Gateway to the Classics: Tales from Westminster Abbey by Mrs. Frewen Lord
Tales from Westminster Abbey by  Mrs. Frewen Lord

Poets and Statesmen

In Westminster Abbey are the graves of many poets—so many that one part of the church (the south transept) is always known as Poets' Corner.

Geoffrey Chaucer, who wrote among other things a book called the "Canterbury Tales," and who died as long ago as 1400, was one of the first English poets buried in Poets' Corner; and the last was Alfred Tennyson, who died in 1892, and was buried close beside Chaucer, just four hundred and ninety-two years afterwards.

When I was telling you the story of the Indian Mutiny, I spoke of a poem called "Lucknow," which described in a wonderful way the sufferings of the people who were shut up in the Residency during the long siege. This poem and very many others were written by Alfred Tennyson, the great poet, who was made by the Queen Poet Laureate of England, and then, many years afterwards, Lord Tennyson, by which name you will always hear him spoken of.

There is a story told of how the first verses Alfred Tennyson ever made were written. His father was a clergyman, and Alfred and his brothers and sisters lived all their lives in the country, running wild in the woods and the fields, and learning all about birds and flowers, until they were old enough to go to school. One Sunday morning, when every one but Alfred, who was then very small, was going to church, his elder brother Charles said he would give him something to do, and told him he must write some verses about the flowers in the garden. When they came in, Alfred appeared with his slate covered all over with his first poem. He was very fond of story-telling, and he and his brothers and sisters would combine to make up long and exciting tales which sometimes lasted for months. When he went to school he began to read a great deal, especially poetry. If he found any he particularly liked, he would try to imitate it in poems of his own, and in this way he and his brother Charles, who was with him at school, used to spend a great deal of their spare time.

It would take too long, and it would not be interesting, to tell you the names of even the chief poems which Lord Tennyson wrote. By-and-by you will read many of them for yourselves, and two I am sure you will specially enjoy. One is the "Siege of Lucknow," which we have so often spoken of; and the other is the "Revenge," which is also a story of fighting—but a sea-fight in the time of Queen Elizabeth. Lord Tennyson, like most poets, was more fond of the country than of towns, and most of his life he lived either in the Isle of Wight or in Surrey. He used, until quite the end of his life, to enjoy taking long country walks, and he never lost his love for flowers or birds, or failed to notice them; and this in spite of having all his life been very short-sighted. It was said of him that "when he was looking at any object he seemed to be smelling it," so closely used he to hold it to his eyes.

And yet, with this difficulty, he noticed "more than most men with perfect sight would see. I remember his telling me," so wrote a friend of his, "if you tread on daisies they turn up underfoot and get rosy. His hearing, on the other hand, was exceptionally keen, and he held it as a sort of compensation for his blurred sight; he could hear the shriek of a bat, which he always said was the test of a quick ear."

Lord Tennyson was eighty-three when he died, and when he was buried in Westminster Abbey the great church was crowded, not only during the funeral service, but for many days and even weeks afterwards, by hundreds of people, who came to see, and lay flowers on, his grave.

Although so many poets were buried in the Abbey, yet there were many others who when they died were buried in the country, or in other churches in London, and, when this was the case, monuments were often put up in the Abbey in memory of them. For instance, Shakespeare, the greatest of all our great poets, was buried at Stratford-on-Avon, where he had lived for the last part of his life, and where he died.

There is not a very great deal known about his life. He was the son of a country shop-keeper, who was very poor, but who managed to send his son to the grammar school at Stratford-on-Avon, where they lived. When he was fourteen he was taken away from school, and had to earn his own living. It is sometimes said that he was first a butcher's boy, and had to carry out the meat, but no one knows exactly what he did after he left school until he was about nineteen. Then he went to London, and began to write poetry and plays. He had at this time hardly any money, and was thankful to earn a penny whenever he could by holding horses, or making himself useful in any way he could think of, and was nicknamed by his friends "Jack-of-all-trades." At last he got employment as a writer of plays for the Globe Theatre. This Globe Theatre was very different from the theatres of nowadays. It was a round wooden building with no roof, except just over the stage, and there it was covered in to protect the dresses of the actors and actresses in case of bad weather. Gradually it became clear that this William Shakespeare, who had come to London quite a poor and unknown man, was a great poet, his plays began to be talked of, and many great and rich men became his friends. In a few years he was no longer poor, and had begun to save money to buy himself a house at Stratford-on-Avon, where he had been born. To do this had always been a dream of his: for a long time his wife and children had been living there while he worked hard for them in London, and when at last he had bought his house, which was called New Place, he left London and went home to them.

