Quantcast

Video of the Day

Masthead

Editor-in-Chief
Alex Carnevale
(e-mail/tumblr/twitter)

Managing Editor
Kara VanderBijl
(e-mail/tumblr/twitter)

Senior Editor
Durga Chew-Bose
(e-mail/tumblr/twitter)

Senior Editor
Brittany Julious
(e-mail/tumblr/twitter)

Live and Active Affiliates
Search TR


follow us in feedly

Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

Entries in novelists (1)

Friday
May082009

In Which Rome Takes A Lifetime But London Only Two Hours

Westminster Abbey

by JOYCE CARY

If a visitor had only two hours for all of London, I should tell him, go direct to Westminster. There he will find, within a few yards of ground on the banks of the Thames, the Houses of Parliament with all their recollections for the history of democracy. Westminster Hall, chief court of England, and the great Abbey which records and illuminates so vividly the growth and revolutions of freedom through a thousand years.

I went into the Abbey yesterday by the little door that leads to Poets' Corner. The path to it runs from old Palace Yard. You find it by turning your back on the Houses of Parliament and the Thames, and going under one of the great flying buttresses which support the Chapter House.

Poet's CornerMy first visit to the Abbey was about sixty years ago, as a child, and I have been there often enough since, but on this occasion I was struck for the first time by the really bizarre contrast between the magnificent nave, which is pure early Gothic throughout, and the confused mass of statuary that covers the lower walls and floor.

The reason why I was so strongly and immediately impressed by this violent clash was the remark of an American friend. I had told him I was to write this article and asked him what had struck him most forcibly at the Abbey, and he answered unexpectedly that he had found it all mixed up.

Pantheon, ParisAnd now I saw very much what he meant. The Abbey, for instance, is completely different in effect from the Pantheon in Paris, with its ordered dignity, its carefully selected and arranged memorials. It was not built or set aside as a memorial church, it was simply as an Abbey church where anyone could be buried by leave of the Dean. And the Dean of Westminster still has sole power to decide who shall be buried there. In 1824, the Dean of that day refused Lord Byron.

There is not even so much order in the tombs as a stranger expects. He has heard that the poets have their corner; that scientists like Darwin, Wallace, Joule, Huxley, are together; that the North Aisle, with the graves of Purcell, Blow, Gibbons; that St Edward the Confessor lies in his chapel surrounded by kings and queens.

Handel is not with the musicians; his grave slab is next to Dickens, in Poets' Corner, and on his other side lies a General Campbell who fought in the Indian wars.

Still more strangely, you find here, within a few feet of Browning, one Thomas Parr, an ancient Shropshire farm-worker who claimed to be 152 years old. He died on his first visit to London to 1635.

A Crusader lies in the pavement beneath Dryden's bust. He was murdered in the Abbey, where he had taken sanctuary. And the Abbey was closed for four months until it could be reconsecrated and confirmed once more in its rights of sanctuary.

It seems to me now that this very mix-up gives the Abbey its unique quality. How that Crusader, murdered in some savage political struggle, gives depth and meaning to the names of poets and novelists about him. Here is the life they wrote about, breaking in among the cold records of their fame and affirming its own tragic magnificence.

Not all the tragedies of the Abbey magnificent, or even dignified. Everywhere you see the tragicomedy of fame itself, which so often comes by luck and disappears by change of taste; which is no more secure than a soldier's life and does not make so picturesque a death. Who hears nowadays, except professors, of playwright Shadwell, or even of Prior, whose drawing-room verses amused the courties of William III?

Hardy wrote dope poemz tooBut Prior's monument, in Poets' Corner, is the biggest of all. It over-tops Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton; it weights perhaps fifty tons of stone, while Thomas Hardy's heart lies under a single slab two feet square.

The variety of monuments in the Abbey gives richness not only of fancy and art but of feeling. Read some of the epitaphs; this in Poets' Corner to Gay, who wrote those brilliant satirical farces, The Beggar's Opera and Polly:

Here lies the ashes of Mr. John Gay, the warmest friend, the gentlest companion, the most benevolent of men; who maintained independency in low circumstances of fortune, integrity in the midst of a corrupt age, and that equal serenity of mind, which conscious goodness alone can give, through the whole course of his life.

And this from the magnificent tomb of the Duke of Newcastle in the North Transept: 'The loyall Duke of Newcastle and his Dutchess.' What pride and humility in that 'loyall'. The duke spent a fortune in defence of Charles I, and went into exile at his sovereign's death.

And on the tomb of Anastasia, Countess of Kerry, at the end of the North Transept, we read her husband's testimony of gratitude to her:

hoping that his merciful God will consider the severe blow which it has pleased his divine will to inflict upon him, in taking from him the dearest, the most beloved, the most charming, and the most faithful, affectionate companion that ever blessed man...as an expiation of his past offences.

But the great Abbey is not simply a pantheon for the great and famous. It is full of simple memorials to people whose only claim to remembrance is that their names are recorded there. Here are a few words of one from the Cloisters, recording that Albany Charles Wallis was drowned at thirteen, 'being his father's only hope.' What heartbreak comes down to us still in these words.

And from the dozens of inscriptions to local tradesman, servants or churchmen: 'Elizabeth Atkinson, body laundress to Queen Anne.'

And from the Cloister pavement: 'Here lyes the body of Philip Clark, plumber to this collegiate church, 1707, in the forty-third year of his reign.'

The Unknown Warrior's grave lies just insie the great West door, between the towers of the West Front. He represents a million British dead in the 1914-18 war. He is a powerful symbol, but the power is in the fact of his mystery. 

