By Lewis W. J.
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The total effort and effect of both statuary and inscription is to reanimate the dead and to make them speak to the living. The disconcertingly miscellaneous, noisy, even incoherent effect of Poets’ Corner that I have been evoking is only in part the result of historical changes in styles of funerary sculpture, from the Renaissance tombs of Chaucer and Spenser, to the early eighteenth-century classical bust of Milton which combines portraiture with emblems designed to epitomise poetic inspiration in general (an urn of divine fire) and Paradise Lost in particular (a lyre wreathed with a serpent), to the bourgeois realism of Scheemaker’s full-length statue of Shakespeare (elbow propped on a pile of leather-bound books), to twentieth-century slate floor-stones which insist by contrast upon the author as pure textuality through inscription and appropriate incised emblems (D.
This is ‘the country churchyard’ which Thomas Gray made famous in 1751 on the publication of his Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard and where he is himself buried. Here, bypassing a large yew, you come to the wall of the church, where there is a brick table-tomb, inscribed ‘Dorothy Gray, widow; the tender careful mother of many children, One of whom alone had the misfortune to survive her’. On the wall of the church is a small plaque, dated 1799, which reads: ‘Opposite to this stone in the same tomb upon which he has so feelingly recorded his grief at the loss of a beloved parent, are deposited the remains of Thomas Gray, the author of the Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, etc.
18 In this formulation, Shakespeare’s grave, Thomas Gray’s grave, William Wordsworth’s grave and, more surprisingly, Sir Walter Scott’s grave are especially ‘English’ because of their physical distance from the national pantheon. ) I shall be dealing with the way the localised ‘Englishness’ of these sites – together with that of the yet further-flung graves of Keats and Shelley in Rome – undid the centrality of the Abbey as the site upon which writers were commemorated in the second part of this chapter and in Chapter 3.