Westminster Abbey shelters a large congregation of dead poets. As I wandered toward Poets’ Corner inside the venerable coronation church that enshrouds more than 3,000 entombed or commemorated luminaries of British history, including 17 monarchs, to my surprise I found my feet planted atop a marker that capped the corporal remains of Charles Darwin.
I stepped aside and hailed the first Blue Badge docent who happened by.
“Excuse me. What’s Darwin doing in a church?” I asked, pointing toward the capstone.
“Not much,” she said, eyeing me as if I were a fly swimming in her soup (the British are virtuosi in condescension). She narrowed her eyes. “Darwin had a long association with his local parish. At the time of his death, the clergy supported his inhumation here, didn’t they?”
“Then he believed in God?”
“I suppose so, yes. But he had a lifelong struggle with that question.”
I thanked her and scampered off to see the resting niches of those whom I came to visit. Commemorative plaques for Byron, Shelley, Shakespeare, Keats, T.S. Eliot, Graves (apt name, I thought), Coleridge, and Blake indicated their remains were tucked away off-site.Here, though, beyond the carved stones one might discover the bits and ashes of Chaucer, Ben Johnson, Dryden, Dickens, Spencer, Hardy (minus his heart, buried in a Dorset churchyard) and Tennyson—names I noted in the manner of an amateur astronomer checking a list of distant galaxies.
The writers I had studied and revered were all cloistered under one roof, so to speak. Wedged into these walls and squeezed under slabs of stone were the specks of the brightest stars in the English language heavens.
My love of poetry began with Mother Goose but gained momentum at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. At a time when the Pacific Northwest was the launching pad of all things futuristic, up stepped Theodore Roethke to give one of his rare public readings. He was a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, a professor at the University of Washington, and a seminal figure in Pacific Northwest poetry.
As an oblivious and wide-eyed teenager, I recall people leaning forward to hear, and I remember the reverence that struck me as Roethke chanted verses that I did not understand but knew were significant. I did not know how the words fit together, but I knew they carried significance. I felt an unassigned emotion, as if I should weep even though I did not know why.
I have been stalking poets, dead or alive, all my life. Why? Because they prise open hearts like pirates exposing the booty within gilded treasure chests. Then they scatter that glittering plunder to our feet for inspection.
Because poetry and music are conjoined twins, I wonder why we appreciate music so completely but treat poetry as if it were a sneeze in a crowded elevator. It must have something to do with not having to figure out music; we simply enjoy it. Our education teaches us to understand poetry and appreciate music. As children, we enjoyed the pleasures of Doctor Seuss and Shel Silverstein before we encountered English teachers who demanded with dreary pedagogy that we explicate the third canto of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Suddenly the pleasures of poetry became an intimidating chore, like trying to open an oyster without the proper tool.
Poetry, we are told, is “musical thought,” ascribed as such by Thomas Carlyle. It transliterates emotions, the nearest thing to mapping the territory within our noggins. We ought to appreciate that.
The spirits of the luminaries were huddled beneath the Rose Window as I shuffled off to the icon of Our Lady. In a ritualistic mood, I spent 30 pence to light a votive candle as a tribute to poets. Then, feeling generous, I stuffed a fiver into the pay box for more candles to honor the others nearby, including Darwin.
As I kindled the flames, I thought of a line from Roethke: “Deep in their roots, all flowers keep the light.” Tender feelings overcame me, so I escaped through the Great West Door and walked into intoxicating sunlight.
Longtime Steilacoom resident Steve Jaech retired from Pierce College, where he taught literature and composition. He is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.