A Lodging in the Bayswater Road

I

VISITING the graves of great men is an odd recreation, perhaps, but a common one, as a trip to any Old World cemetery will make plain. Look for Albrecht Dürer in the big, thickly sown cemetery far out in Nuremberg; the grave of De Quincey in the heart of Edinburgh; the grave of Karl Marx, eclipsing the English bones of Faraday, George Eliot, and Herbert Spencer in Highgate Cemetery, London; the grave of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Florence — you will have little difficulty in finding them. Note how well worn is the path leading to them and you will have a subtle index to the ebb and flow of the day’s intellectual tides. Often a legion has been there before you, has asked the way and been directed. It is not only that a grave is a shrine, a place where one can pay homage to the heroes closest to one’s heart and head. Such is the state of being human that it is often there, rather than in their former dwelling places, that one seems to gather most telling proof that these dead once actually lived, and, what is more, were mortal, and died.

Nevertheless, the amount of toil and trouble one must take to find this last lodging varies. It is easy to come upon the Divine Sarah; it is less so to run down that wearer of one of the strangest faces in English literature, Laurence Sterne. In a great city of the dead like Père-Lachaise the guard will direct you to the tomb of Sarah Bernhardt as easily as the gendarme on the corner would have pointed out her Paris apartment to an inquirer. He will give you street and number. Moreover, you will be able to visit other notables on the way. But with a man like Sterne, whose friends buried him in a place where they order these matters worse than they do in France, you will have to find your own devious way. And unless you have campaigned with Uncle Toby and followed the Shandean divagations that ultimately led to the breeching of Tristram, this is a sentimental journey you will hardly make. But if you have, and if you do, you will find to your astonishment that even in this improbable place there have been others before you.

It was a day in November when I myself set out on this pilgrimage — one of those chill yet mellow days when the flowers still bloom in the public gardens and the English walk out to admire them, much as the Japanese make viewing pilgrimages to Fujiyama, and with something of the same reverence; when the leaves are still whirling around the windows where Victoria woke to be told she was Queen and to promise that she would be good, and the large canine population of the largest city of the world is still walked briskly past; but the boys who in summer sail their miniature craft on the Round Pond in the Gardens or walk in quartets toward the Serpentine, tight rolls of towels and swimming suits under their arms, have vanished from the scene. On such a day the thoughts turn like a weather vane toward tea and all its pleasant concomitants. If tea had not existed, the English would doubtless have invented it for such days as these.

I had mine on Oxford Street, called ‘stony-hearted stepmother’ by De Quincey and belittled by writers before and since. From the window, as I sat thinking about Sterne’s near-by lodgings in Old Bond Street and his grave, which was no farther away, I watched the deliberate British workingman putting the finishing touches on the new Marble Arch Hotel. Resisting the temptation to linger in this agreeable atmosphere of fragrant warmth and low voices, I stepped out at length and threaded my way cautiously through the relentless traffic at the Marble Arch, almost as dangerous to the innocent pedestrian of to-day as Tyburn Tree, which once stood here, was to the malefactors formerly dragged here to die. On the other side, before the high barriers of Hyde Park, I paused to catch my breath and to look skeptically across at what the guidebook pointed out as my destination — skeptically because the old burial ground is one of those soft retreats within a minute of the Juggernaut of to-day’s traffic which only London knows how to keep. It pleased me to remember suddenly that it was here, in the Bayswater Road, that Walter de la Mare’s Midget had found lodgings, like many a full-sized Londoner before and since. Sterne, it appeared, had done the same, and taken a permanent lease.

II

Behind its iron fence and stretch of green grass stood the red brick Chapel of the Ascension, built on the site of the old mortuary chapel of St. George’s. Under the cornice, as I went in, I read the evangelical inscriptions: ‘Is it nothing to all ye who pass by? Come and rest awhile. Jesus Christ, yesterday, to-day, and forever.’ It seemed a strange façade for a clergyman of the Church of England to lie behind. A few people, I found, had obeyed the injunction and were wandering about inside, looking at the Biblical scenes and the prophets and disciples painted by Frederic Shields. Through the arched passageway that divides the chapel from the living quarters of the portress I could see a garden. When I made inquiry the portress directed me through with a practised sweep of the arm and instructions which, mumbled without benefit of teeth, were none too clear. Even so, I gathered from her quick understanding of what I wanted that many had preceded me on the same errand.

Emerging into the garden, I looked about me, more incredulous than before. The great area of ground that was once laid out as the burial place of the parish of St. George’s, Hanover Square, in which Sterne died, was such a medley of tennis courts and other facilities for sports, stray graves, cabbages and dahlias, chrysanthemums and benches for meditative sitting in the sun, as must be seen to be believed. I had seen a few other London cemeteries turned into recreation grounds, — Stepney, where old men discuss life on the dole while the graves of their equally impecunious forbears moulder behind their backs, and the little court near Bunhill Fields where boys chase footballs around the graves of a few famous Quakers, — but nothing to equal this.

