Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London by Day and Night, by David W.Bartlett, 1852 - Chapter 18 - Westminster Abbey

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    WE know that this is a trite subject -Westminster Abbey! How many pens have written in its praise, and how many are destined yet to write But it is a subject that will never grow old, - however much written upon - the grand burial-place of England's kings, and warriors, and poets. For royalty, and especially dead and buried royalty, we have little admiration, and we confess it; for warriors unless they fought for freedom and right, we have also little respect. But for the poets of our motherland; for Shakspeare, for Milton, for Chaucer and Spenser, for "rare Ben Jonson and Cowley," and many others, we do indulge an admiration which we render to few other names. And then there are great statesmen, side by side in the Abbey - Fox and Sheridan, Pitt, and Chatham, and Canning! What heart ever was in the great and solemn aisles of the Abbey, in sight of the Earl of Chatham's tomb, and did not quiver with a solemn delight? What American ever stood there without thinking how once he stood up in the House of Lords - only a few rods distant - and poured forth his thrilling eloquence in defence of our native land, without remembering his "You cannot conquer America!" spoken prophetically in the ears of the mad dotards assembled?
    As a piece of architecture the Abbey is magnificent and beautiful. It is built in the form of a cross, and its length [-284-] from east to west is over four hundred feet - from north to south two hundred. The towers, which rise gracefully on its west end, are each two hundred and twenty-five feet in height. To look at it from the adjoining park through the leaves of he trees, is an exquisite sight, and more than once have we, in summer days, stood in the shade of some beautiful tree, and gazing at the noble and aged structure, indulged in delicious thoughts of its age, and the kings who built it, and then demolished it, and again rebuilt it in its present form. We have thought too of the names engraved on marble there; the great kings who commanded armies, and whose voices made millions tremble; of the thousands who fought and bled for liberty, and others still who fought against freedom for the sake of honor and the smiles of a sovereign; of the brave statesmen who lived
        "In the brave days of old,"
and wrestled valiantly, some for country and home and liberty, and others, who, to build up themselves, brought misery upon the nation-like Pitt, the younger, whose brilliance we all admire, but whose statesmanship is now visible in the awful debt which hangs about the neck of England. And then there were, last but not least, the glorious constellation of poets, in "the Poets' Corner!" There was something grand too, while gazing at the Abbey, in the thought that when America was one wild wilderness, this structure was here as it is now; the very, bleak day on which the Pilgrim Fathers
            "Moored their bark
        On the wild New England shore,"
    there were people who stood inside the walls of Westminster Abbey, and pondered, over this wonderful age! For then a thousand years had rolled away since Lucius, the first king of Britain, erected a chapel on the spot, which was the [-285-] beginning of the present splendid structure. Then, as now, pilgrims from afar knelt at its altars, and said in their hearts How many ages have come and gone, since upon this spot, for the first time, Christian prayers were said. How many generations have lived and died, and yet we behold it with our eyes - it lives yet!"
    And since then have generations appeared upon the face of the earth, and passed away to make room for succeeding ones, which have likewise gone down silently into the grave. It seems as if that structure were unlike anything else in the world. Time it laughs at, and like mother earth it grows beautiful with age!
    We started one afternoon with an English friend to visit the House of Commons, armed with member's orders, but owing to an exciting discussion, found the gallery full, and we could not be admitted. Seeing that it was impossible to hear the debate, our friend said- 
    "Let us go and see the Abbey - this beautiful western sun will throw enchantment over the marbles of the great, there!" 
    We entered by a northern transept, and were almost transfixed by the wondrous vision which burst upon our sight. The great and solemn aisles, the lofty arches and ceilings were gilded with the colors of the rainbow, for the sun poured a flood of light into the great windows on the western side of the Abbey, and they were painted in every color, and in every form that artistic skill could invent.
    "Let us go to the Poets' Corner !" That is the spot where people always go first. Kings and warriors - they are forgotten where a Shakspeare lies. And the first monument which we gazed at was SHAKSPEARE'S! How often had we longed for this moment of exquisite enjoyment, for though the ashes of the poet were never disturbed from their quiet slumber on the side of the gentle Avon, yet in the very spot where we stood, once stood the great dramatist - the prince of poets. And [-286-] Pope stood there when they asked him if he would write an epitaph for the monument, and he answered -
    "No - I cannot write it. I cannot praise Shakspeare! Take his own lines."
    And there before us we read the epitaph which his own fingers wrote-those lines which often have thrilled the world.

"The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherits, shall dissolve,
And, like the baseless fabric of a vision,
Leave not a wreck behind."

