restricted access A Commentary (Jan 1928)
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318 ] A Commentary The Monthly Criterion: A Literary Review, 7 (Jan 1928) 1-4 Stones of London There was much foolish talk in the newspapers some weeks ago, about projects of alteration – not merely of repair, but extensions and changes to WestminsterAbbey.1 Likemostnewspapertopics,thisonewasveryquickly exhausted; and after a number of public men – and some very odd ones – as well as ecclesiastics and architects, had aired their views, there seemed nothing more to be said. So it may seem tardy or inopportune to raise the question again. But when proposals for demolition or alteration of monuments are being actively discussed, we feel safe for the moment against change; it is onlywhenpublicinteresthasbecomefatigued,andthequestionhasdropped into oblivion, that things are likely to be done. So we may, some months or years hence, suddenly observe the scaffoldings and the workmen, and learn that the matter was decided long ago, and that we are too late to protest. WeapproachthismatterfromthepointofenquiringhowbesttheAbbey may be preserved as an historical monument of great symbolic value and of aesthetic interest; having regard also to the public ceremonies for which the Abbey is the traditional and appropriate scene. What was suddenly discovered was, that the space in the Abbey for interring great men would soon be exhausted (if, that is, we go on producing great men at the present alarming rate). It was also discovered, and duly listed by the newspapers, that a good many people had been buried in the Abbey of whom nobody had heard and in whom nobody was interested; and others equally insignificant were represented by insignificant memorials. Many of these superannuated Chris­ tianshave the illluck, furthermore, nottoberepresentedbywealthydescendants in positions of influence. The newspapers presently ferreted out the fact that a number of these Christian malefactors had actually paid solid money for the monuments – or that money was paid by their pious immediate relatives. There are now accordingly two parties of Abbey Reformers: those who dislike disturbing the dead, or even their monuments, and therefore propose that an extension should be built for the next crop of deceased statesmen; and those who are shocked that the Abbey should be populated by any but very eminent corpses, and are for turning the rascals out. [ 319 A Commentary (Jan) We believe that the great majority of the public (to say nothing of the American visitors who provide a slight seasonal prosperity to a few hotels and shops) would much rather that things were let be; and that the public does not really care a fig where the next lot of great men is buried. But in all this discussion one rather important point seems to have been overlooked, which is not without its bearing even from the point of view of aesthetic fitness. That is, that the Abbey was not originally designed primarily as a Pantheon, but as a Church; and a church it remains until it is “disaffected.” When any other church of antiquity is filled up with tombstones, it is not the custom to clear them out to the bone-yard and start afresh. People liked to be buried in churches, not only as evidence of their social importance, but because they thought that was where their bodies were safest from being disturbed; and their religious faith (or superstition if you like) made them very anxious to be left in peace. If people are to be moved in and out according to each generation of newspaper editors’ estimate of their importance , we are none of us likely to remain very long in one place, until we find our way to the lime-kiln. And at the rate of acceleration which modern life promises, our American visitors will have the satisfaction of visiting a new exhibit of famous men in the Abbey every season. But what is certain is that if a church loses its sanctity, it will also lose its beauty. There is, or was, such a thing as religious art. We are not very skilled at it atpresent.AsanincidentalresultofeitherclearingouttheAbbey,orextending it, we shall certainly be blessed with a lot of new monuments more hideous and in worse taste than anything there of any antiquity. And many of these monuments (as our ecclesiastics, at least in their newspaper communications , seem to have overlooked), will doubtless be erected for famous men who not only were not members of the Church of England at all, but whowillhavepubliclydisassociatedthemselvesfromanycommunion.Great men ought to have monuments, even if they are not Christians; and when there is any doubt about a man’s greatness...