In Poets’ Corner I Sat Down and… Didn’t Feel Much, Actually

In London last Saturday I went to visit Westminster Abbey, which is so beautiful and interesting and filled with so much history – so many famous old bones – it became rather surreal and difficult to take in. This feeling of surreality wasn’t helped by the fact that I, along with everyone else who opted for the much-needed audio description headsets, was guided around by the voice of actor Jeremy Irons. It’s magnificent, anyway, outside and in: a great experience. I was slightly sorry for William Caxton and John Reith, though, who in their different times and ways have done more than anyone to spread culture in Britain, and whose stone wall-plaques were outside in a not-very-sweet-smelling courtyard where people queued for the toilet. “Hello. I’m Jeremy Irons. You are now standing in the queue for the toilet…”

So – to the point. There is a famous section of the Abbey called Poets’ Corner, which began as the resting place of Geoffrey Chaucer (not then best known for his literary achievements, Jeremy informed me, but for being Clerk of Works for the Palace of Westminster) and has since become the traditional place for great authors, poets and playwrights to be buried or commemorated. It is crowded with stone floor-slabs, carved monuments, busts, and now, given the overcrowding, a memorial stained-glass window too. And what a party of ghosts! What a crowd! Shakespeare, Hardy, George Eliot, Oscar Wilde, T. S. Eliot, Tennyson, Auden, Austen, Lewis Carroll, the Brontes, Wordsworth, Ben Jonson… I could go on and on and on and on. Had I expected to feel moved, excited? I don’t know. I had expected to feel something. After all, for several years now, especially since joining The Reader Organisation, these people have been powerful influences in my life.  They have, despite being dead, changed the way I live. And here they all were. And yes, it was touching to stand above the gold letters ‘CHARLES DICKENS’ and to think that his bones – his actual bones from his actual body! – were just metres away from me. This wasn’t his wish apparently: he had wanted to be buried “in an inexpensive, unostentatious and strictly private manner”.

But on the whole I wasn’t moved. On the whole I felt very little. And as I sat down, looked around and ticked off more and more great names, I realised the cause of my dissatisfaction. Above and on either side of a statue of William Shakespeare, spaced symmetrically high up on the wall, were two stone tablets bearing the names “Keats” and “Shelley”. The meaninglessness of this suddenly became clear to me. Those stone tablets – somehow implying that Keats and Shelley were two of a kind, or basically the same – were nothing but names. Now this is not a complaint about Poets’ Corner specifically – or about memorials generally. I am just as much of a blue-plaque hunter as the next boring person. But sitting in Westminster Abbey I was reminded of a question asked at our New Beginnings Readers’ Day earlier this year: about whether we should do more to mark writers’ anniversaries. Well, it’s a perfectly reasonable question, but to me the fact that it is “200 years since the birth of Anthony Trollope” is just as meaningless as his stone floor-slab in Poets’ Corner. Neither tells you anything about why his name is worth remembering in the first place: what he wrote. Anniversary celebrations can be a very good way to promote the work, of course they can, but they can also be a very poor substitute for actual reading. Those few metres between Dickens and me were light-years compared with how near he is – and how alive he is – when I read him.

These lines occurred to me as well:

But be contented when that fell arrest
Without all bail shall carry me away,
My life hath in this line some interest,
Which for memorial still with thee shall stay.
When thou reviewest this, thou dost review
The very part was consecrate to thee:
The earth can have but earth, which is his due;
My spirit is thine, the better part of me:
So then thou hast but lost the dregs of life,
The prey of worms, my body being dead,
The coward conquest of a wretch’s knife,
Too base of thee to be remembered.
     The worth of that is that which it contains,
     And that is this, and this with thee remains.

Shakespeare says that when death, “that fell arrest”, takes away his body, his lover should be contented because his spirit lives on in the writing, “in this line”. There is something wonderful in thinking that a part of Shakespeare’s mind – the best part? – is preserved in his words and can be brought back to life through the simple act of reading. When we read “my body being dead” he is literally speaking to us from beyond the grave! This is an “interest” above and beyond the fixed terms of life. His description of the body as mere “dregs” is not a dismissal of bodily life – think how emphatically his plays are embodied, how grounded they are in the physicality of their characters – but rather an acknowledgement that, once dead, the body has nothing more to offer: the worth within him, his individual spirit, has gone into his words. “The better part of me” is very like this from John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies: a book, Ruskin says,

is written, not to multiply the voice merely, not to carry it merely, but to perpetuate it. The author has something to say which he perceives to be true and useful, or helpfully beautiful. So far as he knows, no one has yet said it; so far as he knows, no one else can say it. He is bound to say it, clearly and melodiously if he may; clearly at all events. In the sum of his life he finds this to be the thing, or group of things, manifest to him; – this, the piece of true knowledge, or sight, which his share of sunshine and earth has permitted him to seize. He would fain set it down forever; engrave it on rock if he could; saying, ‘This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved, and hated, like another; my life was as the vapour, and is not; but this I saw and knew: this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.’ This is his ‘writing’: it is, in his small human way, and with whatever degree of true inspiration is in him, his inscription, or scripture. That is a ‘Book’.

