Poetical Dust: Poets' Corner and the Making of Britain

Poetical Dust: Poets' Corner and the Making of Britain

Poetical Dust: Poets' Corner and the Making of Britain

Poetical Dust: Poets' Corner and the Making of Britain


In the South Transept of Westminster Abbey in London, the bodies of more than seventy men and women, primarily writers, poets, and playwrights, are interred, with many more memorialized. From the time of the reburial of Geoffrey Chaucer in 1556, the space has become a sanctuary where some of the most revered figures of English letters are celebrated and remembered. Poets' Corner is now an attraction visited by thousands of tourists each year, but for much of its history it was also the staging ground for an ongoing debate on the nature of British cultural identity and the place of poetry in the larger political landscape.

Thomas Prendergast's Poetical Dust offers a provocative, far-reaching, and witty analysis of Poets' Corner. Covering nearly a thousand years of political and literary history, the book examines the chaotic, sometimes fitful process through which Britain has consecrated its poetry and poets. Whether exploring the several burials of Chaucer, the politicking of Alexander Pope, or the absence of William Shakespeare, Prendergast asks us to consider how these relics attest to the vexed, melancholy ties between the literary corpse and corpus. His thoughtful, sophisticated discussion reveals Poets' Corner to be not simply a centuries-old destination for pilgrims and tourists alike but a monument to literary fame and the inevitable decay of the bodies it has both rejected and celebrated.


Sometime in the 1850s Nathaniel Hawthorne visited Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey for the first time and remarked on the impression that he had been there before. Yet, far from feeling that weird sense of dread that usually accompanies the Unheimliche, or uncanny, he remarks on the hominess of the space.

It seemed to me that I had always been familiar with the spot.
Enjoying a humble intimacy—and how much of my life had else
been a dreary solitude!—with many of its inhabitants, I could not
feel myself a stranger there. It was delightful to be among them.
There was a genial awe, mingled with a sense of kind and friendly
presences about me; and I was glad, moreover, at finding so many
of them there together, in fit companionship, mutually recognized
and duly honored, all reconciled now, whatever distant generations,
whatever personal hostility or other miserable impediment, had
divided them far asunder while they lived. I have never felt a
similar interest in any other tombstones, nor have I ever been
deeply moved by the imaginary presence of other famous dead
people. a poet’s ghost is the only one that survives for his fellow
mortals, after his bones are in the dust,—and he not ghostly
but cherishing many hearts with his own warmth in the chillest
atmosphere of life. What other fame is worth aspiring for?

Of course, Hawthorne, as a writer, has a special kinship with those ghosts who inhabit Poets’ Corner, but, like his countryman Washington Irving (who provides the epigraph for this book), he extends this feeling to the larger public—creating what might be called spiritual communion with those writers who have gone before. in so doing, Hawthorne and Irving oppose the . . .

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