“We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of all the lives we have lost.”
Helen MacDonald, H is for Hawk
Discovering the tombs of so many famous writers and poets in Westminster Abbey made quite an impression on me during my first visit to London, England as a young woman. There were so many names I recognized because I had studied their poems and read their books going back as far as elementary school. The ones I mention below are each identified by one piece of writing but each of them produced many more literary works of note.
I’ve since learned that the Abbey’s South Transept (“Poets’ Corner”) started with the burial of “The Canterbury Tales” London poet Geoffrey Chaucer in 1400 as he had apartments in the Abbey where he was employed as master of the King's Works. He is considered to be the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages—“Time and tide wait for no man.”
Other British-born poets were given a Poets’ Corner honor later. Among others, they included the following:
Londoner Robert Browning was interred in 1889 (“Love Among the Ruins”). Browning lived with his poet wife Elizabeth Barrett in Italy and both died there—“Grow old with me! The best is yet to be.” Casa Guidi in Piazza San Felice, Florence, Italy, where Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning once inhabited the piano nobile apartment, is now a writer's house museum.
Alfred Lord Tennyson (“Charge of the Light Brigade”), a Poet Laureate of Great Britain and Ireland from Lincolnshire arrived in 1892 —“’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” A Tennyson Museum is at Farringford House, Tennyson's home of 40 years on the Isle of Wight.
John Masefield (“I must go down to the seas again…”), another Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from Ledbury in Herefordshire joined them in 1967—“In this life he laughs longest who laughs last.”
The Poets ‘Corner honor was extended to a few British writers of other genres:
Samuel Johnson (“A Dictionary of the English Language”) from Litchfield city in Staffordshire—“Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel” was interred in 1784. The Samuel Johnson Museum Home is in the center of Litchfield.
The Victorian novelist Charles Dickens (“A Tale of Two Cities”) from the port city of Portsmouth in Hampshire arrived in 1870 —“Charity begins at home, and justice begins next door.” The Charles Dickens Museum is in one of his former homes on Doughty Street in London.
Rudyard Kipling (“The Jungle Book”) who was born in India (which inspired much of his work) to British parents—“He travels the fastest who travels alone” joined them in 1936. One home of Rudyard Kipling, Bateman’s, is a large estate now under the jurisdiction of the National Trust. It can be visited at Bateman’s Lane, Burwash, East Sussex. There is also a Kipling estate in the U.S. (where he wrote The Jungle Books and Captains Courageous) at Scott Farm Orchard in Dummerston, Vermont.
This one small area of the massive Abbey called “Poet’s Corner” overwhelms one with its gathering of hundreds of years of literary talent.
Many other writers, like the following, are memorialized in the Abbey but are buried elsewhere in England:
Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire is where William Shakespeare (“Hamlet”) was born and he was buried there in 1616. He is widely regarded as both the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist—“To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man." Shakespeare’s Birthplace Museum is on Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon.
London-born John Milton (“Paradise Lost) was a poet and also a civil servant for the Commonwealth of England and was buried in 1674 in St. Giles' Church without Cripplegate, London—“They also serve who only stand and wait.” Milton’s Cottage, one of his former homes, is open as a museum at 21 Deanway, Chalfont St. Giles, Buckinghamshire.
Jane Austen (“Pride and Prejudice”) is from Hampshire and was buried in 1817 in Winchester Cathedral there. Her novels interpret, critique and comment upon the British landed gentry at the end of the 18th century—“Friendship is certainly the finest balm for the pangs of disappointed love.” Jane Austen's House Museum is on Winchester Road, Chawton Alton, Hampshire.
Though Lord Byron (“She Walks in Beauty”) was born in London and died of a fever in Greece in 1824 while fighting in the Greek War of Independence, he is buried at the Church of Saint Mary Magdalen in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire. (The Greeks mourned him deeply and some say his heart is buried at Missalongi there. They sent the rest of his remains to England to be buried at Westminster Abbey but the Abbey refused on the grounds of “questionable morality.”) He did rate a memorial though—“If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad.” Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire is the ancestral home of Lord Byron and now houses a museum containing Byron memorabilia.
William Blake, a poet of the Romantic Age, (Tyger! Tyger! burning bright…”) was laid to rest at Bunhill Fields Burial Ground, London in 1827. He is also considered one of Britain’s greatest painters and printmakers—“To see the world in a grain of sand, and to see heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hands, and eternity in an hour.” There is a Blake Room at the Tate Museum in London.
The Brontë sisters, whose novels have become classics of English literature, were born in West Yorkshire and Charlotte (“Jane Eyre”) and Emily (“Wuthering Heights”) were buried there in the village of Haworth (Emily in 1848—“Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same” and Charlotte in 1855—“Men judge us by the success of our efforts. God looks at the efforts themselves”). Their sister Anne (“The Tenant of Wildfell Hall”) wrote under the pen name Acton Bell and was buried in 1849 in North Yorkshire in the village of Scarborough —“But he that dares not grasp the thorn Should never crave the rose.” The Brontë Parsonage Museum is on Church Street in Haworth.
