Monday, February 4, 2013

Poet's Corner

Karen V. Wasylowski

"The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living"
Epitaph on the memorial to T.S.Eliot.

The South Transept of Westninster Abbey is a special place when it comes to British culture.   It is here the mortal remains (or at least a memorial) of some of the greatest poets, playwrights and writers in English literature have been laid to rest, beginning with Geoffrey Chaucer in 1556.  Over the centuries the tradition has grown, and only a chosen few have been considered worthy of this honor.

You can see how brilliant this man is...

Chaucer actually owed his Westminster burial more to his position, Clerk of Works of the Palace of Westminster, than to his writing, but in 1556 he was moved the South Transept, along with Edmund Spencer, British Poet and writer of 'The Faerie Queen', and the popular corner began to take off.  Lord Byron is commemorated there, William Shakespeare as well (although his actual burial place is Stratford-upon-Avon)

Samuel Horsley, Dean of Westminster in 1796, was said to have tartly refused the request for actress Kitty Clive to be buried in the Abbey:

"...if we do not draw some line in this theatrical ambition to mortuary fame, we shall soon make Westminster Abbey little better than a Gothic Green Room!"

The memorials take several forms, either a stone slab on the floor or more elaborate carved monuments. The Bronte sisters are commemorated together, on one slab, which was not unveiled until 1947, the four founders of the Royal Ballet were commemorated in 2009.  

The inscription over the grave of Ben Jonson is misspelled, ("O Rare Ben Johnson" )

Robert Browning's grave is adjacent to Alfred Tennyson, (Elizabeth is buried in Florence), Charles Dickens' is at home there too, as well as, Thomas Hardy, Handel, Henry Irving, Dr. Samuel Johnson, Rudyard Kipling, Richard Brinsley Sheridan.

Memorials include our wonderful Jane Austen, Keats, W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Browning, Robert Burns, Lewis Carroll, the Eliots, T. S. and George, Jenny Lind, Longfellow, Shelley, Thackeray, Dylan Thomas, Oscar Wilde, C. S. Lewis, D.H. Lawrence, and on and on...

As floor and wall space began to run out, the decision was taken to install a stained glass memorial window (unveiled in 1994 in memory of Edward Horton Hubbard), and it is here that new names are added in the form of inscribed panes of glass. There is room for 20 names, and currently there are six names on this window, with a new entry (Elizabeth Gaskell) unveiled on 25 September 2010.

There are even some of those nasty actors laying around in there.  David Garrick, an actor, playwright and produce, died in 1779.  His acting style was less bombastic than his predecessors, more natural.

Dame Sybil Thorndike, who has the distinction of having a play, Saint Joan, written specifically for her by George Bernard Shaw, and...

Laurence Kerr Olivier, Baron Olivier. Olivier is buried alongside some of the people he portrayed in theatre and film, including King Henry V, General John Burgoyne, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding and William III of England and II of Scotland.

Karen V. Wasylowski is the author of two books.  Her first born, "Darcy and Fitzwilliam," is a sequel to Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice".  Her second book, "Sons and Daughters" is a sequel to "Darcy and Fitzwilliam"  Both books can be purchased here on  


  1. Fancy misspelling Ben Jonson's name! It's a fascinating place to wander around. Thanks for the interesting post.

  2. Excellent post, Karen! I have visited the Abbey, and the Poet's Corner is one of my favorite spots. Thank you for sharing this.

  3. I visited there in 1992. A young man beside me knelt down and touched his hand to Olivier's name. The Abbey is a remarkable place.


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