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The Englishman's England
LITERARY SHRINES AND LITERARY PILGRIMS: THE WRITER AS TOURIST ATTRACTION
Christianity is the chief supplier of tourism.
Roland Barthes, Mythologies
There are many good reasons for visiting Lyme Regis. Its natural setting in a bay on the Dorset coastline gives it broad vistas of the sea and makes its streets quaintly crooked and hilly. As he walks them, the visitor comes across reminders of the Regency, when Lyme first enjoyed favour as a bathing resort. The town has something to tempt the scientifically curious, too, for the surrounding blue lias cliffs are rich in fossils; Mary Anning discovered the ichthyosaurus here in 1811. The historically minded will remember that in 1685 the Duke of Monmouth landed on the Cobb, Lyme's distinctive stone pier, to start his unsuccessful rebellion against James II. These charms were already acknowledged by the middle of the nineteenth century – the town had risen to the distinction of a royal suffix – but for the poet Tennyson they were outweighed by something else. Jane Austen had been here and made Lyme the scene of a memorable episode in Persuasion. 'Don't talk to me of the Duke of Monmouth', the Poet Laureate told his host, waving aside the sort of guidebook summary I have just offered. 'Show me the spot where Louisa Musgrove "fell down and was taken up lifeless".'
Of course, it was a disgracefully unprofessional, even philistine demand for a writer to make. Any academic specialising in the study of literature will tell you that proper consideration of Jane Austen's novel depends hardly at all on familiarity with Lyme Regis. Most, I think, would say our judgement should not be affected if we discovered that Jane Austen had never been there or even that Lyme did not exist. Yet Tennyson's attitude remains the popular one. To the common reader, and to those who get their reading from television serials, a large part of literature's appeal is its connection with place – real places that can be visited by car over a sunny Bank Holiday. To the leisure traveller, literary associations are as much a part of the landscape as country houses or historic buildings or beauty spots.
When we visit Lyme Regis now, we bring memories of John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman as well as Persuasion. The countryside to its north, of course, is Hardy's Wessex and beyond that lie the Exmoor of R. D. Blackmore's Lorna Doone and the Devon coast of Charles Kingsley's Westward Ho! If we leave the south-west and make our way north towards the Scottish border, we can travel through the countryside of Housman's Shropshire Lad or Arnold Bennett's Five Towns or Shakespeare's Warwickshire or D. H. Lawrence's Midlands or the Brontës' Yorkshire moors, until we at last reach Wordsworth's Lake District. And as we go, we pass a host of specific sites. How many churches owe their trickle of donations to the presence of a writer's grave or monument? How many inns owe their passing trade to the custom they once enjoyed, or are supposed to have enjoyed, from a famous author? England now boasts about forty houses preserved and opened to the public because a writer was born, grew up, courted, lived, wrote or died there. Between them, they attract about two million visits a year. If we are all tourists nowadays, then at one time or another we are all literary pilgrims.
It is worth noting that word, 'pilgrims', and the usage which makes 'shrines' of writers' birthplaces, homes and graves. They are not peculiarly my own, but part of the common language of literary tourism, heard everywhere in the older accounts I shall be quoting in this chapter and still surviving even in the most up-to-date guidebooks. As my introduction suggested, the medieval pilgrimage established precedents for literary tourism we would do well to consider. Its distinctive blend of high-minded sanctity and debased commercialism is powerfully reminiscent of medieval Catholic culture in its later stages. So, too, are the underlying reasons for its popularity. When the Reformation purged saints from the calendar, stripped idols from the churches and denuded the landscape of shrines, the public need for these things had to find secular equivalents. The statesman and the soldier could fill this role, at least until the memory of their deeds faded into the recesses of history. The scientist and the explorer could serve their turn as well, until their discoveries became mere commonplaces of knowledge. But the writer could best endure, kept alive by his living book, his achievement at once majestic and familiar to later generations. He proved the ideal hero for a secular culture, the most satisfying object of national pride.
These forces have exalted Shakespeare to special heights of worship, and later in this chapter I shall look in some detail at the curious legacy he bequeathed to Stratford-upon-Avon. But, given the loose mixture of patriotic and religious feeling I have described, it is hardly surprising that Westminster Abbey should have led the way in literary shrines. As unofficial church of the nation, it already housed the bones of Edward the Confessor, the only English king to achieve sainthood, and was steadily being filled with monuments to later sovereigns and national heroes. The growth of Poets' Corner within its wall marked the creation of the first and still the most comprehensive attraction for the literary tourist.
