Sunday, August 02, 2009

London Trip, 2nd day: Westminster Abbey and the National Gallery

On Saturday, I'd made the decision to visit Westminster Abbey. I've always wanted to see it, but I've avoided it because it's crawling with tourists. I don't like going to "touristy" places when I travel--I usually prefer to discover something in a much quieter milieu. Plus, I was not excited about the fifteen-pound admission charge; that's tantamount to robbery, as far as I'm concerned. But, I ended up going anyway.

Recently I've been on an American literature and history kick, and I've always been a big fan of New York writer Washington Irving. Irving has a piece about Westminster Abbey in his Sketch Book, and I sat down to re-read it after visiting the Abbey, to see how things may have changed since he wrote the piece in 1819.

Irving started his visit in the Cloister, which is usually one of the last things the modern visitor sees. I started on the opposite side, near St. Margaret's Church. The architecture of Westminster is astonishing. It's a Gothic structure, and by design it is meant to direct your attention upwards. I found myself staring at the paintings, relief-carvings, buttresses and stained glass that were above me. I think I'm also taken by how old the structure is, or at least certain parts. The Abbey has burned down several times (like most of London at various points in its history), so this structure is comparatively more modern.

One of the first things you see on the modern tour is St. Michael's Chapel, and in it is a very striking monument known as the tomb of Mrs. Nightingale. A figure of death coming out from what appears to be a fireplace aims his spear at the unfortunate woman, while her husband throws out his hand to try to stop him. The monument was created by Roubiliac, and I found it to be quite disturbing in its depiction of death. It is certainly a summation of the Western view of death, a horror to be averted rather than a natural part of the life cycle. Irving also commented on the monument, saying "But why should we thus seek to clothe death with unnecessary terrors, and to spread horrors around the tomb of those we love?"

Walking through the Abbey from here, there are a great number of chambers containing tombs and effigies of the royal dead. The tomb of Edward the Confessor is towards the middle of the Abbey--Irving did visit this, but the modern visitor cannot, as it is listed as being "in delicate condition". On the outside of the tomb is the Coronation Chair where monarchs were officially crowned. It is an old oak chair, perhaps not as grand-looking as it was due to its age and wear, but it's placement outside the tomb is interesting. Irving also commented on this: "it was literally but a step from the throne to the sepulchre." There is much I could say about the social role of King or Queen here, and the truth of that statement, but I'll save that for another time.

Like Irving, I found myself spending the most time in Poet's Corner, which was surprisingly light on tourist traffic that day. Irving only mentions the Shakespeare monument, which is still there (Shakespeare is not in fact buried at Westminster--he is supposed to be buried at Stratford-Upon-Avon). Many of the tombs in Poet's Corner would not have been there in Irving's time--Keats, Byron, Shelley, Tennyson, Browning, Auden, T.S. Eliot, George Eliot, and Lewis Carroll. There are more modern monuments still to poet laureates and playwrights. Irving makes the suggestion that one likes to linger there because the writers are more familiar, like old friends--it is difficult to identify with the nobility buried here.

Lastly, I made my way over to the Cloisters. One of the oldest parts of the Abbey is there, the Pyx Chamber (Pyx being Latin for "small box"), and it was where the King's treasures were stored. Throughout the Cloisters there are inscriptions commemorating the early Abbots, which Irving believed would be obliterated over time. Yet they are still here, a fair number of have been restored, and newer memorials and inscriptions are there as well. Most of the newer inscriptions are dedicated to those who served in Britain's military.

Irving felt that the Abbey was a testament to the fact that no matter how great one is, they too are met with death and have nothing but crumbling memorials to commemorate them. I would have to agree, though I see it in a less pessimistic light--the transient nature of reality and what we think we are is greatly emphasized, but what remains of that still collect like an archaeological archive, still of interest to those who pass through years later.

In Ackroyd's work on London, he describes Westminster as being a "terrible" place in the time of Edward the Confessor. "Terrible" is meant in the numinous sense--there is a holy dread or awe of the sacredness of the place. That feeling, if it is still there, is largely muted by the touristy-ness of the area. Perhaps the architecture is one's only reminder of its holiness. Still, I was glad I at least went, and was happy to get away from the crowds to a small pub on the Embankment.

In wandering back towards Bloomsbury, I made a detour into the National Portrait Gallery. I didn't go through the whole museum--I was mainly interested in the portraits from the 17th and 18th centuries. The George III room in particular held my attention. Prior to taking on Ackroyd's work, I had just finished David McCulloch's "1776", which is about that year in the American Revolution when the war stopped being about unfair taxation by the mother country and started being about American independence. Naturally, growing up in America and near Morristown, I have been exposed to accounts of the conflict for years. Certainly I know the American take on the war. But I'm always curious about the British take on the war. That isn't often discussed, though I imagine that accounts of that conflict written today will differ greatly from those that are contemporary to the war. In the George III room, I looked at the portrait of the king. The description next to his portrait mentions how he lost the American colonies through his "obstinacy", a point of view which is certainly more modern. George Washington's portrait also hangs in this room, where he is mentioned as a pioneering policy-maker in the democratization of the United States. Nowhere does it mention him as a general and commander-in-chief. McCulloch had mentioned that the British barely acknowledged Washington's role at all in the war, and there still seems to be an unwillingness to discuss that. In the U.S., of course, Washington is a veritable god on all fronts, at least according to national mythology.

The rest of that day was spent relaxing in the pub and writing. Healthwise I wasn't in top shape on this trip, so I tended to need down-time by the end of the day. More to come on the next 3 days of the trip...

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