed away.
Varied as are the conceits, couched in sonorous Latin or quaint English, which adorn some of these memorials, the most curious and the best-known epitaph is to be found on the tomb of John Gay, whose " Fables " and " The Beggar's Opera " still keep his memory alive. " If a stone shall mark the place of my grave," he wrote to Pope, " see these words put upon it:
" ` Life is a jest, and all things show it;
Pope saw that his friend's wish was respected, but he added an epitaph of his own, perhaps the most affectionate and sincere of all his posthumous eulogies :
Of manners gentle, of affections mild;
Although the Abbey is richly sown with the dust of Kings and Queens, although here rest many famous statesmen of high renown, although this is the sepulchre of illustrious warriors, of great nobles, of immortal musicians, of men and women who have won fame which will never die, there is no part of the sacred building which appeals so tenderly to the heart of the pilgrim as Poets' Corner. Herein is the reward of him who devotes himself to singing a nation's songs, to writing that " universal language which the heart holds with nature and itself." He may not win a great success in life, he may even feed the flame of his genius at the expense of the body in which it has a being. Like Chaucer, and Spenser, and too many others, he may pass to his grave in poverty or sorrow. But the crown is his at last — the crown of a nation's love. " Notwithstanding the simplicity of these memorials," wrote Washington Irving, " I have always observed that the visitors to the Abbey remained the longest about them. A kinder and fonder feeling takes the place of that cold curiosity or vague admiration with which they gaze upon the monuments of the great and heroic."
Hawthorne had the same feeling. " It seemed to me," he reflected, " that I had always been familiar with the spot. Enjoying a humble intimacy — and how much of my life had else been a dreary solitude ! — with many of its inhabitants, I could not feel myself a stranger there. It was delightful to be among them. There was a genial awe, mingled with a sense of kind and friendly presences about me; and I was glad, moreover, at finding so many of them there together, in fit companionship, mutually recognized and duly honoured, all reconciled now, whatever distant generations, whatever personal hostility or other miserable impediment, had divided them asunder while they lived. I have never felt a similar interest in any other tomb-stones, nor have I ever been deeply moved by the imaginary presence of other famous dead people. A poet's ghost is the only one that survives for his fellow mortals, after his bones are in the dust — and he not ghostly, but cherishing many hearts with his own warmth in the chilliest atmosphere of life. What other fame is worth aspiring for ? Or, let me speak it more boldly, what other long-enduring fame can exist ? We neither remember nor care anything for the past, except as the poet has made it intelligibly noble and sublime to our comprehension."
If it be such an inspiration to visit the grave of but one poet, how much more uplifting is it to stand amid the tombs of so many ! So great is the stress of life in these modern days, so many are the voices clamouring at our ears, that we need every possible incentive to turn our minds to the golden wealth of thought which these poets have garnered for us with much travail. As we stand beside their graves we can make no more worthy resolve than that which will pledge us to a rightful use of the inheritance they have left. So shall we weave for each dead singer the wreath he would love best to wear.