Many years passed away, and Shakespeare, who had written great plays such as Hamlet  and The Merchant of Venice, which you will all know and perhaps see acted some day, lived quietly in the little town of Stratford-on-Avon, making friends of all the people round him, both rich and poor, and seeing his own plays acted in a great empty barn near his house, for in those days there was no theatre in Stratford.

"Master Shakespeare," as he was called, was buried in the churchyard of the little town he had been so fond of all his life; and many years afterwards, when his name had become known all over England, and his plays and his poems had become famous as they had never been during his lifetime, a monument was put up to his memory in Westminster Abbey close by the graves of two other poets, Spenser and Drayton, who had been his friends: on it are written these words out of his own play of The Tempest—

"The Cloud-capt Towers,

The Gorgeous Palaces,

The Solemn Temples,

The Great Globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit,

Shall dissolve;

And, like the baseless fabric of a vision,

Leave not a wreck behind."

Among all the poets who are buried in the south transept, there is one great musician, George Frederick Handel. Dean Stanley says that "Handel, who composed the music of the 'Messiah' and the 'Israel in Egypt,' must have been a poet no less than a musician, and therefore he was not unfitly buried in Poets' Corner."

Handel was the son of a German doctor, and was born in a little German town. As a boy he was very fond of music, but as his father meant him to be a lawyer, he would not let him hear any for fear that he would want to be a musician. Once, when George was seven years old, his father went to visit another son who lived at the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels. The little boy, who had most likely heard his brother speak of the court concerts, begged to go too, but of course he was told that it was impossible. His father drove off, but still George determined to go. He managed to slip out, and ran as long as he could after the carriage. At last he was seen and taken in, and as there was no time to bring him home, he went with his father to the court. He soon made friends among the duke's musicians, who let him try the organ. One day after the service he was lifted on to the organ-stool, and played so wonderfully that the duke, who was in church, asked who it was. When he heard that it was the little seven-year-old Handel, he sent for his father, and told him that his son would one day be such a great musician that it would be quite wrong to make him a lawyer. So from that day George was regularly taught music. When he was older he came to England, and here he lived most of his life, and here he wrote most of the music which is known almost all over the world. He used to give concerts at the English court, to which the Prince of Wales, the son of George II., and the princess, and many great people came. Sometimes at these concerts ladies would talk instead of listening to the music, and then Handel quite lost his temper. "His rage was uncontrollable," so we are told, "and sometimes carried him to the length of swearing and calling names; whereupon the gentle princess would say to the offenders, 'Hush, hush! Handel is angry;' and when all was quiet the concert would go on again." Handel, when he was old became quite blind, but he still played the organ up to the very end of his life. He died on Good Friday, April 13, 1759, and was buried in the Abbey, and on his monument are written the words, "I know that my Redeemer liveth," from the Book of Job, which he had set to most beautiful music, and had asked to have written upon his tomb.

I have only spoken to you of Geoffrey Chaucer and of Alfred Tennyson, the first and the last poets who were buried in the Abbey; of Shakespeare, the greatest of all English poets, and of George Frederick Handel, the musician; but very many others are remembered in Poets' Corner. And when you some day walk round the Abbey you will see there the graves or monuments of most of the great English writers.

The north transept is full of the graves and monuments of statesmen. A great many of them you must have heard of, and some of you perhaps belong to the Primrose League, which was founded in 1881 in memory of Benjamin Disraeli, Lord Beaconsfield, whose monument is in the Abbey. He was twice Prime Minister of England, and when he died the Primrose League (the badge of which is a primrose, and which was chosen because it was said to be his favourite flower) was started to band people together to carry on the work and help on the political party to which he had belonged. Then there are monuments to three members of one family—the family of Canning—who were all great statesmen. George Canning, who was born as long ago as 1770, became known as a wonderful orator. When he was quite a small boy at school he used to say that he meant some day to be a member of Parliament, and at Eton he helped to start a debating society which was modelled on the House of Commons. Here his speeches soon became famous among the boys. He lived to be not only a member of Parliament, but Prime Minister of England. His youngest son Charles, who was also a great man, became Earl Canning and first Viceroy of India.