The cornerstone was laid in 1400, when Chaucer was buried outside the Chapel of St Benedict in the south transept, his grave marked by a slab in the pavement and, later, by a lead plaque on a nearby pillar – hung there, it is said, by the printer Caxton. Though he had enjoyed royal favour in his time, Chaucer may have gained this distinction in death by more than his poetry. As Clerk of Works to the king he had supervised work on the Abbey's nave and he had died within the Abbey precincts, in a house whose site was later covered by Henry VII's Chapel. But it was Chaucer the poet whom Nicholas Brigham, himself a minor poet, commemorated in the 1550s with a splendid new tomb near the original grave. Its presence soon attracted another writer to the south transept. Since he died in nearby King Street the poet Edmund Spenser would probably have been buried somewhere in the Abbey in the normal course of events but, as his Latin epitaph pointed out, the actual spot for his grave was chosen so that he could lie near Chaucer. He was honoured there as the Prince of Poets, 'his Hearse being carried by Poets, and mournfull Verses and Pomes throwne into his Tombe'.
When the playwright Francis Beaumont was buried near by in the opening years of the seventeenth century the little group around Chaucer's tomb became a landmark, at least to fellow writers. It gave pride to a profession still struggling for its dignity to be recognised. William Basse wrote in his 'Elegy on Shakespeare':
Renowned Spenser, lye a thought more nye To learned Chaucer, and rare Beaumont lye
A little neerer Spenser to make roome
ffor Shakespeare in your threefold fowerfold Tombe.
It was not, obviously, a serious proposal for exhumation from Stratford, but rather a complimentary conceit of a sort the age delighted in. Ben Jonson replied in the same spirit, insisting that Shakespeare's memory was ensured by his writings alone:
My Shakespeare, rise; I will not lodge thee by
Chaucer or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lye
A little further, to make thee a roome:
Thou are a Moniment, without a tombe,
And art aliue still, while thy Booke doth liue,
And we haue wits to read, and praise to giue.
It was only fitting that Jonson himself should end up in the Abbey, particularly since he was a resident of Westminster and an old boy of Westminster School. He was buried not in the south transept but in the north aisle of the nave, where the magnificent simplicity of his epitaph triumphed over the misspelling of his name: 'O rare Ben Johnson'. With the death of Abraham Cowley, one of several now forgotten poets commemorated during the Restoration, Sir John Denham could congratulate literature on the place in public honour it had achieved:
These Poets near our Princes sleep,
And in one Grave their Mansion keep.
Yet when Addison paid a visit in 1711 the effect was still rather haphazard: 'In the poetical Quarter, I found there were Poets who had no Monuments, and Monuments which had no Poets.' The Spectator essay that offered this mild complaint is itself a striking expression of the spirit of the times, an eloquent tribute to the appeal which graves and monuments could hold. They induced a mood that the age particularly relished: 'the Gloominess of the Place, and the Use to which it is applied, with the Solemnity of the Building, and the Condition of the People who lye in it, are apt to fill the Mind with a kind of Melancholy, or rather Thoughtfulness, that is not disagreeable'. This pleasing, pensive melancholy led naturally to the vein of elegant truism which is the special hallmark of the age's reflective writing. Addison ended his stroll round the Abbey with a passage that few later guidebooks could resist quoting:
When I look upon the Tombs of the Great, every Emotion of Envy dies in me; when I read the Epitaphs of the Beautiful, every inordinate Desire goes out; when I meet with the Grief of Parents upon a Tomb-stone, my Heart melts with Compassion; when I see the Tomb of the Parents themselves, I consider the Vanity of grieving for those whom we must quickly follow: When I see Kings lying by those who deposed them, when I consider rival Wits plac'd Side by Side, or the Holy Men that divided the World with their Contests and Disputes, I reflect with Sorrow and Astonishment on the little Competitions, Factions, and Debates of Mankind. When I read the several Dates of the Tombs, of some that dy'd Yesterday, and some six hundred Years ago, I consider that great Day when we shall all of us be Contemporaries, and make our Appearance together.
To appreciate the importance such meditation would assume in eighteenth-century culture we need only point to the popularity of Gray's 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard'. To understand its local application to the Abbey and the Abbey's poetical quarter we have to descend to the writings of John Dart. Dart was a very minor antiquary whose Westmonasterium was remembered only to be castigated for its slovenliness; even at the time of its publication in 1742 the book had to be sold for less than the cost of its engravings. Its prose description of the Abbey is prefaced by a heroic poem which Dart had first issued separately some years before, an incautious gesture if he wished to establish a literary reputation but one the historian can now thank him for. It invites the reader to forsake distant Groves and murmuring Floods for tolling Bells and dusty Tombs, there to engage in solemn reflection on Man's feeble Power and Death's unbounded Sway. The various monarchs and dignitaries commemorated in the Abbey then march lifeless through Dart's couplets. In this dull parade writers are given a place of distinction for reasons the muddled verse just manages to convey:
The Poet's Name can strike a Pale around,
And where he rests he consecrates the Ground,
Can from rude Hands the sculptur'd Marble save,
And spread a sacred Influence round the Grave.
Thus Virgil's Tomb attracts the Trav'ller's Eyes,
While none can tell where great Augustus lies.
