/ The London Traveler
London — By Andrea Kirkby on February 11, 2010 at 4:57 pm
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Poets’ Corner

Paris has its Pantheon, where the bodies of the great are laid to rest. London has no such monument, though if you want to catch up with the greatest and the best, you’ll probably find them in St Paul’s, or Westminster Abbey, or Highgate Cemetery. Or just as likely, at Windsor, or Canterbury Cathedral or York Minster… But we do have Poets’ Corner.

The floor of Westminster Abbey is paved with poets...

Poet’s Corner is a particular little spot in Westminster Abbey[map], where the aisle turns into the south transept, and where traditionally the English poets have been buried, or at least commemorated.

The greatest of them all are buried elsewhere. I suppose that’s what you expect of poets; they don’t bow to convention, they have their own sense of place. In France, the state would catch up with them and ensure when they were finally dead and in no state to be cantankerous, their bodies were scooped up and relocated to the Pantheon. (There’s currently some controversy about plans to uproot Albert Camus from his Provençal grave and put him in the Paris monument instead.)

The great Brummie poet, actor and playwright Will Shakespeare is buried in Stratford-on-Avon; Milton is buried in St Giles Cripplegate, the medieval church which is now surrounded by the Brutalist architecture of the Barbican;  Keats is buried in Rome, Wordsworth in the Lake District he loved. And Chaucer – well, Chaucer is buried here, though the fine tomb you see was built 150 years after his death.

That hasn’t stopped Westminster from erecting monuments to them. And if you’re into English poetry, you can find some interesting minor names here; Michael Drayton, the Elizabethan poet; Thomas Gray; Matthew Prior.

There are exceptions too; memorials to two Scots (Burns and Scott, unsurprisingly both actually buried in Scotland), and the Australian poet, Adam Lindsay Gordon, as well as one to Longfellow. Actor Sir Henry Irving and the composer Handel have smuggled themselves in, and while both Rudyard Kipling and Thomas Hardy qualify as both poets and novelists, I wonder how Dickens got in here? I certainly don’t know any poetry of his!  More recently, Sir Laurence Olivier arrived to take up residence. Perhaps the area really should be renamed Literary Corner, but that doesn’t sound so good.)

And a single painter has wickedly snuck in – Sir Godfrey Kneller, in fact the only painter to be commemorated in Westminster Abbey at all (unless another one has managed to get in here since my Blue Guide was published, which was some time ago).

There is some surprisingly interesting sculpture to be seen in this little corner – the monument to Prior is by Rysbrack, and the Shakespeare monument by Scheemakers. William Blake, the mystical poet and artist, is commemorated by an Epstein work – one controversial man making the memorial of another.

Typically for England, Poets’ Corner wasn’t deliberately started as a monument to famous poets. It simply happened, as the result of a number of happy accidents. First of all, Chaucer was buried here – that probably had more to do with his day job as a senior civil servant than with his poetic prowess. Secondly, in the full flourishing of the Elizabethan literary scene, a more magnificent tomb was erected – and a little later, the poet Edmund Spenser died, and was buried close by. Then, little by little, other poets were drawn in – till eventually this became the Pantheon of the poetic dead.

Not every poet managed to get in. Byron, for instance, may have written marvellous verse, but was also a very badly behaved aristocrat, not the right sort of person for Poet’s Corner. Having mistresses, having affairs with your half-sister, flamboyantly aiding the cause of Greek liberty against the Ottoman Empire – not the right stuff, old chap. Byron died in 1824 but it wasn’t till the arrival of the Sixties and Flower Power that he finally got his monument here (in 1969)!

And Milton, poor old Milton, nearly lost his place for politics. He was another poet with an interesting day job (like Chaucer, bank clerk TS Eliot, and apothecary Keats) – he had been one of the higher diplomatic staff under Cromwell during the Protectorate. Of course, by the time he died in 1674, Charles II was back on the throne, and Milton was definitely not flavour du jour (though Dryden, Waller and Marvell, who had flourished under the Protectorate, managed to wriggle into the Restoration and thrive, Milton was far too involved in Revolutionary politics to have any wriggle room).

In the end, Milton got a monument here in 1737.  The snake with the apple in its mouth is quite clearly recognisable to anyone who has read Paradise Lost…

Now I mentioned that Poets’ Corner only got started by accident. But the really neat thing about it is that it couldn’t have happened in a more appropriate place – almost as if it was deliberate. Because just around the corner is the site where Caxton first set up his printing press. I do find that really the most intriguing coincidence!

Of course Poets’ Corner isn’t your main reason for going to Westminster Abbey. You’ll want to see the magnificent Gothic architecture (typically for England, this very ‘national’ church is in fact a masterpiece of the French Gothic style, and much less ‘English’ than just about any other cathedral or abbey in the country!) , you’ll want to see the royal tombs, the amazing exuberance of Henry VII’s Perpendicular tomb chapel… But I have a lot of affection for Poets’ Corner, and if you’re at all interested in Eng. Lit., it’s worth spending a half hour looking round.

Photo by Wolfiewolf on flickr

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