There is an excellent article in the June 19th, 2020 edition of the Times Literary Supplement on the question of statues, and the topical question of their ethics: when to remove, or put up , statues of individuals once admired, now deemed obnoxious. –
https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/fall-guys/ will find it.
The author points out for example that there was considerable opposition, from Irish MPs about the erection of a statue of Oliver Cromwell, in 1895, outside the Houses of Parliament. The statue had to be surrounded by a steel barrier to prevent attacks from the Fenians. The sculptor was Hamo Thornycroft.
Another Thornycroft sculpture, of which I had never heard , is the Poets’ Fountain. It was erected at the end of Park Lane, and depicted Milton, Shakespeare and Chaucer. Erected in 1875 it was (slightly) damaged by enemy action during the Second World War. This was used as an excuse never to put it back. The anonymous TLS author asks “might a new poets’ memorial, including the original trio but adding more by popular vote be welcome? Then again, poets with unblemished reputations also might be in short supply”.
The questions raise any number of mare’s nests. Rudyard Kipling’s IF was voted not long ago to be the nation’s favourite poem – by a long margin. But just imagine what would happen if you tried to add Kipling to Poet’s Fountain! Given the fate of the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford, his chum Kipling – the author not only of IF but of “The White Man’s Burden” would surely be asking for a red paint job before it was even erected. Auden said that “Time that with this strange excuse, pardoned Kipling and his views”… but that was written a very long time ago, and I am not sure Time is making those kind of excuses just at the moment.
Chaucer? My first six weeks of lockdown were spent reading the entire works of Chaucer and I absolutely loved it. But … The Prioress’s Tale? Oh dear. The virulent antisemitism… I know that when Chaucer wrote the tale, there were no Jews in England – they had all been long ago expelled – but even so, it makes your hair stand on end. And then there is the possibly Rolf Harris side to Chaucer: Cecilia Chaumpaigne, daughter of a London baker, was the young person in a case in which Chaucer was accused of “raptus”. Whether this was mere abduction or actual rape, and whether Chaucer fathered a child with this girl remains unclear, but he paid her £10, the equivalent of his entire annual salary as a Customs Collector. You do not pay that sort of hush money unless you have something to hush up.
However much we love the poetry of Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, T.S.Eliot, Ezra Pound , (well I love Ezra’s poetry even if some of you do not!) it is not difficult to imagine the reactions if you started trying to add them to Poet’s Fountain. Obviously, and hooray, – there would be calls for the big trio (assuming Chaucer survived because of all-round genius despite the objections I have raised)…to be joined by women. C.Rossetti, Stevie Smith., Hilda Dolittle (HD) and Vita Sackville-West, three paces forward ! Not to mention Sylvia Plath, of course… Even the thought of it, however, makes me see trouble of some kind ahead. If you had to choose just ONE female poet, I think I’d plump for Charlotte Mew , but there would be howls that she was not well enough known, that she was too sad, and that her ghastly end (drinking a disinfectant called LYSOL) did not provide a suitable role model for young aspirant female poets of today. That line of thinking will lead you to a “popular” choice.
At one of these literary festivals one is kindly asked to, I met Pam Ayres. Loved her. She is an extremely nice woman, and I love her verses, but if you put her on a plinth with Milton and Shakespeare, you would be making a mockery both of her and of poetry itself.
So – a nice idea, but maybe the Poet’s Fountain should remain dry.
If you haven’t read Charlotte Mew, try her. Well, that’s for another Blog maybe.