Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - About London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1860 - Chapter 6 - Westminster Abbey

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[-68-]

CHAPTER VI.

WESTMINSTER ABBEY.

ON Monday, Jan. 9, 1860, we formed part of a crowd who had assembled in the Poet's Corner, Westminster Abbey, to view the burial of the only man of our generation who, by means of his literary and oratorical efforts, has won for his brow a coronet. Of Babington Macaulay, as essayist, poet, orator, historian, statesman, we need not speak. What he was, and what he did, are patent to all the world. Born in 1800, the son of Zachary Macaulay, one of the brilliant band of anti-slavery agitators of which Mr. Wilberforce was the head, young Babington commenced life under favourable circumstances. At Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was educated, the world first heard of his wondrous talent. In 1830 he was returned by Lord Lansdowne for his borough of Calne; the Reform agitation was then at its height, and how bitterly, and fiercely, and eloquently Macaulay spoke we remember at this day. Then, in 1834, commenced his Indian exile, at the end of which he returned to Parliament with a competency. [-69-] His Essays in the Edinburgh Review and his History were the chief business of his life. He might have shone as a poet had he not betaken himself to prose; but in this department he remained unrivalled, and the result was riches and fame. On one occasion, it is said, his publisher gave him a cheque for 20,000, and he was made by the Whigs a peer. His burial at Westminster Abbey, at the foot of Addison, was a fitting climax to his career of wondrous achievement and gorgeous success. Men most distinguished in literature - in science - in law - in statesmanship - in divinity - in rank - were present. The funeral was not as touching as might have been expected. It may be that the choral service itself interferes with the inner feeling of sadness the death of such a man arouses in every mind; it may be that the human voice is inadequate to express the power, and pathos, and majesty of the form of words used on such occasions; and it is certain that the many ladies present were dressed in the most unbefitting costumes, and that, ribbons, and bonnets, and dresses of all the colours of the rainbow were quite out of keeping with the place and the occasion. The saddest sight, the one most suggestive of deep feeling, was that of one or two ladies, high up in a recess above the grave. They were real mourners. Indeed, it was said one of them was the sister of the deceased peer. Lord John Russell also exhibited an emotion for which the general public will scarce give him credit. At the grave he was so much overcome, that it seemed as if he would have fallen had [-70-] not the Duke of Argyle held him up. Well might his Lordship be moved to tears. Could he keep from thinking, while standing there, how soon his own turn would come, and how well and worthily lie, who slept the sleep of death in the plain coffin at his feet, had fought the battle of the Whigs in their palmy days? We looked back, as we stood there, to other days. We saw a theatre in Gower Street filled with intelligent youths. A winter session had been closed: all its work and competition were over; to the successful candidates prizes were to be awarded. The fathers and mothers, the friends and sisters of such had come together from far and near. Seated in a chair was a stout, mild, genial man, with face somewhat pale, and hair scant and inclined to grey. He rose, and was received with rapturous applause; he spoke in plain language - with little action, with a voice rather inclined to be harsh - of the bright future which rises before the rapt eye of youth. He spoke - and as he did so, as he mounted from one climax to another, every young heart filled and warmed with the speaker's theme. That was Macaulay, just come from India, with an honourable competence, to consummate the fame as a man he had acquired in younger years. Again, we thought of that last speech in the House of Commons, when, at an early hour on a beautiful summer evening, the Parks, and Clubs, and Rotten Row had been deserted, for it had gone forth to the world that Macaulay was about to speak. Poor Joseph Hume had moved the adjournment of the debate [-71-] and, as a matter of right, was in possession of the House; but the calls for Macaulay on all sides were so numerous, that even that most good-natured of men, as Hume was, grew a little angry and remonstrated; but it was in vain that he sought the attention of the House: all were anxious for the next speaker, and' no sooner had flume sat down than Macaulay delivered, in his hurried feverish way, one of those speeches which not merely delight, but which influence men's votes and opinions, and may be read with delight when the occasion which gave rise to them has long since passed away. We have heard much in favour of competition in the civil service, at home and in India, since then, but never was the argument more clearly put more copiously illustrated, more clothed in grace and beauty; and then came a few short years of infirmity of body, of labour with the pen, and sudden death, and the burial at Westminster Abbey. Out of the thousands standing by the grave, few could ever expect to see the career of such another genius. He is gone, and we may not hope to see his work finished. In vain we call up him-
        "Who left untold,
        The story of Cambuscan hold."
