My last day in England, I embarked upon a pilgrimage.
I took the Tube from Russell Square to Leicester Square, transferred to the Northern Line for one stop going south, and entered Trafalgar Square from Charing Cross.
Two nights earlier, I’d walked down in the dark, emerging between St. Martin-in-the-Fields and the National Gallery at dusk, tossed unfamiliar coins in the great glass box and raced through the echoing halls until the docents herded me out with the tourists plodding at the end of their day and the young artists squeezing in one last brushstroke.
Friday morning, the sun glared off the marble. I walked down Whitehall past the Houses of Parliament, where I lingered in the shade behind the Jewel Tower.
I’d allotted just an hour or two for Westminster Abbey. I stepped through the door and picked up my audio guide, briefly considering the Japanese version, but allowed myself to be swayed toward English by the promise of “Oscar-winning actor Jeremy Irons” narrating the tour.
From number to number, I stepped clockwise through the hulking medieval architecture, past the gaudy tombs of the forgotten rich. I marveled at the twisted lid of King Henry V’s sarcophagus, lying as though discarded in the gloom behind the Coronation Chair.
Eventually, I turned into Poets’ Corner.
I hadn’t been inside a church in years, and the rest of Westminster Abbey certainly didn’t feel very ecclesiastical, despite the pause for prayer at noon. From a line of chairs facing away from the tombs, a little girl banged on the seat beside her and shouted at her brother, 「日本人はここに座るんだよ！」 I considered ascertaining what other unique cultural contrasts she’d been learning on her Grand Tour, but thought better of it.
Jeremy Irons trailed off in my headset, so I fumbled in my bag for my iPod. I looked up and Handel’s memorial caught my eye. “Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs” from Messiah followed me as I jotted in my Moleskine the names of my favorite writers buried there — Thomas Hardy, Ben Jonson (buried upright), Charles Dickens, Geoffrey Chaucer (“Galfridus Chaucer”).
Turning around at Chaucer’s tomb, I looked down to see a black slab inscribed with the name THOMAS STEARNS ELIOT and the epitaph “The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.” I stood there and listened to Eliot’s own reading of “The Waste Land.” I must have looked odd, staring for 25 minutes at that slab, but on their rush through this less-than-spectacular section of the sprawling abbey, nobody else lingered long enough to notice.
Amid the swirl of tour groups and the silent tombs of my dead gods, the 30 minutes I spent in Poets’ Corner were the most numinous of my life.
Double-checking my facts as I write this now, fifteen months later, I’m instead embarrassed to find that the slab was merely a memorial. Eliot’s ashes are actually buried in East Coker, Somerset — more than a hundred miles west.
Sometimes, even false assumptions can lead to important moments that linger and inspire.