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"The Ragged Regiment"
by [?]

–‘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.