But if books aren’t read, they’re dead. And no number of anniversary celebrations and commemorative monuments to the writer are going to resuscitate “the worth”: that which it contains. It is not the body we are reverencing in Poets’ Corner – many of the authors and poets aren’t buried there, only commemorated – but it is the name, the reputation, rather than what they wrote. And, given that the name and reputation were based on what they wrote, we are in danger of forgetting why we are reverencing certain names at all.

In his workshop at that New Beginnings Readers’ Day, the poet and translator David Constantine presented several poems without revealing, at least till we had thoroughly discussed them, whose they were. Too often, what we think we know about a writer, and the time in which they wrote, gets in the way of our reading. This has been a guiding principle in Get Into Reading too: we don’t let context get in the way of the text. Because, in a very important way, it doesn’t matter who wrote ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’, or Bleak House, or Silas Marner, or ‘Tears, Idle Tears’. If you read the words Shakespeare wrote, if you feel them, discuss them, argue them, tweet or Facebook them, whisper them softly to yourself when you’re having a crap day – if you live them, basically – you are doing more justice to Shakespeare than a thousand memorials in Westminster Abbey.

0 thoughts on “In Poets’ Corner I Sat Down and… Didn’t Feel Much, Actually”

  1. What an excellent blog Mark, so true, and a lovely snippet of Shakespeare who always manages to sound so relevant and current despite having been in a corner of the Abbey for so long! Thanks.

  2. ALthough this be a once in a life time occasion , I actually agree with you MARK!!!
    I am sure it was you who told me England were going to win the world cup ! but that is best forgotten , cant remember did we have a bet?
    What is the point of looking at stained glass windows of poets or authours when it is the actual words of these people that move us, I must be as boring a s you as read BLUE plaques but think that may be because i am an evertonian probably would not read then if they were red not that i am biased or anything!

  3. Ha! Thanks for your replies.

    I did say England would win World Cup yes – but, no, if there’d been any money on it I wouldn’t have said anything!

    Luckily, I think the sky’s an Evertonian today. Blue and white.

  4. Thanks for this Mark. It has reminded me of the time I was wheeling my brother around Winchester Cathedral in a wheelchair after he had had an operation. We tagged on to a party of American tourists and listened to the guide hold forth about Jane Austen. We were both utterly mortified when we realised my brother was parked on said great novelist’s remains. A hasty departure ensued!
    I fully agree that slabs of stone convey little of a writer’s greatness.
    Having said that, I visited Dylan Thomas’ boathouse in Laugharne last week and there was a real sense of his work being ‘alive’ there.`

  5. A stained glass window can break , a sonnet does not you can carry it around with you and takes up no space in your heart

  6. Thanks for this, Mark. I sometimes feel the same sense of disconnection in writers’ houses – somehow you feel that you should be moved because ‘that person lived here’ but, more often than not, you’re just walking around a museum and therefore, although often insightful, any genuine conection with that person is lost. Ruskin’s house and garden may be an exception…

  7. BEAUTY may not break but is much easier to carry word s around with you , I have a book of some sorts with me were ever I go , but although a stained glass window is much more difficult to carry around with you, although may be beautiful
    OH well! when ever I see a stained glass window I will think of you and smirk!
    I could go and find something beautiful to read within a few minutes if so desired but to find a stained glass window of beauty it may be , but have to go and search for it
    HERE ENDETH THE LECTURE ON WHAT IS CONSISERED BEAUTY

  8. Lots to think about here so thanks everyone.

    I must admit that I got a thrill from just reading the list of names in Poets’ Corner so the odds are it would get to me!

    As to writers’ houses, I am ambivalent. I can’t stand the ‘Howarth tea towel’ aspect but must admit when I visited Valledemosa (apologies for incorrect spelling if needs be!) where Chopin stayed for that miserable winter with Georges Sands and looking out at the view he saw from his piano I was really moved.

    As to sonnets and stained glass – well, a stained glass window has more than 14 lines but the beauty of both is the light we perceive through them, I think (hope that doesn’t sound too pompous).

  9. I agree with you, wish had never mentioned the difference between the difference of stained glass and a sonnet and you don’t sound at all pompous. The problem is I am a raging insomniac and all this talk about stained glass is shattering my thoughts of sleep.
    Sorry but I love to get the last word in and tomorrow is a new week and hopefully the reader will provide us with something else to discuss!!
    I agree both can be considered beautiful but would not like to carry anything glass through rush hour traffic but quiteale to carry a sonnet anywhere with no danger-to anyone else
    huh!
    I definatley won’t sleep now as become really hyper!!!
    I could be locked up in a darkened room but noone can take the poems or stories that are locked up in your heart awayunlike stained glass window not have
    anything against such a window , infact I may start off an appreciation society of stained glass to prove no,hard feelings going to bed now but doubt Iwill sleep so much to think about

  10. No! I liked your burst about beauty, breakage and the infinite capabilities of the heart – ~Shakespeare’s own verse ie in his sonnets.

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