As symbol he is more than any man, but for that reason he is less than a person. The unknown soldier does not represent for me the real people, who still have names if only on the Abbey wall, whose lives, whose tragedies, were so ordinary, so unglamorous, so much in the common run of lives and fates, that they are forgotten, except here, in the Church of the British people.

And there is a particular fitness in their memorial. For the church has suffered along with them, through a thousand years of history, the same common fate: virtually every kind of accident, neglect, sudden glory, and undeserved outrage, the magnificence of coronations, the grand robberies of kings, of petty crooks; the spite of fanatics.

St. Edward the Confessor, whose chapel is still the centre of the church, whose shrine was a place of pilgrimage throughout the Middle Ages, was robbed by Henry VIII at the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, and again by the Puritans. You can still see the structure of the shrine, but it is a shell. Yet how much more telling is this ruin than the splendour of Henry VII's tomb, in the middle of his lovely Chapel.

The world has robbed its saint. It has always robbed its saints. But how little the saint needs the magnificence, the gilt bronze of Henry's monument, which brings crowds from all the world to admire a renowned masterpiece of the Renaissance—but only the masterpiece.

Without his tomb, Henry would be forgotten except in the history books. Amid the wreck of his shrine, Edward is still more nobly the king of our imagination.

Whatever space of time you allot to the Abbey, spare at least some minutes for the museum in the undercroft. This crypt, the last surviving fragment of the Confessor's Abbey, is itself beautiful. But no one who has not seen them can imagine the effect of the effigies that stand there. These were the figures made in old times for the funerals of kings and great persons. And made to the life.

charles II, known as the merrie monarch

Here is Charles II as you might have met him in the street; and the famous Duchess of Richmond, his mistress, La Belle Stuart. I do not know anywhere a more telling portrait of a great courtesan than this, in all the form and colour of life, with its arrogant pose, the mischievous smile, at once aloof and provocative, of the conquering beauty. She wears her own dress, as made for her in life; even to the underclothes and the stockings, two pairs, one of silk, one of wool.

Here, too, is the wooden effigy of that queen who makes so charming an appearance in Shakespeare's Henry V — Katherine of Valois, daughter of the French king, married to Henry V in 1420. Her life was not charming. She died in childbed at Bermondsey Abbey, where she had taken sanctuary from political enemies, and this figure faithfully reveals the sufferings of a woman still young and lovely.

Her tragedy did not end with her life. She was buried in the old Lady Chapel. And when it was pulled down to make way for Henry VII's magnificent new building, her coffin was placed beside the tomb of Henry V. No doubt the intention was to find her a new grave. But for two hundred years nothing was done about it and she lay in the open. The coffin rotted and every casual visitor could look at the mummified body within.

Pepys, the diarist, in 1669 was allowed 'by particular favour' to take up the lid, and he writes, 'I had the upper part of her body in my hands, and I did kiss her mouth; reflecting upon it that I did kiss a Queene, and that this was my birthday thirty-six years-old.'

One might despise Pepys for such an act of silly and mean brutality. But the queen, poor woman, if she could have seen her body exposed helpless to this fat-bellied busy little go-getter, what would she have cared? It was not she who was diminished, but little Pepys. Her tragic dignity was beyond insult.

Pepys' life was easy and prosperous. He enjoyed his profession, his whores, his books and his success. She was a princess born to be a queen; and destined from childhood to be a pawn in high politics. She loved her second husband, the Welsh squire, Owen Tudor; but he was taken from her and ended on the scaffold.

Royal history is a tale of high tragedy from first to last. And it is these royal tombs of Westminster which give it most significance. Kings and queens are, for the most part, ordinary people; genius is as rare among them as in any simple family. But they are called by destiny to a work which is the hardest, the most demanding, and the least rewarded, in the world. They are condemned for the least mistake and receive no thanks for a lifetime of duty. They are exposed to the impertinences of every fool, bore, and crank, without right of self-defence, and a good proportion of them are murdered.

How lonely these kings seem even now, in their tombs on Westminster Abbey among the statesman who, by one lucky turn or another, achieved the triumph of office; the scientists who were permitted to spend quiet and peaceful lives in some chosen research; the poets who could follow their dreams.

Here is Henry III, chief rebuilder of this splendid Abbey; he died bankrupt and despised. Here is Richard II, deposed and starved to death by his rival. Here, in one small stone box at the east side of Henry VII's Chapel, are the bones of Edward V and his brother Richard, the royal children murdered by their uncle Richard III. Mary, Queen of Scots, beheaded in 1587, lies in the queen who could not marry because marriage for her was a political impossibility, and her sister, who imprisoned her, and who died in despair, hated by her subjects.

mary queen of scots getting beheaded

Here, too, is Saint Edward in his ruined shrine. And Katherine of Valois: political wife, political widow, political refugee.

These kings and queens do not belong among that crowd of star-blessed notables that crowd the aisles of their magnificent Abbey; they are with the mass of those ordinary humble people whose fate it is to endure a narrow destiny as chance has dealt it to them; with such as old Parr, Elizabeth Atkinson the laundress, and Philip Clark, 'plummer to this collegiate church.'

The Abbey is a mix-up of values as well as reputations. But for me is is just this mix-up, brought in from the living world and its conflicts, that gives Westminster the very richness of life and makes of it the most fascinating, the most touching, of all London sights.

April 1956

JOYCE IS MY FAVORITE BRITISH NOVELIST, HERE'S A READING LIST FOR CARY NOOBS

"Sweet Pea" — Amos Lee (mp3)

"Supply and Demand" — Amos Lee (mp3)

"Skipping Stone" — Amos Lee (mp3)