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Chapter 22: Westminster Abbey

Longfellow was the first American to be commemorated, on the mere ground of public service and distant kinship of blood, in Westminster Abbey. The impressions made by that circumstance in America were very various, but might be classed under two leading attitudes. There were those to whom the English-speaking race seemed one, and Westminster Abbey its undoubted central shrine, an opinion of which Lowell was a high representative, as his speech on the occasion showed. There were those, on the other hand, to whom the American republic seemed a wholly new fact in the universe, and one which should have its own shrines. To this last class the ‘Hall of Fame,’ upon the banks of the Hudson, would appeal more strongly than Westminster Abbey; and it is probable that the interest inspired by that enterprise was partly due, at the outset, to the acceptance of Longfellow in England's greatest shrine. It may be fairly said, however, on reflection, that there is no absolute inconsistency between these two [249] opinions. No one, surely, but must recognize the dignity of the proceeding when an American writer, born and bred, is, as it were, invited after death to stand as a permanent representative of his race in the storied abbey. On the other hand, it may easily be conceded that the dignitaries of Westminster are not, of themselves, necessarily so well versed in American claims as to make their verdict infallible or even approximate. The true solution would appear to be that in monuments, as in all other forms of recognition, each nation should have its own right of selection, and that it should be recognized as a gratifying circumstance when these independent judgments happen to coincide. The following is the best London report of the services on this occasion:—

On Saturday, March 2, 1884, at midday, the ceremony of unveiling a bust of Longfellow took place in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey. It is the work of Mr. Thomas Brock, A. R. A., and was executed by desire of some five hundred admirers of the American poet. It stands on a bracket near the tomb of Chaucer, and between the memorials to Cowley and Dryden. Before the ceremony took place, a meeting of the subscribers was held in the Jerusalem Chamber. In the absence of Dean Bradley, owing to a death in his family, the Sub-Dean, Canon Prothero, was called to the chair. [250]

Mr. Bennoch having formally announced the order of proceeding, Dr. Bennett made a brief statement, and called upon Earl Granville to ask the Dean's acceptance of the bust.

Earl Granville then said: ‘Mr. Sub-Dean, Ladies and Gentlemen, . . . I am afraid I cannot fulfil the promise made for me of making a speech on this occasion. Not that there are wanting materials for a speech; there are materials of the richest description. There are, first of all, the high character, the refinement, and the personal charm of the late illustrious poet,—if I may say so in the presence of those so near and so dear to him. There are also the characteristics of those works which have secured for him not a greater popularity in the United States themselves than in this island and in all the English-speaking dependencies of the British Empire. There are, besides, very large views with regard to the literature which is common to both the United States and ourselves, and with regard to the separate branches of literature which have sprung up in each country, and which act and react with so much advantage one upon another; and there are, above all, those relations of a moral and intellectual character which become bonds stronger and greater every day between the intellectual and cultivated classes of these two great countries. I am [251] happy to say that with such materials there are persons here infinitely more fitted to deal than I could have been even if I had had time to bestow upon the thought and the labor necessary to condense into the limits of a speech some of the considerations I have mentioned. I am glad that among those present there is one who is not only the official representative of the United States, but who speaks with more authority than any one with regard to the literature and intellectual condition of that country. I cannot but say how glad I am that I have been present at two of the meetings held to inaugurate this work, and I am delighted to be present here to take part in the closing ceremony. With the greatest pleasure I make the offer of this memorial to the Sub-Dean; and from the kindness we have received already from the authorities of Westminster Abbey, I have no doubt it will be received in the same spirit. I beg to offer you, Mr. Sub-Dean, the bust which has been subscribed for.’