    Since then another public funeral has taken place in Westminster Abbey; only the other day we saw deposited there the ashes of Sir Charles Barry, and here, as year by year passes over our heads, richer, and dearer, and wider are the associations which cluster around that venerable pile. I don't envy the man who can point a [-72-] sneer at Westminster Abbey;- how placid and beautiful is the outside, how eloquently it speaks to the ambitions lawyer, the busy merchant, time statesman bent on fame, the beauty armed for conquest; what a testimony it bears to the religious spirit of the age which witnessed its erection, and of time brain or brains which conceived its magnificent design.
    The Abbey is open to public inspection between the hours of eleven and three daily, and also in the summer months between four and six in the afternoon. The public are not admitted to view time monuments on Good Friday, Christmas Day, or fast days, or during the hours of Divine Service. The nave, transept, and cloisters are entirely free. The charge for admission to the rest of the Abbey, through which you are accompanied by a guide, is sixpence each person. The entrance is at the south transept, better known as Poet's Corner. It will do you good to walk in there any Sunday during Divine Service. The appearance of the place is singularly striking.. The white-robed choristers; the benches filled with well-dressed people; the dark religious, columns; the lofty and fretted roof; the marble monuments and busts looking down on you from every wall and corner; the gleams of mellow sunlight streaming in from richly painted windows - all tend to produce an effect such as you can find nowhere else - an effect of which you must be sensible if you care not for the rich notes of the organ, or sleep while the parson preaches.
    [-73-] The Abbey, originally a Benedictine monastery - the Minster west of St. Paul's London - was founded originally in what was called Thorney Island, by Sebert, King of the East Saxons, 616. The patron Saint, Peter himself, is said to have consecrated it by night, and in a most miraculous manner.. Till the time of Edward the Confessor the Abbey does not seem to have made much way; but the meek-minded Prince was led to give the Abbey a patronage which led to the building becoming what it is. It seems the Prince had been ill, and vowed to take a journey to the Holy Land if he should recover. But, as often is the case with vows made in sickness, the Prince, when well, found it exceedingly inconvenient to fulfil his vow. The only course left for him was to appeal to the Pope. The Holy Father, of course, was appealed to, and freed the pious king from his vow on one condition-that he should spend the money that the journey would have cost him in some religious building. The Prince, too happy to be freed from the consequences of this foolish vow, gladly promised to do so; and, whilst he was considering as to what building he should favour with his royal patronage, one of the monks of Westminster-rather an artful man, we imagine - was reported to have had a wonderful dream, in which no less a personage than St. Peter himself appeared to him, and charged him to take a message to the King, to the effect that his celestial saintship hoped he would not overlook the claims of Westminster. Of course, to so pious a prince as Ed-[-74-]ward, the saintly wish was law ; and on Westminster were lavished the most princely sums. Succeeding kings followed in the same steps. Henry III. and his son, Edward I., rebuilt it nearly as we see it now. It is difficult to say what time building must have cost its royal patrons. In our own time, its repairs have amounted to an enormous sum.
    As the last resting place of the great, Westminster Abbey must always be dear to Englishmen. It was a peerage or Westminster Abbey that urged Nelson on. Old Godfrey Kneller did not rate the honour of lying in Westminster Abbey quite so highly. "By God," exclaimed the old painter, "I will not be buried in Westminster ! They do bury fools there." It is difficult to say on what principle the burials there take place. Byron's monument was refused, though Thorwaldsen was the sculptor; and yet Prior has a staring one to himself - that Prior whose Chloe was an alehouse drab, and who was as far inferior to Byron in genius as a farthing rushlight to the morning star.
    Another evil, to which public attention should be drawn, is the expense attending a funeral there. When Tom Campbell (would that he were alive to write war lyrics now!) was buried, the fees to the Dean and Chapter amounted to somewhere between five and six hundred pounds. Surely it ought not to be so. The Dean and Chapter are well paid enough as it is.
    If, reader, pausing on the hallowed ground, you feel inclined to think of the past, remember that beneath you [-75-] sleep many English statesmen,- Clarendon, the great Lord Chatham, Pitt, Fox, and Canning; that there
        "The mighty chiefs sleep side by side.
        Drop upon Fox's grave the tear,
        Twill trickle to his rival's bier."
  Remember that-
            "Bacon there
        Gives more than female beauty to a stone, -
        And Chatham, eloquence to marble life;"
that of poets; Chaucer, Spenser, Ben Jonson, Dryden, Congreve, Addison, Sheridan, and Campbell, and others, there await the sound of the last trumpet; that old Sam Johnson there finds rest; that there the brain of a Newton has crumbled into dust; and, as if to shew that all distinctions are levelled by death, Mrs. Oldfleld, Mrs. Bracegirdle, amid other favourites of the stage, are buried there. As a burial place Westminster Abbey resembles the world. We jostle one another precisely so in real life. "The age is grown so picked, that the toe of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier, he galls his kibe."