Significantly, Dart's prose guide begins in the south transept, where the collection of graves and monuments was growing more substantial and more coherent than it had been in Addison's day. In the Abbey's Gothic surroundings the age was trying to create a Temple of Worthies – one of those elegant, judiciously organised tributes in stone and verse with which they sometimes liked to ornament the picturesque landscaping of their gardens. John Barber, printer and later Lord Mayor of London, put up a monument to Samuel Butler, who had died poor and obscure in 1680 after writing the satirical Hudibras. William Benson, Wren's successor as Surveyor-General, persuaded the authorities to allow a memorial to the regicide Milton, earlier denied burial in the Abbey by the Royalist Dean Sprat.
In an age so richly appreciative of monuments, so finely aware of the immortality one writer could confer on another with an epitaph, Alexander Pope became the arbiter of taste. He originally proposed to use the otherwise barren task of writing an inscription for Nicholas Rowe to complain that Dryden still lay 'Beneath a rude and nameless stone' near by. The real value of Rowe's memorial, the first version of Pope's epitaph suggested, would be as a signpost to the whereabouts of his great predecessor. When the Duke of Buckingham agreed to remedy the deficiency in 1720 Pope consulted with his friend Atterbury, then Dean of Westminster, about the proper wording of a tribute until the verses originally proposed had been winnowed down to a simple statement of Dryden's name and dates. Its effect, said Dart, was 'a silent Reproach to abundance of others in this church, by showing how few Words are necessary to express real Merit, and how many are requisited to set off none'.
Pope was active, too, in the campaign for a monument to Shakespeare. The result, erected in 1740, had a surround and pedestal by William Kent, its corners decorated with portraits of Richard II, Henry V and Queen Elizabeth – where, remarked Horace Walpole, 'they have as little to do as they have with Shakespeare'. The full-length statue by Peter Scheemakers showed the poet leaning on the pedestal and looking 'natural, free, and easy', as The Gentleman's Magazine admiringly put it. For the scroll that unfurled from Shakespeare's hand, Pope mockingly proposed an epigram against the practice of making monuments commemorate their donors as prominently as their subjects:
Thus Britain lov'd me; and preserved my Fame,
Clear from a Barber's or a Benson's name.
Instead, the scroll was carved with a slight misquotation from The Tempest.
Pope and his contemporaries believed that a Temple of Worthies should find room for moderns as well as ancients: part of its purpose was to announce the continuity between writers of the present age and the examples they followed. In this spirit Pope contributed an epitaph on his friend John Gay, author of The Beggar's Opera, but made a finely theatrical gesture when it came to his own death in 1744. He chose to be buried in Twickenham near the villa, garden and grotto he had tended with as much care as he had brought to his poetry. The epitaph he wrote for himself remembered 'One who would not be buried in Westminster Abbey', thus neatly combining advertisement of his own and the Abbey's importance in the literary world.
Given the century's emphasis on the dignity appropriate to monuments, and the solemn feelings they could inspire in the spectator, we need to remind ourselves that these things are difficult of achievement. If we picture the Abbey and its poetical quarter as a hushed, reverential place haunted by the occasional pensive essayist, then we are forgetting that the monuments were intended for public gaze and that, even in the eighteenth century, such spectacles easily took on the trappings of a modern tourist attraction. It was not that Poets' Corner became slowly tainted by commercialism as it grew famous. Rather, it simply could not avoid being caught up in the commercialism of which the Abbey already had a long history. Space for monuments had always been for sale, and admission charges had been levied since the Reformation. 'If I had a mind to be angry', wrote Horace Walpole, 'I could complain with reason ... that the Chapter of Westminster sell their church over and over again; the ancient monuments tumble upon one's head through their neglect, as one of them did, and killed a man at Lady Elizabeth Percy's funeral; and they erect new waxen dolls of Queen Elizabeth, etc. to draw visits and money from the mob.'
Such accusations are made at length in one of the first published accounts to use the modern term, 'Poets' Corner'. Goldsmith's essay of 1760 in his Citizen of the World begins like a latter-day version of Addison's musings in The Spectator. 'What a gloom do monumental inscriptions and all the venerable remains of deceased merit inspire!' But Goldsmith is writing in the assumed character of a visiting foreigner, and this has always been a favourite device of the satirist. His Chinese dignitary is shocked at being asked for payment to get into the royal chapels:
I was surprised at such a demand; and asked the man whether the people of England kept a shew? Whether the paltry sum he demanded was not a national reproach? Whether it was not more to the honour of the country to let their magnificence or their antiquities be openly seen, than thus meanly to tax a curiosity which tended to their own honour? As for your questions, replied the gate-keeper, to be sure they may be very right, because I don't understand them, but as for that there threepence, I farm it from one, who rents it from another, who hires it from a third, who leases it from the guardians of the temple, and we all must live.