The American Minister, Mr. Lowell, then said: ‘Mr. Sub-Dean, my Lord, Ladies and Gentlemen, I think I may take upon myself the responsibility, in the name of the daughters of my beloved friend, to express their gratitude to Lord Granville for having found time, amid the continuous and arduous calls of his duty, to be [252] present here this morning. Having occasion to speak in this place some two years ago, I remember that I then expressed the hope that some day or other the Abbey of Westminster would become the Valhalla of the whole Englishspeak-ing race. I little expected then that a beginning would be made so soon,—a beginning at once painful and gratifying in the highest degree to myself,—with the bust of my friend. Though there be no Academy in England which corresponds to that of France, yet admission to Westminster Abbey forms a sort of posthumous test of literary eminence perhaps as effectual. Every one of us has his own private Valhalla, and it is not apt to be populous. But the conditions of admission to the Abbey are very different. We ought no longer to ask why is so-and-so here, and we ought always to be able to answer the question why such a one is not here. I think that on this occasion I should express the united feeling of the whole English-speaking race in confirming the choice which has been made,—the choice of one whose name is dear to them all, who has inspired their lives and consoled their hearts, and who has been admitted to the fireside of all of them as a familiar friend. Nearly forty years ago I had occasion, in speaking of Mr. Longfellow, to suggest an analogy between him and the English poet Gray; and I [253] have never since seen any reason to modify or change that opinion. There are certain very marked analogies between them, I think. In the first place, there is the same love of a certain subdued splendor, not inconsistent with transparency of diction; there is the same power of absorbing and assimilating the beauties of other literature without loss of originality; and, above all, there is that genius, that sympathy with universal sentiments and the power of expressing them so that they come home to everybody, both high and low, which characterize both poets. There is something also in that simplicity,—simplicity in itself being a distinction. But in style, simplicity and distinction must be combined in order to their proper effect; and the only warrant perhaps of permanence in literature is this distinction in style. It is something quite indefinable; it is something like the distinction of good-breeding, characterized perhaps more by the absence of certain negative qualities than by the presence of certain positive ones. But it seems to me that distinction of style is eminently found in the poet whom we are met here in some sense to celebrate to-day. This is not the place, of course, for criticism; still less is it the place for eulogy, for eulogy is but too often disguised apology. But I have been struck particularly—if I may bring [254] forward one instance—with some of my late friend's sonnets, which seem to me to be some of the most beautiful and perfect we have in the language. His mind always moved straight towards its object, and was always permeated with the emotion that gave it frankness and sincerity, and at the same time the most ample expression. It seems that I should add a few words—in fact, I cannot refrain from adding a few words—with regard to the personal character of a man whom I knew for more than forty years, and whose friend I was honored to call myself for thirty years. Never was a private character more answerable to public performance than that of Longfellow. Never have I known a more beautiful character. I was familiar with it daily,—with the constant charity of his hand and of his mind. His nature was consecrated ground, into which no unclean spirit could ever enter. I feel entirely how inadequate anything that I can say is to the measure and proportion of an occasion like this. But I think I am authorized to accept, in the name of the people of America, this tribute to not the least distinguished of her sons, to a man who in every way, both in public and private, did honor to the country that gave him birth. I cannot add anything more to what was so well said in a few words by Lord Granville, for I do not [255] think that these occasions are precisely the times for set discourses, but rather for a few words of feeling, of gratitude, and of appreciation.’

The Sub-Dean, in accepting the bust, remarked that it was impossible not to feel, in doing so, that they were accepting a very great honor to the country. He could conceive that if the great poet were allowed to look down on the transactions of that day, he would not think it unsatisfactory that his memorial had been placed in that great Abbey among those of his brothers in poetry.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer moved a vote of thanks to the honorary secretary and the honorary treasurer, and said he thought he had been selected for the duty because he had spent two or three years of his life in the United States, and a still longer time in some of the British colonies. It gave him the greater pleasure to do this, having known Mr. Longfellow in America, and having from boyhood enjoyed his poetry, which was quite as much appreciated in England and her dependencies as in America. Wherever he had been in America, and where-ever he had met Americans, he had found there was one place at least which they looked upon as being as much theirs as it was England's—that place was the Abbey Church of Westminster. [256] It seemed, therefore, to him that the present occasion was an excellent beginning of the recognition of the Abbey as what it had been called, —the Valhalla of the English-speaking people. He trusted this beginning would not be the end of its application in this respect.

The company then proceeded to Poets' Corner, where, taking his stand in front of the covered bust,

The Sub-Dean then said: ‘I feel to-day that a double solemnity attaches to this occasion which calls us together. There is first the familiar fact that to-day we are adding another name to the great roll of illustrious men whom we commemorate within these walls, that we are adding something to that rich heritage which we have received of national glory from our ancestors, and which we feel bound to hand over to our successors, not only unimpaired, but even increased. There is then the novel and peculiar fact which attaches to the erection of a monument here to the memory of Henry Longfellow. In some sense, poets—great poets like him— may be said to be natives of all lands; but never before have the great men of other countries, however brilliant and widespread their fame, been admitted to a place in Westminster Abbey. A century ago America was just commencing her perilous path of independence and selfernment. [257] Who then could have ventured to predict that within the short space of one hundred years we in England should be found to honor an American as much as we could do so by giving his monument a place within the sacred shrine which holds the memories of our most illustrious sons? Is there not in this a very significant fact; is it not an emphatic proof of the oneness which belongs to our common race, and of the community of our national glories? May I not add, is it not a pledge that we give to each other that nothing can long and permanently sever nations which are bound together by the eternal ties of language, race, religion, and common feeling?’

The reverend gentleman then removed the covering from the bust, and the ceremony ended.

Life, III. 346-351.

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