Irving, Washington. "Westminster Abbey".
The story is introduced by a poem from Christolero's Epigrams, by T.B., realizing that life is vanity and death is the proof thereof.
The first person narrator gives an account of a melancholy autumn day which he spent in Westminster Abbey, setting off in the morning and leaving in the evening. First he describes the outside of the Abbey, the cloisters and the tombstones which form the pavement beneath his feat. He observes this mingled picture of glory and decay, the effigies of three early abbots whose epitaphs are no longer readable, only their names has been renewed. It is a picture of futility of the pride which hopes for everlasting glory and further life in inscriptions on the tombstones.
He enters the the building, amazed by its magnitude and by its mysterious atmosphere. He observes not only the architecture but above all the tombs. The tombs with the bones of the great men of past times are compared to those of the Poet's Corner. The former are proud and boasting, their dead are (in)famous for the deeds of violence and blood. The latter are humble, simple, their dead are famous for the pleasure which they gave through poetry, often sacrificing themselves and their own pleasures for this higher aim. What they have in common is that the once famous and great men and women are finally buried in the same gloomy corner and as the time passes they are gradually forgotten.
What the narrator dislikes most is probably the tomb of Mrs Nightingale, or Lady Elizabeth Nightingale, who died in 1731, designed by Roubillac. The bottom of the monument is a door throwing open and a sheeted skeleton starting forth to threaten the woman sinking into her husband's arms, both frightened. The narrator believes that the grave should not awake disgust and dismay but rather sorrow and meditation.
The narrator proceeds to the Chapel of Henry the Seventh, with sculptures of Knights of the Bath, decorated in the Gothic style. He finds sad dreariness in this magnificence, the living aspirations beside mementos showing the dust and oblivion in which we all must sooner or later terminate. The narrator thinks of the hum of an admiring crowd, but now there is the silence of death. There are only birds which found way into the chapel.
The narrator contemplates the equality of the grave, when seeing the tombs of Queen Elizabeth and Mary close together. Suddenly there is the sound of organ, throwing the narrator into reverie by its power. The narrator then approaches the shrine of Edward the Confessor, elevated on a platform, so that he can get a general survey of the tombs. As there is also a Gothic rough throne, there is literally but a step from the throne to the sepulchre. The grave is here no longer a sanctuary, the graves are plundered and dishonoured.
As the narrator leaves the Abbey, he tries to recollect something of the chapels and shrines and tombs he saw, but he does not really manage. All the objects he has seen fall into indistinctness and confusion. All is oblivion; and there is also Sir Thomas Browne's quotation saying we all will be forgotten as we forget our fathers ourselves. The vanity is to be seen also in the example of Alexander the Great whose ashes have been scattered to the wind and his empty tomb is just as a curiosity in a museum. In the same way as people pass away, also the buildings, and even such a building as Westminster Abbey, will perish and be forgotten.
- a contemplative account rather than a fictional short story with plot, characters, etc.
- a gloomy, dusky atmosphere pervades the whole story
- not action but rather the atmosphere is built up
- presents general truths about life and death, but also personal comments
AuthorIrving, Washington. (1783 - 1859).
Full Title"Westminster Abbey".
First PublishedIn: The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. NY: C. S. Van Winkle, 1820.
Irving, Washington. "Westminster Abbey". (1820). In: The Chief American Prose Writers. Ed. Norman Forster. Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1916.