THE entrance of Ted Hughes to Poets’ Corner last week took me back to when he and I, and that remarkable Dean, Michael Mayne, himself a good writer, placed a memorial to John Clare in that crowded spot. After Clare, authors went up on the windows above it: Wilde, Herrick. But Hughes’s Welsh tablet found floor space at the feet of T. S. Eliot.
It is an amazing concept, our low Olympus, where visitors are brought to a halt by the sheer splendour of its dust. Poets’ Corner began when a young 16th-century scholar found the bones of Geoffrey Chaucer scattered about, and housed them at his own expense in a fine tomb in this aisle. Edmund Spenser’s lovely monument soon followed it.
Poets’ Corner was pretty full when our greatest rural voice, Clare, went to see it. That he should be in it by what he called his “right to song” would have been unimaginable.
But there he is, up on the wall by Matthew Arnold. Mayne, Hughes, and I put him there on a summer’s evening in 1989. The abbey sculptor carved the returning raven with the olive leaf in its beak over Clare’s name. Edward Storey wrote:
You were there again,
no longer the shy ploughboy
wondering how you had escaped
from the fields of Northamptonshire,
but as an equal with those man
who had been treated better by posterity —
Wordsworth, Byron, Keats and Tennyson.
Hughes read Clare’s “The Nightingale’s Nest”, one of the greatest bird poems in the language, and we sang Clare’s tragic hymn “A stranger once did bless the earth”, to Surrey. There was a tradition in Clare’s village, Helpston, of cutting a summer turf and sticking it with wild flowers and calling it a Midsummer Cushion. So, early in the morning, I cut a turf in my farmhouse garden, and covered it with July flowers, and carried it to Westminster Abbey on the train. It weighed a ton.
The Maynes returned to the Deanery to find it on their draining-board. They carried it to the foot of Clare’s memorial. Hughes and his wife, Carol, arrived in the afternoon, and we all had tea.
Hughes and I had met some years before at the Roundhouse, where we gave readings to raise money for Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage. Hughes read his own poetry, and I read Thomas Hardy’s. Afterwards, he and I had a snack in the ice-cream shop near by. Now he drew the curtain from Clare’s memorial, and we all applauded.
I suppose that being admitted to Poets’ Corner is the literary equivalent of entering heaven. Only the Dean of Westminster can let a writer in, and he can be plagued with applicants. I was staying at the Deanery with the Maynes when Michael said: “How about putting Clare in Poets’ Corner?”, overwhelming me. For I had only recently been made president of the John Clare Society, and this recognition of him was beyond my hopes and dreams.
But thus it was, Hughes, Mayne, and I, hundreds of people, and the fat Midsummer Cushion, and, as with Hughes’s own deserved admission, standing there, marvelling at what we had done.