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.
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