The original Poet
s' Corner is a nook in the South Transept of Westminster Abbey
in London, England. Its implementation has been almost accidental, but the meaning it has accrued over the years has resulted in a tangible significance.
Its first poetic occupant was none other than English vernacular superhero Geoffrey Chaucer, buried there after his death in 1400 not on account of his mad literary skillZ but rather because his day job had been to be Clerk of Works to the palace of Westminster.
This was a seed which was to lie dormant for almost two centuries, until Nicholas Brigham realized who he'd been walking atop all this time and arranged for something more grandiose to be done for Chaucer's final resting place. Soon thereafter, in 1599, Edmund Spenser was laid to rest within spitting distance. It didn't take people long to realize that although with one writer it was only a memorial, now that there were two it was a theme! And, what's more, would make a grand tradition.
In subsequent years many of Britain's greatest writers (both of their time only and who ended up enduring as part of the canon of English Literature) would find themselves interred in this auspicious company.
These noble bones include:
Robert Browning, William Camden, Thomas Campbell, Sir John Denham, Charles Dickens, John Dryden, David Garrick, Oliver Goldsmith, Thomas Macaulay, Matthew Prior, Granville Sharp, Thomas Hardy, Dr. Samuel Johnson, Ben Jonson, Rudyard Kipling, John Masefield, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and Alfred Lord Tennyson's. (Edward G. D. Bulwer-Lytton rests in Edmund's Chapel, under the same roof but a short walk's distance.)
Though space had never been widely available (Shakespeare's contemporary competitor Ben Jonson, for instance, was fortunate to be issued the eighteen-inch plot he ended up with, necessitating his being buried standing up) by the mid-1800s things were getting so crowded in that little wing that they had to ease up on the actual burials on-site and mostly install monuments instead to more modern writers in the spot as a kind of consolation "We would have buried you here if we hadn't taken up all the space early on with obscure 17th-century essayists history forgot" prize. These memorialized-on-site literary figures include:
Jane Austen*, Sir John Betjeman, William Blake, Charlotte*, Emily* and Anne Bronte*, Fanny Burney*, Robert Burns, Samuel Butler, John Clare (1989) George Eliot* (and with that, the last of the asterisked - female - writers recognized here), T.S. Eliot, Thomas Gray, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Henry James, John Keats, D.H. Lawrence, Henry Longfellow (the only American here honoured), Rev. William Mason, John Milton, John Ruskin, Sir Walter Scott, William Shakespeare, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Dylan Thomas, Anthony Trollope, Oscar Wilde and William Wordsworth.
It is apparent to some that there are a few glaring omissions from English Literature's best and brightest between these lists, as E. Cobham Brewer noted in his (posthumous) entry on the place in his 1898 Dictionary of Phrase and Fable:
In Westminster Abbey. The popular name given to the south corner, because some sort of recognition is made of several British poets of very varied merits. As a national Valhalla, it is a national disgrace. It is but scant honour to be ranked with Davenant, Mason, and Shadwell. Some recognition is taken of five of our first-class poets - viz. Chaucer, Dryden, Milton, Shakespeare, and Spenser. Wordsworth and Tennyson are recognised, but not Byron, Pope, Scott, and Southey. Gray is very properly acknowledged, but not Cowper. Room is found for Longfellow, an American, but none for Burns1 and Hogg, both Scotchmen.
Some long-deceased writers such as Christopher Marlowe and Edward Thomas have fan clubs and societies lobbying and campaigning for their inclusion. Others have worked out the angst through art; Lord Byron was considered for burial here at the time of his death but given the lascivious reputation he spent a lifetime building the authorities decided that it might be inappropriate to lodge him in such a hallowed spot. Virgil Thomson
and Jack Larson
's 1970s opera Lord Byron
opens with the shades of the writers in Poet's Corner mourning the loss of Byron to the world and closes with them welcoming him to their (spiritual, if not geographical)
ranks with a jolly madrigal while the inhabitants of London scratch their heads at the refusal of his burial. ("His lifestyle continued to excite disapproval and, on his death in 1824, this precluded his burial or even commemoration in the Abbey. The Poetry Society gave the present white marble slab in 1969.")
It should be noted that there are a few distinctive non-writers also present among this festering heap of literary dust, including many of Westminster's former Deans and Canons as well as the famously long-lived Thomas Parr, George Frederic Handel, Major John Andre and Sir Laurence Olivier.
Needless to say, this Poets' Corner has inspired more than a few imitators, the most significant of which is located in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Though to the best of my knowledge none of the following writers are actually buried on-site, they all have memorials installed there, their retroactive ranks increasing by two every year as determined by committee:
Elizabeth Bishop, Louise Bogen, Anne Bradstreet, William Cullen Bryant, Willa Cather, Hart Crane, Stephen Crane, E.E. Cummings, Emily Dickinson, T.S. Eliot, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Frost, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ernest Hemingway, William Dean Howells, Langston Hughes, Washington Irving, Henry James, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Herman Melville,
Edna St. Vincent Millay, Marianne Moore, Edgar Allan Poe, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Theodore Roethke, Wallace Stevens, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Walt Whitman, John Greenleaf Whittier, William Carlos Williams...
and notably not
, following a controversial veto by the Cathedral, (in)famous modernist and crypto-fascist Ezra Pound after being chosen by the committee for the honour.
Finally, these real-life Poets' Corners inspired in turn a not insignificant poetry collection online on geocities - over 6000 (public domain, suitable for a general audience) poems, including many entire collections, by almost 600 (canonical) poets. It can be found at http://www.geocities.com/~spanoudi/poems/
Other as-yet-unlisted surnames from a supposed "complete" inventory of the London original include Adam, Addison, Anstey, Argyll, Arnold, Atkyns, Auden, Barrow, Barton, Benson, Birch, Birch, Black, Booth, Busby, Byron, Caedmon, Campbell, "Carroll", Cary, Casaubon, Caxton, Chambers, Chiffinch, Coleridge, Cowley, Coxe, Cumberland, D'Avengant, Drayton, Fox, Gordon, Grabe, Grote, Hales, Hauley, Heather, Hope, Horneck, Keble, Lind-Goldschmidt, Litlyngton, Mackenzie, Macpherson, Murray, Osbaldeston, Outram, Philips, Pringle, Reith, Roberts, Robinson, Saint-Evremond, Shadwell, Sheridan, Simpson, South, Southey, Spottiswoode, Tait, Taylor, Thackeray, Thirwall, Thomson, Triplet, Tudor, Vincent, Wetenhall, Wowen, Wyatt and the World War Poets. Whether or not they are actually buried here or merely memorialized has yet to be determined also, though surely a dedicated London noder or three could help me figure out 8)
1 spiregrain kindly indicated the apparent contradiction: so, is he memorialized here or not? When everything2 is ambiguous, Wikipedia comes swinging in to the rescue: "Memorial bust by John Steell. Unveiled 7 March 1885 by the Earl of Rosebery." 1885 is well before 1898 -- Brewer must have just overlooked it.