"The third great Canning " was Stratford Canning (a cousin of Charles), who has been called "the greatest ambassador of our time," and who before he died was made Lord Stratford de Redcliffe, by which name he is best known. Each of these three great men gave all his time and all his strength to work for the good of his country. Two of them, George Canning and his son, the Viceroy of India, are buried in one grave here in the Abbey. Lord Stratford de Redcliffe, although his statue stands side by side with the monuments to his uncle and cousin, is buried in the little country churchyard of Frant, in Sussex.

Lord Stratford de Redcliffe was an old man of ninety-three when he died. He had done so much, and known so many great and interesting people, that the story of his life is a book you will all like to read some day. One of the first things he remembered was how, when he was a little boy at school, he had seen Lord Nelson. It was at Eton, and Nelson, "with all his wounds and all his honours"—for so Lord Stratford describes him—came down to see the boys, and asked that they might have a whole holiday. More than eighty years afterwards, when Lord Stratford de Redcliffe died, there was found in his room a little picture of Lord Nelson, which he had kept ever since those far-off school days.

I remember Dean Stanley telling us that when Lord Stratford de Redcliffe was a very old man he remembered quite clearly what he had learnt and done when he was a little child at home. "Not long ago," the Dean said, "I was visiting this aged and famous statesman, and he repeated to me, word for word, the Evening Hymn beginning 'Glory to Thee, my God, this night,' as he had learnt it, he told me, from his nurse ninety years before.

I must not end this chapter without telling you the name of three more great statesmen. You will often hear the two Pitts and William Wilberforce spoken of, and I should like to say a few words about all three before beginning the stories of the kings and queens.

William Pitt was Prime Minister of England, and was made Lord Chatham by King George III. He and his son, the younger William Pitt, are as well known to all Englishmen as George Canning and his son Earl Canning, about whom I have told you. Lord Chatham was, like George Canning, a great orator, and even when he was very old and very ill, he would come down to the Houses of Parliament and make wonderful speeches, which sometimes lasted as long as three hours and a half, but which were so interesting that they were listened to in perfect silence; "the stillness," it is said, "was so deep that the dropping of a handkerchief would have been heard." When he died he was buried in the Abbey; and in the same grave, twenty-eight years afterwards, was buried his son William, the second Pitt, who was an even greater statesman than his father. This William was, when quite a little boy, astonishingly clever. "The fineness of William's mind," wrote his mother, in the old-fashioned words of those times, "makes him enjoy with the greatest pleasure what would be above the reach of any other creature of his small age." He was too delicate to be sent to school, but he was made to work hard at home till he was old enough to be sent to Cambridge. Although a very young man when he became a member of Parliament, his first speech in the House was a great success. "It is not a chip of the old block," said some one who heard him—"it is the old block himself;" meaning that this speech of young William Pitt was as good as any his father had made. When he first became Prime Minister he was only just twenty-four years old, and from that time until he died (twenty-four years afterwards) he was one of the most illustrious men in Europe. He and Wilberforce, the last of the statesmen about whom I must tell you, were both very much interested in one thing—and this was the abolition of (or doing away with) slavery. The name of Wilberforce will never be forgotten, for he it was who first thought and said that slavery ought to be put an end to, all over the world, wherever Englishmen were the rulers. Wilberforce and William Pitt were once staying together in a country house not far from London, and sitting together one day under an old tree in the park, they began to talk about slavery, and to say how terrible a thing it was that the lives of hundreds and thousands of men and women and children were made full of misery by cruel masters who worked their slaves far harder than they worked their horses or their oxen. "I well remember," wrote Mr. Wilberforce in his Diary, "after this conversation with Mr. Pitt I resolved to give notice in the House of Commons of my intention to bring forward the abolition of the slave-trade."

And not long afterwards Wilberforce made a great speech in the House of Commons about slavery, and in the end a law was passed to do away with the slave-trade. Wherever the English flag was flying there should be no slavery, and a slave who could once set foot on any land held by Englishmen became a free man.

When Pitt died Wilberforce was one of those who carried a banner in the great funeral procession, when he was buried, as I have told you, in the same grave with his father, the first Pitt. Many years afterwards Wilberforce too "was buried there amongst his friends," and in another part of the Abbey there is a large statue of him, as an old and bent man, sitting in an armchair. When you go round the Abbey you must look for this monument, for it is said to be very like him during the last part of his life.

But we can spend no more time now in telling stories of statesmen, and must in the next chapter go on to the kings and queens.

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