William Wordsworth, another Romantic poet, (“I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”) is from Cumbria in the Lake District and was buried in 1850 at St. Oswald Churchyard in the town of Grasmere there—“The child is the father of the man.” His home, Dove Cottage, is also located in Grasmere and is now the William Wordsworth Museum.
“The Mill on the Floss” author George Eliot (pen name of Mary Anne Evans) from the town of Nuneaton in Warwickshire was buried in 1880 at Highgate Cemetery, London.—“It is never too late to be what you might have been.” Though one of the leading writers of the Victorian Era, Eliot was not buried in Westminster Abbey because of her denial of the Christian faith and her "irregular" though monogamous life with George Henry Lewes. A George Eliot Collection is at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry. The Nuneaton Museum also has a permanent display on their local writer George Eliot.
American-born T.S. Eliot (“The Wasteland”) from Missouri is memorialized in the Abbey as well, perhaps because he was a Nobel Prize winner who eventually became a British citizen—“April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.” T. S. Eliot is perhaps best known for his clever verse made popular in the musical, “Cats!” He died in London in 1965 and the Dean of Westminster offered burial in the Abbey but Thomas had left other instructions; his ashes were buried at St Michael's Church, East Coker, Somerset, the village from which his ancestor had set out for America in the 1660s. The T.S. Eliot House at 4446 Westminster Place, St. Louis, Missouri is a City Landmark.
Though C. S. Lewis (“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”) was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, he held academic positions at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities and was buried in 1963 in the churchyard of Holy Trinity Church, Headington, Oxford—"Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.” C.S. Lewis’s home, The Kilns, Headington, Oxford, is now a study center and can be visited.
Like Lord Byron, other British writers who are memorialized at the Abbey, traveled widely in Europe and died in foreign countries but some, like the following, are buried abroad:
Piazza di Spagna, 26, a house at the bottom of the Spanish Steps in Rome, Italy is where the Romantic poet and Londoner John Keats (“Ode to a Grecian Urn”) died of tuberculosis at the age of 26 —“A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” His tombstone in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery reads: "This Grave contains all that was Mortal, of a YOUNG ENGLISH POET Who, on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his Heart, at the Malicious Power of his Enemies, Desired these Words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone - Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water, Feb 24th 1821".
Sussex-born Percy Bysshe Shelley (“To a Skylark”) was a friend of both Byron and Keats and spent quite a bit of time in Italy. Less than a month before his thirtieth birthday, Shelley drowned in 1822 in a sudden storm on the Gulf of Spezia while returning from Livorno to Lerici in his sailing boat. The boat was named “Don Juan”, a nod to Byron and he died with a small book of Keats' poetry in his pocket. Shelley's body was washed ashore and later, in keeping with quarantine regulations, was cremated on the beach near Viareggio. Like Keats, he is buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome—“O, wind, if winter comes, can spring be far behind?”
The apartment that Keats stayed in while in Rome has become a small museum devoted to his life and the life and works of other Romantics, such as Percy Bysshe-Shelley and Lord Byron. There are thousands of Romantic texts in the woodworked and glass cabinets along the wall. Keats's death mask and a few other relics from the poet's life are on display.
Italy has another small museum related to a British writer that is based on pure storytelling. Shakespeare’s play, “Romeo and Juliet” takes place in Verona and the story is fiction—“Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs.” However, the ever-resourceful and willing-to-bend-the-truth-for-tourism Italians have designated a building there as “Casa di Giulietta” fronted by a balcony said to have inspired Shakespeare. They even have a person on staff that answers advice-to-the-lovelorn letters and she signs them “Juliet.”
Finally, two British expat brothers and authors, Gerald and Lawrence Durrell, were not memorialized at the Abbey but Lawrence was short-listed for the Nobel Prize and Gerald was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) honor. Born in India of British parents, they spent much of their lives abroad. The Durrells’ White House on the Bay of Kalami in Corfu is open on exclusive days for one hour as something like a Durrell museum.
Lawrence Durrell (“The Alexandria Quartet”)—“A city becomes a world when one loves one of its inhabitants” was caught in Corfu at the outbreak of World War II and escaped to Crete with his wife and daughter. Then he went on to Egypt, serving in Cairo and Alexandria, as well as in Belgrade, Yugoslavia as a British press officer throughout the war. After that, he lived and worked in Rhodes, Greece and Cyprus for many years. Villa Cleobolus, his kiosk-like home in Rhodes New Town, still stands in the Turkish graveyard near the harbor. Lawrence spent his last years in the south of France and was buried in 1990 on the grounds of his home in Sommieres.
Gerald Durrell (“My Family and Other Animals, Birds, Beasts and Relatives”) left Corfu with some of his family at the outbreak of World War II and returned to England. He was not only an author but also a British naturalist, zookeeper, conservationist and television presenter. He founded what is now called the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Jersey Zoo on the Channel Island of Jersey. He died in 1995 and his ashes are buried at Jersey Zoo—“Animals generally return the love you lavish on them by a swift bite in passing-not unlike friends and wives.”
If you’ve read this far, you may very well say, “But she’s omitted the most important one!” Let me know which British author’s wok, memorial or museum has inspired you.