Thomas Prendergast's Poetical Dust offers a provocative and far-reaching analysis of Poets' Corner. Covering nearly a thousand years of political and literary history, the book examines the chaotic, sometimes fitful process through which Britain has consecrated its poetry and poets.
2015 | 256 pages | Cloth $59.95
Literature | Cultural Studies
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1. Westminster Abbey and the Incorporation of Poets' Corner
Chapter 2. Melancholia, Monumental Resistance, and the Invention of Poets' Corner
Chapter 3. Love, Literary Publicity, and the Naming of Poets' Corner
Chapter 4. Absence and the Public Poetics of Regret
Chapter 5. Poetic Exhumation and the Anxiety of Absence
Coda. Necromancy and the American Poets' Corner
Poets' Corner Graveplan
Poets' Corner Alphabetical Burial and Monument List
Chronological List of Stones and Monuments in the South Transept
Sometime in the 1850s Nathaniel Hawthorne visited Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey for the first time and remarked on the impression that he had been there before. Yet, far from feeling that weird sense of dread that usually accompanies the Unheimliche, or uncanny, he remarks on the hominess of the space.
It seemed to me 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 honored, all reconciled now, whatever distant generations, whatever personal hostility or other miserable impediment, had divided them far asunder while they lived. I have never felt a similar interest in any other tombstones, 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 chillest atmosphere of life. What other fame is worth aspiring for?Of course, Hawthorne, as a writer, has a special kinship with those ghosts who inhabit Poets' Corner, but, like his countryman Washington Irving (who provides the epigraph for this book), he extends this feeling to the larger public—creating what might be called spiritual communion with those writers who have gone before. In so doing, Hawthorne and Irving oppose the cold marmoreal presence of dead heroes and kings with the warmth, one might say vitality, of dead writers. Indeed, invoking a tradition that goes back to the Roman author Horace, Hawthorne will go on to claim that it is, in fact, poets who are responsible for the continuing fame of statesmen and heroes. Immortality is thus produced by poets, and this immortality, in turn, seems to warm and enliven the space in the Abbey that is inhabited by so many poetical corpses—to make it a "home" for all.
I begin this book about a profoundly English space with two American writers because I want to convey the temporal and geographical reach of Poets' Corner. Though both writers visit Poets' Corner as members of an English-speaking fraternity, their sense of kinship is born not out of a desire to be immortalized within the walls of Westminster Abbey but out of a recognition that the space elicits a certain kind of feeling from them. We might expect these writers to feel a "companionship" with their fellow writers, which they do, but both also move from their personal experience to a larger public feeling about the particular aspects of the writer in his or her afterlife. The writer is, as Hawthorne notes, a ghost—but not ghostly—because of the warmth he possesses and engenders in the visitor. Both Irving and Hawthorne, in other words, use their visits to Poets' Corner to enlarge on the relationship between "the author and the reader" and both contrast the experience in the Corner with the experience one has when one encounters other monuments or gravestones. Poets' Corner becomes a place that reminds them of the bond between reader and writer that remains long after the writer has died.
In this way, Poets' Corner might be seen as a classic lieu de mémoire—a place that, as Pierre Nora puts it, embodies "a memorial consciousness that has barely survived in a historical age." It stands as a place that not only commemorates literature but also keeps the memory of writers alive. History penetrates and petrifies these authors, rendering them as traces of what they once were. In Nora's evocative metaphor, they are no longer alive, but neither are they dead, "like shells on the shore when the sea of living memory has receded." Poets' Corner functions as a kind of memory activator. Like the tombs of kings and heroes, the monuments of Poets' Corner stand as palpable reminders of the memory that we are about to lose.
But as long as we focus solely on the monuments' commemorative functions, we remain locked into a reading of the space as exclusively melancholic—an attempt to maintain a connection with what we have lost. Given that so much poetry seems obsessed with loss, it is not surprising that Poets' Corner seems to invite reactions that emphasize loss and memorial recuperation. As Andreas Huyssen puts it, "Memory . . . was a topic for the poets and their visions of a golden past, or conversely, for their tales about the hauntings of a restless past." But to treat the statues and plaques in Poets' Corner merely as lithic traces of the poetical past is to fail to distinguish between the place of Poets' Corner and the larger space of Westminster Abbey. It is to suggest that the graves of poets and the tombs of what Irving calls "the great and heroic" perform much the same function—to consolidate a feeling of belonging that lends itself to a national consciousness. But Poets' Corner is different from the rest of the Abbey in that its commemorative function seems at odds with that which makes literature worth commemorating. One of the primary claims of literary culture (made by Horace, Shakespeare, Milton, and others) was that the truest, most immortal monuments were literary, while material monuments could fall into decay and thus were evanescent reminders of mortal transience. And, in fact, it is this permanency that enabled "literature . . . to mediate religious, ethnic and class conflicts within [the] nation." At best, the monuments in Poets' Corner would seem extraneous—an impermanent duplication of the literary works that already guarantee the immortality of the poet.
