Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner was not (as I had believed) the burial grounds for the many well-known writers I had studied in high school and college. In fact, according to the pamphlet we were given at the door, only Robert Browning (not Elizabeth?) and Tennyson are actually buried in Poets’ Corner (a great Jeopardy question). But, according to Westminster-abbey.org, poets Chaucer (the first poet to be buried here), John Dryden, Tennyson, John Masefield, and many writers, including William Camden, Dr. Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Rudyard Kipling and Thomas Hardy are also buried here. I get the feeling I should be bothered by the inconsistency but I am not. I move on to the other famous English writers who are commemorated with a statue and or engraved memorials in the floor of Poets’ Corner. Homage is paid to American-born poets Longfellow and T.S. Eliot, although Eliot became an expatriate using his British citizenship to write with his “American mind.” Eliot’s epitaph on his memorial reads, “The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living”. After reading this I was struck with a renewed sense of admiration. What every good writer/poet has in common with the greats that rest in Poets’ Corner (aside from abilities to extract all potential power from the written word) is their ability to impact human nature in perpetuity; Shakespeare with his therapeutic carvings into the human heart and Mathew Arnold with his prescient take (Dover Beach) on the moral chaos soon to be wrought by the industrial revolution. The messages, coded often in poetry, can be taken as lessons, harbingers of portent – for good or ill. We ignore the beauty and knowledge found in these and other writings at our own peril.
Strangely, I do not feel like a stranger in Westminster Abbey, even as I make my way to the chapel feeling an urgent need to light a candle for my mother who, as a Canadian, was baptized (as were five of her six children) in the Church of England. It felt right.
Making my way through the chapel, it was not hard to visualize the royal wedding that has occurred just a week before. The chapel is a festival of ornate carvings resembling icing delicately draped on internal spires that wave high about the statues of the sainted and exalted. I was drawn to the new statuary in the frieze just outside the chapel doors, a row of stone figures intricately scrolled and presented to match as best as possible the original architecture of the Abbey. One statue in the frieze looked incredibly familiar. I took a look through my camera lens bringing in the name inscribed at the statue’s base. King. Martin Luther King is honored in Westminster Abbey. I snapped more pictures of the entire frieze as one prefect came over and explained that Martin Luther King and Father Romero along with others are honored in the group known as the 20th Century Martyrs. Church of England. Nice. And, as if nice needs balance, there was the King’s throne (different from the throne in the movie, the King’s Speech) on display while being restored. It was explained that, long ago, the boys from the elite boy’s school close by used the church for retreats and sleepovers and, in the time-honored tradition of all young punks, graffitied the hell out of the 16th Century gold gilt that covered the throne. I couldn’t get close enough to read any of the writing but I could just imagine, Thomas and Elizabeth forever, William 1936, or free Huey P. Newton (just kidding on the last one).
I felt at home in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner, maybe because touring it offered a pleasing respite from the proverbial pillage and plunder that remains the history of the human animal. I believe history repeats itself because human nature does not (to any meaningful degree) change. Alas.