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An essay by Max Beerbohm

"The Ragged Regiment"

Title:     "The Ragged Regiment"
Author: Max Beerbohm [More Titles by Beerbohm]

--'commonly called "Longshanks" on account of his great height he was the first king crowned in the Abbey as it now appears and was interred with great pomp on St. Simon's and St. Jude's Day October 28th 1307 in 1774 the tomb was opened when the king's body was found almost entire in the right hand was a richly embossed sceptre and in the left'--

So much I gather as I pass one of the tombs on my way to the Chapel of Abbot Islip. Anon the verger will have stepped briskly forward, drawing a deep breath, with his flock well to heel, and will be telling the secrets of the next tomb on his tragic beat.

To be a verger in Westminster Abbey--what life could be more unutterably tragic? We are, all of us, more or less enslaved to sameness; but not all of us are saying, every day, hour after hour, exactly the same thing, in exactly the same place, in exactly the same tone of voice, to people who hear it for the first time and receive it with a gasp of respectful interest. In the name of humanity, I suggest to the Dean and Chapter that they should relieve these sad-faced men of their intolerable mission, and purchase parrots. On every tomb, by every bust or statue, under every memorial window, let a parrot be chained by the ankle to a comfortable perch, therefrom to enlighten the rustic and the foreigner. There can be no objection on the ground of expense; for parrots live long. Vergers do not, I am sure.

It is only the rustic and the foreigner who go to Westminster Abbey for general enlightenment. If you pause beside any one of the verger- led groups, and analyse the murmur emitted whenever the verger has said his say, you will find the constituent parts of the sound to be such phrases as `Lor!' `Ach so!' `Deary me!' `Tiens!' and `My!' `My!' preponderates; for antiquities appeal with greatest force to the one race that has none of them; and it is ever the Americans who hang the most tenaciously, in the greatest numbers, on the vergers' tired lips. We of the elder races are capable of taking antiquities as a matter of course. Certainly, such of us as reside in London take Westminster Abbey as a matter of course. A few of us will be buried in it, but meanwhile we don't go to it, even as we don't go to the Tower, or the Mint, or the Monument. Only for some special purpose do we go--as to hear a sensational bishop preaching, or to see a monarch anointed. And on these rare occasions we cast but a casual glance at the Abbey--that close-packed chaos of beautiful things and worthless vulgar things. That the Abbey should be thus chaotic does not seem strange to us; for lack of orderliness and discrimination is an essential characteristic of the English genius. But to the Frenchman, with his passion for symmetry and harmony, how very strange it must all seem! How very whole-hearted a generalising `Tiens! must he utter when he leaves the edifice!

My own special purpose in coming is to see certain old waxen effigies that are here. [In its original form this essay had the good fortune to accompany two very romantic drawings by William Nicholson--one of Queen Elizabeth's effigy, the other of Charles II.'s.] A key grates in the lock of a little door in the wall of (what I am told is) the North Ambulatory; and up a winding wooden staircase I am ushered into a tiny paven chamber. The light is dim, through the deeply embrased and narrow window, and the space is so obstructed that I must pick my way warily. All around are deep wooden cupboards, faced with glass; and I become dimly aware that through each glass some one is watching me. Like sentinels in sentry-boxes, they fix me with their eyes, seeming as though they would challenge me. How shall I account to them for my presence? I slip my note-book into my pocket, and try, in the dim light, to look as unlike a spy as possible. But I cannot, try as I will, acquit myself of impertinence. Who am I that I should review this `ragged regiment'? Who am I that I should come peering in upon this secret conclave of the august dead? Immobile and dark, very gaunt and withered, these personages peer out at me with a malign dignity, through the ages which separate me from them, through the twilight in which I am so near to them. Their eyes... Come, sir, their eyes are made of glass. It is quite absurd to take wax-works seriously. Wax- works are not a serious form of art. The aim of art is so to imitate life as to produce in the spectator an illusion of life. Wax-works, at best, can produce no such illusion. Don't pretend to be illuded. For its power to illude, an art depends on its limitations. Art never can be life, but it may seem to be so if it do but keep far enough away from life. A statue may seem to live. A painting may seem to live. That is because each is so far away from life that you do not apply the test of life to it. A statue is of bronze or marble, than either of which nothing could be less flesh-like. A painting is a thing in two dimensions, whereas man is in three. If sculptor or painter tried to dodge these conventions, his labour would be undone. If a painter swelled his canvas out and in according to the convexities and concavities of his model, or if a sculptor overlaid his material with authentic flesh-tints, then you would demand that the painted or sculptured figure should blink, or stroke its chin, or kick its foot in the air. That it could do none of these things would rob it of all power to illude you. An art that challenges life at close quarters is defeated through the simple fact that it is not life. Wax-works, being so near to life, having the exact proportions of men and women, having the exact texture of skin and hair and habiliments, must either be made animate or continue to be grotesque and pitiful failures. Lifelike? They? Rather do they give you the illusion of death. They are akin to photographs seen through stereoscopic lenses--those photographs of persons who seem horribly to be corpses, or, at least, catalepts; and... You see, I have failed to cheer myself up. Having taken up a strong academic line, and set bravely out to prove to myself the absurdity of wax-works, I find myself at the point where I started, irrefutably arguing to myself that I have good reason to be frightened, here in the Chapel of Abbot Islip, in the midst of these, the Abbot's glowering and ghastly tenants. Catalepsy! death! that is the atmosphere I am breathing.

