Poets’ Corner seems to be popular this month. The Times Literary Supplement has just published a provocative item suggesting we have simply forgotten many of the writers commemorated there. ‘How many visitors to Poets’ Corner today,’ asks NB, the back-page columnist of the TLS, ‘recognise the name of Thomas Shadwell, whose monument was raised circa 1700?’ Well, as it happens, I do. Shadwell has a cameo appearance in Dyden’s Dunciad, and I memorised the following couplet for my finals, hoping it might come in useful—as at last it has done:
The rest to some faint meaning make pretence,
But Sh——— never deviates into sense.
Meanwhile The London Review of Books has been publishing extracts from Alan Bennett’s diary of the past twelve months. Last September, we now learn, Bennett was recalling a conversation he had had in 1995 with the then Dean of Westminster Abbey, Michael Mayne. The Dean had asked Bennett (who at the time was making a documentary about the Abbey for the BBC) whether he thought Philip Larkin and J.B. Priestley deserved to be commemorated in Poets’ Corner. Bennett admits that while he considered Larkin ‘an obvious yes on the strength of Church Going, let alone the rest’, he’d been lukewarm about Priestley. Today Priestley still isn’t there, and no doubt has now missed his chance—about which Bennett confesses he is filled ‘with regret and self-reproach’.
Deciding Abbey business in an informal way that has irreversible consequences echoes a letter sent by an earlier Dean, George Granville Bradley, to Charles Eamer Kempe, the celebrated stained glass designer, in March 1894:
My dear Kempe
You see I treat you as an old Rugbeian & dock you of the ‘Mr’!
I am sure that I may privately ask your opinion on a matter in which I rather distrust my own judgment - & Somers Clark, whom I sometimes surreptitiously consult is away.
We are laying down a gravestone over Tennyson.
It is to be very simple - black Irish marble.
I thought a plain cross
Then the name
born August &c
died October &c
& just a wreath of laurels below.
Lady T rather likes to have the laurel wreath on the +. but wd not that suggest to the ordinary mind the couronne d’epines [crown of thorns] rather than the laureate ship?
I told her that I should take some good counsellor’s opinion.
It will be of course in a much trodden part of Poets’ Corner i.e. the S transept close to Chaucer’s monument.
I should much value a hint from you & I am sure that you will forgive me.
Mr Pearson has been very ill – is better; but still poorly. I may see him on Wednesday & it wd be a comfort to have my own views strengthened by a better guide than myself.
I shall not leave here till after post comes in on Wednesday morning – unless something unforeseen happens. I’ve no vehicle or wd. drive down.
Very truly yours
G G Bradley
Dean Bradley (1821-1903) was an interesting character. Like Kempe, he had been educated at Rugby, and had returned to teach there while Kempe was a pupil. He later became Headmaster of Marlborough, then Master of University College, Oxford, and was finally appointed Dean of Westminster in 1881. Up to that point he had been best known for his revised version of a school textbook on Latin Prose Composition, always referred to as ‘Bradley’s Arnold’. Hence, when his appointment was announced in the press, Punch published a caricature, showing Bradley as a butterfly rising above what looks like a church with a mortar board atop its steeple, but actually has the name Marlborough just legible on its roof. Bradley had a reputation as a progressive and reforming Headmaster, but on the ground lies a bundle of birch twigs wrapped around with a piece of cloth on which appears the word CHRYSALIS. The caption, punning both on his notoriety among schoolboys – his name a metonym for enforced translation of passages from English into Latin – and on his elevation to the deanery at Westminster, echoes Peter Quince’s astonishment at seeing Bottom the weaver transformed into an ass: ‘BLESS THEE! THOU ART TRANSLATED!’
Bradley and Tennyson had been a two-man mutual admiration society: when the poet sent his son Hallam to Marlborough, he declared that he had sent him ‘not to Marlborough but to Bradley’. Bradley for his part returned the compliment by naming his daughter Emily Tennyson Bradley. So it isn’t surprising that he took such a personal interest in designing an appropriate memorial to go over the resting place of Queen Victoria’s favourite poet.
His letter to Kempe is revealing. When he cheerfully admits that he sometimes consults the architect and Egyptologist Somers Clarke surreptitiously, he opens up a world of Cathedral intrigue recognizable to anyone who has read Trollope’s Barchester novels. The logical person to have advised the Dean was the Abbey’s Surveyor of the Fabric. In 1894 this was John Loughborough Pearson, but he – as the letter explains – had been seriously ill. But even with Pearson indisposed and Somers Clarke away, Bradley might have consulted his friend, the architect George Frederick Bodley. After all, it was Bradley who had brought in Bodley at University College to build a new Master’s Lodging (1879); and when Pearson died three years later, it was Bodley whom Bradley appointed to succeed him. But perhaps it was from previous dealings with Bodley and Pearson that Bradley had discovered it was useful to have a second, discreet, architectural ear to bend when occasion required – as here, in the matter of Tennyson’s tomb. Perhaps, too, he was being cautious in case Bodley suggested a wholly different (and much more elaborate) design; he had already designed a fine memorial brass tombstone in the Abbey for the architect George Edmund Street, who had died in 1881. Whatever the reason, the opening and closing sentences of his letter suggest this was the first time Bradley had consulted Kempe confidentially on a question of religious symbolism.
Attached to the letter, in the Kempe Trust archives, is a small pencil sketch on a torn-off piece of Whatman’s fine wove Original Turkey Mill paper. The sketch is in Kempe’s own hand, and shows two ideas for an appropriate Poets’ Corner tombstone. While both develop the Dean’s original idea of a cross and a laurel wreath, neither incorporates the stricken widow’s wish for a wreath to be placed over the cross. How Kempe replied and whether he even sent any sketches to Westminster is not known; but in any case Tennyson’s memorial stone, as seen today, displays no cross, and no wreath, just name and dates. The final decision seems to have been a compromise of a peculiarly Anglican kind. Neither Dean nor widow got their way – and all were satisfied.
· For the discussion of Poets’ Corner, see J.C., NB, TLS 22.1.16, p.32
· Alan Bennett recalls his conversation with the Dean in his diary for 2015, now published in the London Review of Books, vol.38, no. 1 (7 January 2016) p.6
· Tennyson’s tombstone can be seen in an extract from Bennett’s documentary about Westminster Abbey here, on YouTube.
· Tennyson’s comment about sending his son to Bradley not to Marlborough is quoted in Niall Hamilton, A History of the Chapel of St. Michael and All Angels, Marlborough College, Wiltshire, (1986), p.17
[illustrations: (i) The Punch cartoon (Vol. 81, 1 October 1881, p.154), drawn by Linley Sambourne; (ii) inside pages of Bradley’s letter to Kempe (31.3.1894); (iii) Kempe’s pencil sketches for Tennyson’s tombstone (1894). Illustrations (ii) and (iii) © Kempe Trust.
I first published a shorter version of this post, entitled ‘Kempe and the Case of Tennyson’s Tomb’, on the Kempe Trust website.
I have written about Westminster Abbey twice before: