Do Poets need their own Corner?

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Do Poets need their own Corner?

Memorial of C S Lewis in Poet's Corner

Memorial of C S Lewis in Poet’s Corner

Far from being confined to the events of last November, a high level of interest in C S Lewis and his inclusion in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey continues. The lectures by Alister McGrath and Malcolm Guite and the discussion of the Symposium panel, of which I was a member, are now available on the web in audio and soon as a film on YouTube. It certainly does seem to have been “the Lewis event of the century” – at least so far! [1]

Just after the event itself I was very amused to read a poem by Wendy Cope on why there should be a Poet’s Corner at all. I don’t think anyone else has referred to it in connection with Lewis, so I thought you might like to see some of it. It’s from her first volume of poetry, entitled Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis [2] and is a comic response to an Engineer who had written to a newspaper complaining that there is a Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey to honour our nation’s greats in that field but not an ‘Engineer’s Corner’ or equivalent for those in different professions (presumably ignoring the many political and military ‘saviours’ who tend to get their statues scattered around sacred spaces willy-nilly the rest of the time).

The poet Wendy Cope

The poet Wendy Cope

So in ‘Engineer’s Corner’, Cope’s ironic consolation begins:

“We make more fuss of ballads than of blueprints –

That’s why so many poets end up rich,

While engineers scrape by in cheerless garrets.

Who needs a bridge or dam? Who needs a ditch?”

Of course life is easy for a poet, she continues. There’s a daily demand for their work as people eagerly devour at least a poem a day whereas, Cope sarcastically sympathises, desperate engineers have to take a second job to make ends meet and can’t have a social life if they’re to get any work done at all, the poor things.

“While well-heeled poets ride around in Daimlers,

You’ll burn the midnight oil to earn a crust,

With no hope of a statue in the Abbey,

With no hope, even, of a modest bust.”

And of course small boys prefer poems to engines! Anyone can see that the massive popular embrace of poetry is why the country is going to the dogs.

I wish I could quote her poem in full but no doubt copyright forbids. The comic impact is much greater in her succinct sarcastic rhyme. But Cope’s main point here seems to be that poets deserve the attention they get in Westminster Abbey in order to raise their profile and do something to make up for the neglect and poverty they suffered in life. Engineers and the like, you already have your reward. She is not tackling the question of whether there might be something peculiarly appropriate about poets and other artists of the word having a place of civic honour in a place of worship, that those whose work is most likely to exalt our souls to access the spiritual should be privileged in this way. Do artists of the word have more chance of leading us to consider the Word Himself than the mechanics of the material? Perhaps it’s an argument that will always exist between the poetic and musical Hrossa and the mechanical and crafts-oriented Pfiffltriggi (to put it in terms of Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet).

But as soon as we start to analyse this distinction in supposed worthiness for Abbey inclusion, there emerge some notable gaps. If we are to have a biblical emphasis on helping the poor and the sick, why is there not a Doctors/Nurses/Healers’ Corner? Or a Police and Social Workers’ Corner for those who rescue children from abuse and women from domestic violence? I could go on. In fact, the more one tries to analyse the need for a specifically Poets’ Corner, the more the argument falls down. This special Corner can’t just be to somehow ‘make it up’ to those we’ve treated rather shabbily here and feel a bit ashamed about, like children who give a special present to the teacher at the end of the year that they’ve given the hardest time to. And I wouldn’t have thought that the aim of a Poet’s Corner was to get every member of the populace writing poetry for themselves, an interesting world though that would be.

Sir Philip Sydney

Sir Philip Sydney

On a purely superficial level it seems appropriate that poets and writers should have their own corner to hide in – introverted observers rather than participators in life, who were able to view life from one step removed and so write to shape our vision of it more effectively. But straightaway I think of how many of our greatest poets were also men of action, for example those who were soldiers too – Sir Philip Sydney, Lord Byron, the War Poets themselves, and of course C S Lewis whose first published poem was ‘Death in Battle’ in John Galsworthy’s journal for war poets Reveille in 1919. Perhaps one thing those in Poets’ Corner have in common is that they were writers who burst out into the world in action and word and vision on a national and international level, and we finally caught on enough to honour them, whether hundreds of years later, or in Lewis’ case only fifty.

And all this talk of ‘great men’ – there are women in Poet’s Corner too. Wendy Cope herself is already an OBE and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, despite writing hugely enjoyable comic verse that appeals to a wide audience, so… who knows what will happen in the future, Abbey-wise? Rowan Williams, who preached at the Lewis memorial service at the Abbey, has called her the wittiest of contemporary English poets. She has almost been Poet Laureate twice and when she wanted to downsize to move house she sold her huge archive of material to the British Library. (This makes me very jealous as I’m currently downsizing and about to move house, but I think contacting the BL might be a bit premature in my case…)

In thinking about about how we honour our fellow human beings after death in public life, it’s easy to forget the real point – that everyone who does the will of God faithfully in this life will on the Great Day hear the words “Well done, thou good and faithful servant” from the Lord Himself and receive gracious reward from Him. What more does anyone need? C S Lewis gave a brilliant imagined portrayal of how human beings will be honoured or otherwise after death in his novel The Great Divorce of 1945. One character everyone remembers from this book is that glorious bright lady whom ‘Lewis‘ mistakes for the Virgin Mary herself, but is told by the MacDonald character: “It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.” When reviewing this book in 1946, The New Yorker said: “If wit and wisdom, style and scholarship are requisites to pass through the pearly gates, Mr Lewis will be among the angels.” [3] I’m sure Lewis would have counted a true wisdom as the only one of those qualities to really count in that regard. Anyway, I’m here concerned with the far more earthly issue of who passes into the corner of the poets in Westminster Abbey. I think I would conclude that a special corner for poets is probably indefensible, but the fact is it’s there, and since it is there, and in view of what it’s become over the centuries, then Lewis should be there too. His inclusion is certainly miraculous considering his early lack of faith and other struggles. When His father Albert was discussing his son’s atheism with his eldest son Warren, he was obviously worried but still clung on to hope, writing “…I do think that if Oxford does not spoil him… he may write something that men will not willingly let die.” [4]

Notes

[1] I’m glad to say that my blog on the C S Lewis Memorial Service has been shared by hundreds on Facebook and included on lists of the most useful resources about that event, eg. by William O’Flaherty, and Sarah Clarkson at http://www.thoroughlyalive.com/2013/12/c-s-lewis-at-westminster-abbey-a-roundup-of-links

[2] Wendy Cope, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, Faber and Faber, 1986.

[3] Quoted in Walter Hooper (ed.), C S Lewis: A Companion and Guide, HarperCollins, London, 1996, p289.

[4] ibid., p142.


One thought on “Do Poets need their own Corner?

  1. Good morning, Jeanette!

    I believe the Poet’s Corner is more appropriate than any other sort of corner because it identifies what most of us know intuitively, that those disciplines which directly affect and are the fruit of imagination have the power to move mountains, thus inspiring the electricians and the bridge-builders, and yes, even the politicians to aspire to faithfully perform their tasks before The Lord.

    Words matter because in some small way, in a lesser way than Christ Himself (of course) but still incredibly important, they are an incarnation of THE Word who speaks all good things into existence.

    My 2 cents worth.

    Keep up the good work.

    Jen

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