    True, oh wondrous poet - but until "the great globe itself shall dissolve," thy name shall live and be glorified. Well did Ben Jonson write of Shakspeare:

"Thou art a monument, without a tomb;
And art alive still, while thy book doth live,
And we have wits to read, and praise to give."

    Every year a "Shakspeare Festival" is given by the professed friends of the poet at Stratford-on-Avon; every day some pilgrim from afar, comes to write his name on the walls of the old house in which he lived with his gentle Anne Hathaway. But there are no precious relics of him for the antiquarian to hoard up for future generations, yet there is a way in which the world can show its respect and admiration of the great dramatist, better than by weeping over his monument, or eating dinners to his memory. There is a descendant of the family living in poverty at Stratford. It is a boy, and he is so like the poet in his physical features, that William Howitt picked him out from all his school-fellows as the descendant of the dramatist. His name is "Bill Shakspeare," and, said Mr. Howitt to us one day, "It sounded strange to me to hear the boys calling out, "Hallo Bill Shakspeare!" to a [-287-] ragged urchin, whose face and brow were wonderfully like those of the great poets!"
    If the English nobles and literary lions, instead of making such a parade at Stratford every year, would give "Bill Shakspeare" a fine education, and a fair chance to develope what genius he may have inherited, it would, so it seems to us, better show their love for the immortal Shakspeare. It was a long time before the old house, which was once the poet's home, was bought and paid for, but through the severe exertions of several noted literary gentlemen the valuable relic has been secured to the lovers of poetry.
    Not far from Shakspeare's monument there is another, that of Shakspeare's best friend. The epitaph is Shakspeare's- 
    He was Shakspeare's intimate companion, joked with him many a time over a cup of wine, and was, while Shakspeare lived, jealous of his wonderful fame. But when he had dropped tears over his new-made grave at Stratford, on the river Avon, in his mournfulness he sung- 

"Sweet swan of Avon! what a sight it were
To see thee in our waters yet appear!
But stay! I see thee in the hemisphere
Advanced, and made a constellation there:
Shine forth, thou Star of Poets"

    Now, one half of Ben Jonson's fame consists in his association with Shakspeare, and his praise of him when others were asleep to his merits. The two monuments are not far apart, and it is well that such "hale friends" should not be parted in death!
    As the sun went down among the trees west of the Abbey, and the steeples and towers, the light became solemn and chaster upon the graves of the poets, and our hearts grew [-288-] sadder too. Passing on a little, we came in sight of Milton's monument - the grave of the splendid and brilliant Milton the poet, the chaste prose-writer, and the fearless republican and democrat! Here now, like a king in state, he lies, the blind poet, while the king whose jackals persecuted him, sleeps alone, with no tears ever moistening the marble above his bones. Here lies he now, the author of "Paradise Lost," in glory on earth, and glorious, we may believe, in heaven. He could afford to suffer while here for such an inheritance. The "five pounds sterling," paid in three instalments, which he got for his poem, was not all - the fame and love of the world to its final annihilation was his also! He died poor, like too manly of earth's brightest sons of Genius, and left three daughters for the English nation to cherish - alas! for the fate of poets' daughters in this world!
    Not far off from Milton's tablet sleeps the first, the earliest poet of England - Geoffrey Chaucer. He died over four hundred years ago. His monument was once a beautiful Gothic one, but Time has made sad inroads into its beauty, and the inscription upon it is fast being effaced. Close at hand is the grave of Butler, the author of Hudibras, whom the English nation left to starve, and when he was starved, made him a grave by the side of kings! A Lord Mayor of London erected his tombstone, and gives his reasons for so doing upon the marble in the following expressive words
    "That he who was destitute of all things when alive, might not want a monument when dead."
    Near to Milton's tomb is the tablet erected in memory of Gray, and upon it is this inscription:

"No more the Grecian Muse unrivalled reigns,
To Britain let the nations homage pay;
She felt a Homer's fire in Milton's strains
A Pindar's rapture in the lyre of Gray."

    [-289-] We looked everywhere to see Byron's grave - but looked in vain. Then we remembered how Macaulay says in his fine essay on the proud, sad poet, that the tears came to the eyes of the nation when they saw the corpse of the great poet go past Westminster Abbey. He should have his niche in the Poets' Corner! It reminded us of Chatterton's fate. Some admirer of his genius had erected in beautiful Redcliffe Church in Bristol - the church in which he used to wander when young, and where he forged the Rowley poems - a slight monument to his memory, but a few years ago the people of Bristol, who attended the church, upon "second, sober thought," which told them he was a suicide, deliberately tore down the monument, to their disgrace in the eyes of the civilized world.
    Below Butler's monument, "Faery Queene" Spenser sleeps, and the inscription on his tombstone is a beautiful one - it is as follows:
    "Here lies (expecting the second coming of our Saviour Jesus Christ) the body of Edmund Spenser, the Prince of Poets in his time, whose divine spirit needs no other witness than the works which he has left behind him. He was born in London 1553, and died in 1598."
    He has been dead two and a half centuries, and yet his genius shines brighter than it did on the day of his death!
    There was one epitaph in the Poets' Corner which shocked us, as it does everybody - it is on the tomb of John Gay, and was written by himself. It is as follows:

"Life is a jest, and all things show it:
I thought so once, and now I know it."