If I were writing in the past tense, I might pause here to consider whether this emotion was a genuine one or a mere figment for literary effect. As I am writing in the present tense, such a pause would be inartistic, and shall not be made. I must seem not to be writing, but to be actually on the spot, suffering. But then, you may well ask, why should I stay here, to suffer? why not beat a hasty retreat? The answer is that my essay would then seem skimpy; and that you, moreover, would know hardly anything about the wax-works. So I must ask you to imagine me fighting down my fears, and consoling myself with the reflection that here, after all, a sense of awe and oppression is just what one ought to feel--just what one comes for. At Madame Tussaud's exhibition, by which I was similarly afflicted some years ago, I had no such consolation. There my sense of fitness was outraged. The place was meant to be cheerful. It was brilliantly lit. A band was playing popular tunes. Downstairs there was even a restaurant. (Let fancy fondly dwell, for a moment, on the thought of a dinner at Madame Tussaud's: a few carefully-selected guests, and a menu well thought out; conversation becoming general; corks popping; quips flying; a sense of bien-e^tre; `thank you for a most delightful evening.') Madame's figures were meant to be agreeable and lively presentments. Her visitors were meant to have a thoroughly good time. But the Islip Chapel has no cheerful intent. It is, indeed, a place set aside, with all reverence, to preserve certain relics of a grim, yet not unlovely, old custom. These fearful images are no stock-in- trade of a showman; we are not invited to `walk-up' to them. They were fashioned with a solemn and wistful purpose. The reason of them lies in a sentiment which is as old as the world--lies in man's vain revolt from the prospect of death. If the soul must perish from the body, may not at least the body itself be preserved, somewhat in the semblance of life, and, for at least a while, on the face of the earth? By subtle art, with far-fetched spices, let the body survive its day and be (even though hidden beneath the earth) for ever. Nay more, since death cause it straightway to dwindle somewhat from the true semblance of life, let cunning artificers fashion it anew--fashion it as it was. Thus, in the earliest days of England, the kings, as they died, were embalmed, and their bodies were borne aloft upon their biers, to a sepulture long delayed after death. In later days, an image of every king that died was forthwith carved in wood, and painted according to his remembered aspect, and decked in his own robes; and, when they had sealed his tomb, the mourners, humouring, to the best of their power, his hatred of extinction, laid this image upon the tomb's slab, and left it so. In yet later days, the pretence became more realistic. The hands and the face were modelled in wax; and the figure stood upright, in some commanding posture, on a valanced platform above the tomb. Nor were only the kings thus honoured. Every one who was interred in the Abbey, whether in virtue of lineage or of achievements, was honoured thus. It was the fashion for every great lady to write in her will minute instructions as to the posture in which her image was to be modelled, and which of her gowns it was to be clad in, and with what of her jewellery it was to glitter. Men, too, used to indulge in such precautions. Of all the images thus erected in the Abbey, there remain but a few. The images had to take their chance, in days that were without benefit of police. Thieves, we may suppose, stripped the finery from many of them. Rebels, we know, broke in, less ignobly, and tore many of them limb from limb, as a protest against the governing classes. So only a poor remnant, a `ragged regiment,' has been rallied, at length, into the sanctuary of Islip's Chapel. Perhaps, if they were not so few, these images would not be so fascinating.

Yes, I am fascinated by them now. Terror has been toned to wonder. I am filled with a kind of wondering pity. My academic theory about wax- works has broken down utterly. These figures--kings, princes, duchesses, queens--all are real to me now, and all are infinitely pathetic, in the dignity of their fallen and forgotten greatness. With what inalienable majesty they wear their rusty velvets and faded silks, flaunting sere ruffles of point-lace, which at a touch now would be shivered like cobwebs! My heart goes out to them through the glass that divides us. I wish I could stay with them, bear them company, always. I think they like me. I am afraid they will miss me. Perhaps it would be better for us never to have met. Even Queen Elizabeth, beholding whom, as she stands here, gaunt and imperious and appalling, I echo the words spoken by Philip's envoy, `This woman is possessed of a hundred thousand devils'--even she herself, though she gazes askance into the air, seems to be conscious of my presence, and to be willing me to stay. It is a relief to meet the friendly bourgeois eye of good Queen Anne. It has restored my common sense. `These figures really are most curious, most interesting...' and anon I am asking intelligent questions about the contents of a big press, which, by special favour, has been unlocked for me.

Perhaps the most romantic thing in the Islip Chapel is this press. Herein, huddled one against another in dark recesses, lie the battered and disjected remains of the earlier effigies--the primitive wooden ones. Edward I. and Eleanor are known to be among them; and Henry VII. and Elizabeth of York; and others not less illustrious. Which is which? By size and shape you can distinguish the men from the women; but beyond that is mere guesswork, be you never so expert. Time has broken and shuffled these erst so significant effigies till they have become as unmeaning for us as the bones in one of the old plague-pits. I feel that I ought to be more deeply moved than I am by this sad state of things. But I seem to have exhausted my capacity for sentiment; and I cannot rise to the level of my opportunity. Would that I were Thackeray! Dear gentleman, how promptly and copiously he would have wept and moralised here, in his grandest manner, with that perfect technical mastery which makes even now his tritest and shallowest sermons sound remarkable, his hollowest sentiment ring true! What a pity he never came to beat the muffled drum, on which he was so supreme a performer, around the Islip Chapel! As I make my way down the stairs, I am trying to imagine what would have been the cadence of the final sentence in this essay by Thackeray. And, as I pass along the North Ambulatory, lo! there is the same verger with a new party; and I catch the words `was interred with great pomp on St. Simon's and St. Jude's Day October 28 1307 in 1774 the tomb was opened when--

[The end]
Max Beerbohm's essay: "The Ragged Regiment"