Prendergast, Thomas A. Poetical Dust: Poets’ Corner and the Making of Britain. U of Pennsylvania P, 2015. xiii + 235 pp. ISBN: 978-0812247503. $55.00 cloth.
Prendergast’s meditation upon the history and evolution of what is now known as Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey should be required reading for any scholar of English literature and culture interested in the fluctuating ways in which literary history has been constructed and experienced in material form at the heart of Great Britain since Chaucer’s time. As an extended treatment of the history of Poets’ Corner as actuality and idea, it is definitely required reading for those interested in cultures of commemoration and literary tourism; for Spenser specialists, it is of interest for what it has to say of Spenser’s place and function within the literary canon as revealed by the studies of Spenser’s original burial in the Corner and of the attempted exhumation in 1938, accounts which in part frame the book as a whole.
Poetical Dust provides a carefully constructed ideological history of Poet’s Corner, from medieval times to the present. Chapter 1 sites Chaucer’s tomb within the larger originary meanings of the Abbey dictated by the burial of Edward the Confessor as a saint and by the burial of Robert Hauley in the South Transept where he was murdered despite his efforts to find sanctuary there. Chapter 2 considers the beginnings of the idea of poetic burial in the Abbey by looking at Spenser’s funeral coupled with Ben Jonson’s meditations upon the question of where and how to monumentalize Shakespeare. Prendergast argues here that Spenser is a central figure in the inauguration of a space within the Abbey devoted to the idea of poetry, a space which derived its affective power from the sense of loss, and the consequent mourning and melancholia produced by the “move against monumental history during the Reformation” (13). The new sense of the inadequacy of the physical relic and monument gave rise to something that Prendergast calls “sublime monumentality”—a way of experiencing the material monument as indicative of and yet incommensurate with “transcendent spiritual spatiality” (13). Spenser, concerned as he is in (for example) The Ruines of Time with “the ruin, loss, and recovery of the poetical and historical past,” is the perfect embodiment of this melancholia, which for Prendergast is the founding affect and aesthetic of the Corner (14). Chapter 3 discusses the evolution of the representation and actuality of Poets’ Corner from a private graveyard of poets for poets into a space that began to have national implication as the Abbey developed into a place of public resort and showplace, albeit it seems to have functioned in part as a place of resistance to national grandeur, a space of Addisonian private, nostalgic, and melancholic introspection, of communion between author and reader outside politics and commerce. This chapter is built around a discussion of Dryden’s funeral as would-be national event as the moment when Poets’ Corner was first named as such and institutionalized, and of Pope’s energetic interventions in this discourse.
If chapters 1 to 3 consider the importance of the physical presence of the poetic body to the ideological power of Poets’ Corner, the next two chapters consider by contrast how the absence of certain bodies worked. Chapter 4 considers how in the early nineteenth century the exclusion of certain poets’ bodies, notably that of Byron, and of almost all women writers, configured and qualified Victorian understandings of the Corner as a version of Parnassus; a growing anxiety about its lack of comprehensiveness was compensated by a sense of it nonetheless being productively “haunted” by the absent Shakespeare, Milton, Scott and Byron. Chapter 5 focuses on the would-be exhumation of Spenser in 1938, considering its roots in Victorian investment in the corporeal nature of literary genius and in the desire to prove Shakespeare to be Bacon, and meditating the effect of its failure to find Spenser’s body in the effective loss of it and the implications of this for national literary culture. A Coda meditates upon the future of Poets’ Corner as an ideological endeavor, threatened by being full up, public ignorance, lack of relevance, and thus affective failure. The whole is lucidly written, stuffed with carefully researched detail, ornamented with intelligent close readings of sources ranging from poems through essays, prints, and the occasional newspaper article, and is supplemented by a full grave-plan, an alphabetized burial and monument list, a chronological list of stones and monuments, eighteen black and white illustrations, and an extensive and eclectic bibliography.
The sweep of this book is impressive and novel, in that it tries to think about what Poets’ Corner has said or demonstrated about the function of literary culture within the nation (and empire) over centuries. The archival evidence it marshals from the Abbey library is new and extensive, and it is bolstered with intelligent selection and juxtaposition of a range of materials, some of which are familiar to specialists, but much of which are subjected to new readings. Poetical Dust is however more than merely a narrative history of Poets’ Corner, garnished with extraordinary case-studies of how individual authors have been read through monumentalization (although this is both entertaining and useful); rather, it is a meditation upon it as a locus of perpetually contested political and cultural meanings, indeed as a “plot” in the sense both of site and narrative structure (xii). It is fascinating in its (not always realized) desire to read Poets’ Corner as itself a material text with affective agency that has always escaped the individual and contemporaneous agendas of both writers and those who chose to pay up to commemorate them (xiii); and it is arguably even more fascinating in its account and analysis of the forgotten, the lost, the erased and the many plans for commemoration, extension, or rationalization that never came about—the Poets’ Corners that once were, or might, or should have been.
The central problem driving this book is that Poets’ Corner is “a place in which felt emotions exceed our own ability to explain why we feel what we feel” (11), which is explained as arising from the (historically determined) question of the relative nature and value of the material and immaterial, conceived as the relation between engaging with body/monument versus with “poetry.” But one might also note that Poetical Dust is a very American book, ridden by the sentimental problem of what to do about British culture as American heritage. It is not accidental that it takes as starting-points quotations from Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne, two American writers deeply conflicted as how best to claim “England” as “home” while claiming that it is pretty much a museum of the past to be viewed with nostalgia but not to be inhabited permanently. Prendergast’s evocation of Poets’ Corner is a perfect, perhaps slightly old-fashioned, description of British culture viewed from across the Atlantic—an embarrassing and moving muddle of presence and absence, the great and the irrelevant, the remembered and the forgotten, the personal and the national, the imperial and the post-imperial. The book is shot through in about equal measure with fugitive gleams of exasperation and affection; an Enlightenment, almost neo-classical exasperation at the manifold inadequacies and incompetence of Poet’s Corner viewed as a properly ordered and managed Parnassus is matched and balanced with a downright Romantic investment in the organic, the inchoate, the sublime, the evanescent, the doubtful and the lost.
In the end the governing mood is fundamentally that of melancholy, successively appearing in its Renaissance, eighteenth-century, romantic, Victorian, modernist and contemporary modes, melancholy at the withering of the legibility of the (previous) literary canon and with it “the cultural continuity that is England” (157). Given however that the central figure for this book seems in the end to be Shakespeare, who focuses “the productive tension of presence and absence” in the Abbey (115) which according to Prendergast is what produces “a kind of vitality” (115) through the frustration of audience expectations individual and generic, it is a shame that he wasn’t there in Westminster Abbey in June 2016, where at the end of a service dedicated to Shakespeare’s memory and marking the 400th anniversary of his death, Shakespeareans laid a wreath on his statue in Poets’ Corner. There is, in short, a contemporary and living culture of commemoration that regularly uses such monuments as excuse and the Corner as resource, and which still involves both individuals and a national and international public. Come to think of it, there were plenty of Americans there, too. Had Prendergast been there, he might have taken a less gloomy view of the obsolescence and illegibility of Poet’s Corner and literary culture more generally.
The Open University