    Not far from this shocking epitaph is the grave of the anthor of "The Seasons" - James Thomson. And at one side [-290-] is a name on a pretty marble tablet, over which we bent in sweet solitude - that of Goldsmith.
    Joseph Addison has a fine statue, and engraved upon it are he words- 
    Isaac Ballou - the chaplain of Charles II.-the poet, lies close at hand, and there are many who stop before his monument. And here is the grave of Granville Sharp, whom all good men hove and will love as long as the world lasts.
    Perhaps one of the finest monuments in the whole collection is that of Handels. It was the last that Roubiliac ever executed. An angel is playing on a harp in the clouds above, and the statue is gazing up at the melody as if entranced. Before it lies open the Messiah, at the page which commences the solemn and sublime air, "I know that my Redeemer liveth." The only additional inscription is this

"GEORGE FEEDERICK HANDEL, ESQ.. born Feb. 23, 1684; died April 14, 1769.'

    Some distance from this we saw- 


the great tragedian, a fine tablet.
    Sir Isaac Newton has a splendid monument, and upon it is this inscription

"Mortals have reason to exult in the existence of so noble an ornament to the human race."

    How very true! When such a man exists, the world ought to be proud of him. The country which gave him birth need not alone selfishly boast of his greatness, for all nations share in it.
    [-291-] And flow we come to the little cluster of statesmen of the past century Within a few feet of each other lie six of the greatest men the world has ever seen - the Earl of Chatham, William Pitt, Charles James Fox, Grattan, Canning, and Sheridan! We could stand with one foot on the grave of Pitt and the other on that of Fox, and yet in their lives what wondrous enemies! How year after year did each devote his mighty talents for the overthrow of the other - and here now they lie side by side! As we stood over the grave of Pitt, we thought of him in his manly prime, with his dark eyes flashing fire, and his black hair contrasting splendidly with the marble of his brow. How he fought and struggled and squandered the people's money for the sake of greatness! Ah! he was in the cabinet, too much like Napoleon. in the field - too ready to sacrifice the people to his ambition. And Charles James Fox whom he feared, lies close at his side! And Sheridan too is there - that mighty genius who could hold a nation in tears and laughter at his splendid strokes of oratory whose wit was quick as the lightning, and yet never rankled and stung because of his nobleness of character; the man who, though godlike in frame and spirit, yet debased himself to a level with the brutes, and fell into a drunkard's grave.
    And Canning: the statesman who died of a broken heart. His most intimate friends assert that his death was occasioned by the terrible attacks made on him by those whom he once loved. Whatever his faults of statesmanship were, he was a splendid man and a genius. What a thrilling time was that, when Brougham in Parliament made his renowned attack on Canning, which called the great statesman to his feet with the hot cry- 
    "It is false"
    Not long after these terrible attacks he died, and now he sleeps within the solemn walls of the Abbey - and "sleeps well."
    [-292-] Over the great Earl of Chatham's grave we bent with pride and a feeling of gratefulness, for he was once America's advocate against a band of oppressors. We thought, while we stood there, of the time when he came, as it were in his winding-sheet into the House of Lords, to expostulate with hem on the mad course pursued by them towards their colonies in the New World, and during his noble speech fell back into the arms of his attendant a dying man! America, at the time of her Revolution, had many attached friends in England, who at heart, if not openly, applauded her spirit of independence. There were men who dared to defend America in public, and the masses of the people sympathized with us during our struggle. We should remember this when we are inclined to indulge in sentiments of hate towards England because of her war against America.
    Among the monuments to warriors in the Abbey, there was one over which we bent in sadness, and it was that of John Andre. George III. erected the monument, and it is a fine one. The inscription tells of his unfortunate death in America, and a scroll which he holds in his left hand contains Andre's letter to Washington, begging the privilege of being shot instead of hung. Still we did not forget Nathan Hale, when over the grave of Andre.
    We have said nothing of the royal tombs in Westminster Abbey, feeling but little interest in them, and concluding that the reader will readily pardon us for the omission.

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