By Cynthia A. Burgess, Librarian/Curator of Books & Printed Materials
December 12, 2013 was the 124th anniversary of the death of Victorian poet Robert Browning. Although he died in Venice, Italy while visiting his son and daughter-in-law, he was given the great honor of being buried at Poets’ Corner in London’s Westminster Abbey, and his body was interred there on December 31st, the final day of 1889.
On December 2nd I had the privilege of attending the annual service of commemoration at Browning’s grave sponsored by The Browning Society [UK]. For many years a solemn ceremony has been held there and wreaths have been laid on Browning’s grave on or near the date of the poet’s death. The Armstrong Browning Library has participated in the ceremony for decades, by having a wreath laid on behalf of the Library, and, whenever possible, by having a group in attendance.
This year the Armstrong Browning Library’s group included, in addition to me, Pattie Orr, Baylor University’s Vice-President of Information Technology and Dean of University Libraries; Nancy Jackson, Baylor alumna and former chair of the Library Board of Advisors; and Baylor alumna Patty Burgess. The ABL’s party also included invited guests: Xenia Dennen, Director of The Keston Institute, and her husband, Ven. Dr. Lyle Dennen, former Archdeacon of Hackney, now Guild Vicar of St. Andrew, Holborn; and David Rymill, Archivist, Hampshire Archives and Local Studies, and archivist to the Highclere Estate.
Following an Evensong service, sung beautifully by the Lay Vicars of Westminster Abbey, approximately 40 Browning admirers and enthusiasts moved quietly from the Abbey’s nave to nearby Poets’ Corner. There on the floor is a marble slab — a dark brown center framed by pale gold stone, with, simply, Browning’s name and his birth and death dates marking the place of burial. Browning lies next to Alfred, Lord Tennyson and near Charles Dickens, his contemporaries and friends; at his feet is the grave of Geoffrey Chaucer, and close at hand, the resting places of other great writers — John Dryden, Samuel Johnson, Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy. Memorial stones on the floor and the walls name others, not buried, but honored there. On the floor near Browning’s grave is the newest memorial stone, placed in honor of Clive Staples Lewis only weeks ago.
Following a welcome and a prayer, a short address by Dr. Pamela Neville-Sington, the author of biographies of both Robert Browning and Fanny Trollope, revealed the profound influence of Robert Browning’s poetry on the great Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. Dr. Neville-Sington then placed a wreath on Browning’s grave for The Browning Society, followed by The Reverend Clive Dunnico laying a wreath for The Robert Browning Settlement (a community service organization), and Nancy Jackson laying a wreath decorated with bells and pomegranates for the Armstrong Browning Library. I was honored to place a wreath for The Friends of Casa Guidi (an organization supporting the care of the Brownings’ home in Florence).
Final prayers and a blessing ended the brief but moving ceremony. Robert Browning is still remembered and his poetry valued nearly a century and a quarter after his death.