On 11 November 1985 in Poets’ Corner Ted Hughes, the Poet Laureate, unveiled a memorial stone commemorating poets of the First World War – some of whom remain unnamed, and sixteen of whom are mentioned by name: including Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Ivor Gurney and Edward Thomas.
Ted Hughes is now to be commemorated in the Abbey, unusually soon after his death in 1998. It is not always so – Shakespeare was not honoured with a monument for 125 years; Byron was not commemorated for 145 years. Buried in the poet’s corner of the Abbey – or thereabouts – are Edmund Spenser (1599), followed by Dryden, Tennyson, Browning, as well as Samuel Johnson, Dickens, Kipling and Hardy. Others who are not buried there but remembered with memorials include Shelley and Blake (who rests at Bunhill Fields, along with other notorious dissenters like Bunyan and Defoe), as well as Kipling, Auden and Eliot.
The plaques and monuments jostle in what is a confined and crowded area; they are to an extent monuments in rhyme rather than in space, and Poets’ Corner is a stone and marble anthology of epitaphs. The briefest and best dates from 1637 and simply exclaims: ‘O rare Ben Jonson!’ W. H. Auden’s memorial reads: ‘In the prison of his days / Teach the free man how to praise’; and T. S. Eliot’s reads: ‘The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.’
Alexander Pope, who wrote the greatest of all verse epitaphs, was closely involved in the commemoration of other poets in the Abbey – notably his contemporaries Dryden and Gay – but he had the last word on all of them, past and future, by writing his own fictional mock-epitaph and entitling it: ‘For one who would not be buried in Westminster Abbey’ (a place for heroes and kings):
Heroes, and Kings! your distance keep:
In peace let one poor Poet sleep,
Who never flattered Folks like you …
Pope is buried in Twickenham Parish Church.
The sense of poetry as a re-membering of the common life runs deep in Ted Hughes’s own writings, and many individuals are memorialised unforgettably in his poetry. One of his early books – for children – was indeed called Meet My Folks!, and the imperative resonates across his work. Here is one of his poems about his father-in-law, the farmer Jack Orchard. It is an improvised and mobile cage of words, but durable:
Your hands were strange – huge.
A farmer’s joke: ‘still got your bloody great hands!’
You used them with as little regard
As old iron tools – as if their creased, glossed, crocodile leather
Were nerveless, like an African’s footsoles.
When the barbed wire, tightening hum-rigid,
Snapped and leaped through your grip
You flailed your fingers like a caned boy, and laughed.
‘Barbarous wire!’ then just ignored them
As the half-inch deep, cross-hand rips dried.
And when your grasp nosed bullocks, prising their mouths wide,
So they dropped to their knees
I understood again
How the world of half-ton hooves, and horns,
And hides heeless as oaken-boarding, comes to be manageable.
Hands more of a piece with your tractor
Than with their own nerves,
Having no more compunction than dung-forks,
But suave as warm oil inside the wombs of ewes,
And monkey delicate
At that cigarette
Which glowed patiently through all your labours
Nursing the one in your lung
To such strength, it squeezed your strength to water
And stopped you.
Your hands lie folded, estranged from all they have done
And as they have never been, and startling –
So slender, so taper, so white,
Your mother’s hands suddenly in your hands –
In that final strangeness of elegance.