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Poets Corner London
Poets' Corner in the South Transept of Westminster Abbey grew up slowly and by accident. The first poet to be interred there was Geoffrey Chaucer in 1400, who gained his monument more out of accident and convenience than of reverence for his writing. He remained the only poet in the abbey for nearly two centuries until his body was joined by Edmund Spenser's in 1599. A more substantial monument to Chaucer had been installed during the intervening years, but it is conceivable that the tradition for burying poets in the South Transept was prompted by Spenser's funeral which is reported to have been attended by Ben Jonson, Francis Beaumont, John Fletcher and Shakespeare himself.
Jonson died in 1637, and seems to have been the next major poet to be buried in the Abbey, though not in Poet's Corner where a commemorative monument was later erected. The late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries saw a cluster of burials around the tombs of Chaucer and Spenser. The metaphysical poet Abraham Cowley died in 1667 and William Davenant a year later. Dryden, and was stripped of his title Poet Laureate twelve years earlier, died in 1700. Originally, he was buried in St Anne's Church in Soho, before his family and friends arranged his re-burial in Chaucer's grave. He now has one of the largest and most prominent memorials in the Abbey.
As more writers began to congregate in Poets' Corner, it became the common practice to show plaques and monuments to significant writers who were not buried in the Abbey. In 1740 a monument to Shakespeare was included, and other writers commemorated in this way include, Marlowe, John Milton, Jane Austen, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Blake, Byron, the Bronte sisters, Oscar Wilde, Henry James and T.S. Eliot. Shakespeare in particular boasts an impressive effigy. A life-sized marble statue, it was designed by the architect William Kent, and Alexander Pope helped with raising it to its current position.
Not everyone buried in the South Transept is a poet; many are senior clerical figures and amongst the earlier stones there is that of Thomas Parr who was supposed to have lived to the age of 152. Notably the grave of George Frederic Handel is here, perhaps in recognition of his commissioned works for King George I. The actor David Garrick was buried in 1779, and his modern day counterpart, Sir Laurence Olivier, in 1989.
The grave of Charles Dickens is a popular site for pilgrimage, and continues to be honoured with the laying of a wreath every year on the anniversary of his death. However, the criteria for admission to Poets' Corner remain obscure, and various popular and canonical figures - Swift, Coleridge, and Elizabeth Barrett-Browning amongst them - have never been commemorated.
© David Thorley, 2007
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