The gruesome history of the burial ground, as I learned later, does much to explain this astonishing sight. In the failing light I made my way toward the west wall, where an old gardener was bent double over one of the garden plots, weeding and harvesting. He raised his head and looked at me for a moment, then resumed his task. We two seemed the only living creatures there. Along the wall behind him stood rows of ancient tombstones, wrenched from their proper graves, their lettering obliterated — the memorials of forgotten men and women. These were neither courtiers, nor politicians, nor lawyers, nor great buyers of land, it appears, but poor people, and it is not to consider too curiously to see that their dust, though far from noble, now grows flowers and fruit for their countrymen.

In this useful jungle it was fairly easy to find Sterne’s grave, for it is one of the few still kept in good order. Arbor vitæ grows green upon it and a neat iron railing bounds it. Two as Shandean spirits as ever drew breath are responsible for the placing of the headstone, which, whatever its shortcomings, begins with an inspired comment: ‘Alas, poor Yorick!’ They were mistaken in the date of Sterne’s death and caused to be cut on the stone a set of inept and eminently unsuitable verses, but the heart warms toward them as one reads the inscription. ‘Two Brother Masons,’ they called themselves, who, finding Sterne still unhonored with a tombstone about the year 1780, erected one at their own expense, being of the opinion that the Reverend Laurence Sterne, A.M., had all the qualities of the good Freemason and acted, as it were, ‘by Rule and Square,’ and in short was one of them in everything but membership. At the foot is another stone, placed a century later by the ‘owner of the Sterne property,’ correct and dignified in all details. But it is the Brothers of the headstone who hold the imagination. My mind conjured up images of these two, — ‘W & S,’ they signed themselves, — hearty, Dogberrian, pinkfaced, a little slow in the wit they appreciated in Sterne, with a fine faith in the divine origin of Freemasonry. Though they knew the ‘incomparable Performances’ of Sterne in literature, it seems improbable that they knew the man himself — the ‘ perpetual curacy ’ in Coxwold, the incompatible wife who went mad, the life that appears drab, lonely, even tragic, despite the mitigations of sentimental journeys, London lionizing, and those ‘small, quiet attentions’ he paid all his life to other ladies than his wife. Had they known him better, I thought, W and S might have served his memory better by adding a single line under their elegiac ‘Alas, poor Yorick!’ — the Euripidean line of whose effect on the Abderans he wrote so feelingly: ‘O Cupid, prince of gods and men.’

III

As the sun disappeared and dark began to fall over the garden, I recalled the grim stories about Sterne’s fate after burial — stories the trim, wellordered grave seems to belie. Yet in the big, darkening, silent place, where the heart of London seemed as remote as it had actually been in Sterne’s day, the stories took on a vivid probability. It was a scene, even now, for ghosts and body snatchers. As ancient Egyptian tombs had to be guarded against those who rifled them for plunder, those of the eighteenth century needed protection against those who rifled for the anatomist. If the story of Sterne’s body being carried off a day or two after his burial and sold to Cambridge was true, what irony there was in this sequel to his whimsical idea of himself as lineal descendant of Yorick, the King’s Jester, inheritor of infinite jest and excellent fancy—this coincidence of fate by which he in turn was knocked about the mazzard with a body snatcher’s spade! What irony that the self-same skull that once gathered in knowledge at Jesus College and devised wit in company with that boon companion, John Hall-Stevenson, should return there as part of the University’s anatomical collection! Here was fine revolution, and it took no trick to see’t.

It was the horror occasioned by the story of Sterne’s fate,1 it seems, that led to virtual abandonment of the area as a burial ground and probably explains the bewildering confusion of purposes one finds here to-day. Nevertheless, the grave serves him well, and Shandeans pay tribute to him there even now, whether his bones lie here or disappeared long ago in the laboratories at Cambridge.

Taking a hurried look at the grave of Ann Radcliffe as I passed, and thinking that she never wrote so Gothic a Tale as this of Sterne’s, I followed the old gardener down the path and through the arch. The portress was entertaining a crony at tea. I could see them inside, through the windows that looked out on tombstones and cabbages and chrysanthemums. Teacups in hand, they sat one on each side of the grate, their only light the coal fire leaping redly through the dark interior. The portress’s big black cat was walking from one window ledge to the next, delicately skirting a halffilled milk bottle which had already done its duty by the tea.

A good landlady, I thought, remembering Sterne’s permanent lease. On the Bayswater Road, where the Midget had walked, Londoners were now hurrying home. I hurried with them toward my own light and warmth, feeding, as I went, upon that sense of the past which London keeps for Americans who hunger and thirst for it; but grateful that I should in all probability never die in lodgings in Old Bond Street, or reappear, after the last solemn rites, in the laboratories of my Alma Mater.

  1. For this information and some other facts in the essay I am indebted toThe Life and Times of Laurence Sterne, by Wilbur L. Cross. — AUTHOR