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.


The Honouring of Dead Poets Society

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Keats' Grave

Keats’ Grave

The Honouring of Dead Poets Society

Around 130 years ago there was an effort to raise funds to belatedly help the poet Keats, or rather his sister who was his only surviving close relative. There was a sense that not enough had been done to honour the young poet during his too-brief life. Only recognised post mortem as one of England’s greats, John Keats had been neglected and he and his family subjected to unnecessary suffering as a result.

I discovered this attempt at fund-raising when reading some of another poet’s letters in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The Preraphaelite painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti was writing in February 1880 to Harry Buxton Foreman, a collector of Keats manuscripts, to ask about Foreman’s copy of Endymion. Rossetti describes himself as “a lover of Keats” despite the fact that he then goes on to diss Keats quite severely (most of his sonnets were “very faulty or inferior”, although his sonnet on Chapman’s Homer is good and the finest is On a Dream). He then refers to the subscription to help Keats’ sister Frances Mary, wife by this time of Valentine Llanos. Rossetti is sad that so little has been achieved by this point:

“It is grievous to me to find how little progress has been made with the Keats subscription. I have found a lukewarmness incredible to me even among special admirers of the poet. I had hoped much from America, but this it seems proves fallacious.” [1]

There was to be a happy ending eventually, however. Disraeli, now Lord Beaconsfield, granted a Civil List Pension to Frances Mary in old age, the younger sister of the young dead genius. What else could the lovers of Keats do? There was always his grave in Rome with the memorial stone without a name, only to the one whose “Name was writ in Water”, organised by the painter Joseph Severn who was with Keats when he died and honoured his request concerning the brief epitaph. Many, including Oscar Wilde, made the journey there to honour their poetic hero. I must confess, though I have been to Rome, I have never made that pilgrimage, although I did visit Oscar Wilde’s grave in Pere-la-Chaise cemetery in Paris in the 1980s. I still have the photo of me aged 20, standing under an umbrella next to the large Jacob Epstein monument of a sphinx, looking intense and dismal in the rain in an inappropriately bright cardigan that just failed to be sunflower yellow. The Epstein monument records lines from Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol : “For his mourners will be outcast men, And outcasts always mourn.” I had already memorised these lines as a Melancholy Romantic teenager and so was delighted to find them as the last word on my favourite poet of that time. (A bit different to Wilde’s last reported words: “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do”, or indeed Disraeli’s great last words: “I think I’m getting better now”!) But it still took a while longer for Keats to be honoured in his own country with a memorial. There was an attempt in 1939 to have a plaque dedicated to him in Westminster Abbey but the advent of the Second World War delayed things till 1954.

But this November marks the honouring of another poet who was not honoured (as a poet, at any rate) in his lifetime. The great writer and scholar C S Lewis (the writer of Dymer rather than Endymion) is to have a plaque unveiled to his name in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, largely due to the efforts of Dr Michael Ward.  It has often been noted that Lewis, though sometimes ignored in Britain, has been embraced by America, and this is certainly true of those subscribing to the memorial to Lewis for Westminster Abbey. There has not been the “lukewarmness” from the USA that Rossetti noted in the Keats fund-raising, for which we’re very grateful.

But there is a slight way to go. You can still make donations at www.lewisinpoetscorner.com where you also get your free tickets to come to the celebrations. This is your chance to be a part of it. And this time I get to be part of it too, as one of the speakers at the Symposium on 21 November. I promise not to wear the unfortunate yellow cardigan.

NOTES

[1] D G Rossetti, John Keats: Criticism and Comment, Private Circulation, 1919 (30 copies of 5 of DGR’s letters printed for T J Wise of Hampstead).