15 June 2013
“The communication / of the dead is tongued with fire beyond / the language of the living.”
T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”
The words that mark his memorial in Westminster Abbey.
It’s almost impossible to let go of my obsessive need to accomplish – to not waste a minute of time, to record every instance. This morning, I tried to shut it off. I let myself sleep until 930, mosey down to the common room for coffee and toast and relax a little.
My primary goal of the morning is a visit to Westminster Abbey, another site I disregarded on my original London excursion. Another day, another cathedral – this is London after all.
Rick Steves correctly advised me to chose the cash line (over the credit line) to get in the doors of this imposing building, but both lines moved surprisingly quick for a Saturday morning, just a couple years after the most recent Royal Wedding was held in this very space. (The first was in 1100!)
Entering the cathedral overwhelms visitors, as I myself do what each person has before me – touch my chest and let my jaw fall open. It is stunning, and its place in British history cannot be overstated. For almost 800 years, this has been the site of nation-changing weddings, funerals and mention coronations.
I’m not in the building for three minutes, barely getting my orientation, when I notice a wall plaque for Alfred Russel Wallace, a 19th century British explorer, geographer, anthropologist and biologist. Although a somewhat overlooked scientist, Wallace not only explored and described the flora and fauna of unknown regions of the world in the 1880’s, he also developed a theory of evolution independent of his contemporary Charles Darwin. Some suggest that Darwin was pushed to publish his On the Origin of Species primarily to beat Wallace to the punch. Although Wallace is buried in Dorset, as he wished, the plaque was placed in Westminster two years after his death, in 1915.
I’m still thinking about poor Wallace and the short-end he got in British history when I find myself standing on the stone marked for Darwin himself. I immediately wonder if Wallace’s scientist bros purposefully had his plaque added just a few feet in front of Darwin’s grave so he could be first at something. My hands shake and clench at the desire to break the rules and take a picture, but I can control myself. I’m honored and awed to be standing here and wish desperately that I could talk to the grumpy old Darwin and tell him what he means to me. I’m secretly glad that I skipped this stop when I was 19, because there’s no way it would have felt this special.
Nearby the rests stone of Charles Lyell, another scientist and contemporary of Darwin (a friend and mentor, really). Among kings and queens, I also find a Isaac Newton, a brilliant dedication to William Shakespeare (who is buried in Stratford-Upon-Avon) and a memorial to T.S. Eliot, among other influential poets and writers. The list of rockstars who are buried or memorialized here would take up a whole post, but go ahead and check Wikipedia.
Westminster Abbey is a place that can make you feel both tiny and inspired at the same time. To mingle with history in this close proximity really is to communicate with the dead.