So what is it that Poets' Corner does? What does it try to immortalize? I would argue that we need to ask not only what this site of culture did for the visitor, but what Poets' Corner did to the visitor. The "reminding" that Poets' Corner seems to engage in is not merely the spurring of abstract recollections of great literary men and women that would render "cold curiosity or vague admiration," but an "uncovering" of affect in the visitor. What does it mean to employ a metaphor of excavation in relation to affect? It suggests that if visitors to Poets' Corner come in order to exhume (both figuratively and literally) the bodies of the poets, Poets' Corner requires that the visitor unearth his or her emotions vis-à-vis these writers. Insofar as it calls forth or even demands something from the visitor, Poets' Corner has agency. This is not so strange a statement as it may appear. The Corner is very old and is the product of a series of discrete actions over five hundred years. The Corner contains all of these actions, yet all of these actions do not encompass the Corner. This is not to say that those who erected statues, lobbied for burial, or wrote about the Corner did not wish to use the Corner to accomplish various political, ethical, or poetical goals. Poets, politicians, and even merchants all understood the significance of the Corner and attempted to use it to their own purposes. But the larger sensibility created by all of these acts often led the Corner to affect its visitors in very different ways.
Poets' Corner is not merely a space in which various interests are realized, for it also becomes an unacknowledged (because unrecognized) actor in the cultural and political sphere of England. Its insistent ideology, if we can call it that, is wrapped up in its own sui generis nature and, by extension, the incommensurability of art. As we will see, claims about the incomparable nature of art were not universally accepted. Even as politicians and civil society laid claim to the power of the place, they also attempted to use the boundaries of Poets' Corner to circumscribe the power of literature and, in a contradictory move, claim that the space—essentially a graveyard—was commensurate with other spaces in the Abbey. Hence the corpses of poets, kings, and commoners all mixed together in the undifferentiated space under the masonry became the occasion for a familiar but potent warning that death treated all exactly the same. This corporeal leveling, aimed at the material basis for the power of the Corner, was meant to assert that corpses of poets were no different from the dead bodies of politicians, rulers, and merchants. The implication is that poetry had no special claim to immortality but was as subject to the ravages of time as politics or patronage. But the paradoxical logic of the Corner operated differently than the commemorative logic of the rest of the Abbey.
If Poets' Corner "acts" on the visitor, what kind of agency can we attribute to the space? It helps to think about the Corner as the material representation of a kind of text. Using the idea of the "plot" of a text here might seem contrived, but the word "plot" was, in fact, originally connected with space. As Lorna Hutson has argued, the word "plat" (the most common early modern variant) meant "a piece of ground used for some purpose" and, by extension, a conceptual scheme or plan of a space. This connection with space led writers like Philip Sidney to extend what had been a material idea to a more abstract realm. Thus, in A Defense of Poetry, he makes the case that poets build their works out of "an imaginative ground plot of a profitable invention." For Hutson, emplotment here, like the plan of a plot of land, is ultimately valuable insofar as it alerts the "reader to the uses of narrative as a method for the emplotment or reinterpretaton of circumstances in the interests of a fortunate end." I treat Poets' Corner as a kind of text which indeed constantly calls attention to its own plot in both senses of the word. It is, admittedly, a peculiar kind of narrative whose lapidary prose and poetry continually draws attention to its own construction. And the sheer number of "authors" involved in the construction of the Corner might seem to complicate claims for a single guiding consciousness behind this place. But I argue that it is precisely the variousness of the actors involved in Poets' Corner that gives it a kind of authorial consciousness that at once inhabits the present and the past.
As a cemetery, the Corner operates within time as a place where people can gather, and yet it is not quite in time because its purpose is to defeat the predations of history. As a place that is seemingly both within and outside of time, it operates in much the same way as what Michel Foucault calls a heterotopia or "other space." Foucault describes this peculiar space as "most often linked to slices in time—which is to say that they open onto what might be termed, for the sake of symmetry, heterochronies. The heterotopia begins to function at full capacity when men arrive at a sort of absolute break with their traditional time. This situation shows us that the cemetery is indeed a highly heterotopic place since, for the individual, the cemetery begins with this strange heterochrony, the loss of life, and with this quasi-eternity in which her permanent lot is dissolution and disappearance."
Unlike Foucault's notion, of course, this space in Poets' Corner is no mere cemetery, but something that moves beyond the graveyard. Its plot is defined by presence (Geoffrey Chaucer) and absence (William Shakespeare). It is a space that looks to the losses of the past, but also offers the potential for imagining the nation in the future. And it does this by acting as a text that calls forth a certain affective response from its visitor—akin to the affective response that literature calls forth from the reader.