Meditation in The Abbey: Essay - Summary & Analysis

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Visiting the Abbey

      When the writer, Addison, feels in a serious mood he visits the Westminster Abbey. The abbey’s solemn and serious atmosphere fills his mind with an agreeable feeling of sadness or seriousness. Yesterday, he went to the abbey and passed the whole afternoon there amusing himself by looking at the tombs and reading the epitaphs on them. He found that most of the inscriptions gave no further information about the dead person except that they were born and that they died on certain dates. He also saw some epitaphs which were written in such extravagant terms of praise that if the persons whom they praised could see them they would blush. There were some graves without monuments and there were some monuments without bodies buried under them. These were in the memory of those who had died elsewhere.

Appropriate Epitaphs

      The modern epitaphs were elegantly phrased and expressed just thoughts. Epitaphs and monuments should be made carefully because these were the things by which a foreign visitor to the country forms an opinion about the culture of the country he visits. Epitaphs and monuments should be appropriate to the person whom they commemorate. The texts of epitaphs should be submitted to the scrutiny of learned men of genius before they are used on the tombs. The English can learn a lot from the Dutch who had a better taste for antiquity and culture in their buildings. Monuments should celebrate the achievements of the dead person and not merely describe the manner of death. He felt that the monument erected in honour of the great English admiral, Sir Cloudesly Shovel, did not do justice to the brave man.

The Effect of The Visit

      Looking at the tombs of the great and reading their epitaphs has a chastening and purifying effect on the mind of Addison. He is not a timid or weak-minded person who begins to feel gloomy and melancholy at the contemplation of death. He is able to appreciate nature in her delightful as well as her solemn aspects. He feels compassion when he reads a tombstone expressing the grief of parents, but he sees the futility of such grief when he sees the tombs Of the parents themselves. He realizes the futility of the vanities and controversies and rivalries of life when all the people who indulge in them are going to be leveled by death. Mortality is common to all whether they be beautiful, rich or great, or ugly and deformed. People who died long ago, lie side by side with people who died only yesterday. It will be on Doomsday that all these people will rise from their graves to face God and then they will become contemporaries. The visit to the abbey teaches him to leave envy and inordinate desire as they are, in reality, of no use.


      Death is a subject that interests all, some in a morbid manner and others in a philosophical manner. The essay Meditation in The Abbey by Addison is meditative in nature and contemplates upon mortality. The visit to the abbey serves to pinpoint the fact that in the eyes of death all men are equal. Addison never ignores the moral instruction that can be got from any subject. The fact that all the great men and women lie in their graves side by side and over the space of years are mingled together in an indistinguishable heap of dust serves to chasten the heart of the observer of these tombs and monuments. One realizes the futility of the quarrels and rivalries that people indulge in while alive. It teaches one to leave off envying the great and desiring great things because all will one day end in death. Addison’s inner nature is revealed when he tells the reader that he is always serious but never melancholy. Here, we notice that though Addison is self-revelatory, it is not the same kind of self-revelation that Lamb indulges in. Addison seems to offer himself as a kind of model to the reader. There is a sense of superiority which is delightfully absent in the confidence of Lamb. But, then, Addison had assumed the role of a moralist and a reformer of the follies of society. In this essay, too, he makes an attack on extravagance. He does not like the far-fetched words of praise on some of the epitaphs. He advises decorum and good taste in this matter. He is on the side of moderation and decency and truthfulness to life and reality.

      Addison’s skill in using language is very much apparent in the essay? Note the felicity and aptness of phrases such as, “registers of existence” “magazine of mortality”, “promiscuous heap of matter”, etc. There is the elegance of style that is typically Addison’s. Humour too is not missing from this essay. There are the satirical references to the tombs as “registers of existence”. He is being ironical again when he refers to the “holy men” who divided the world into factions!


      Line. 25-32. I could not......on the head: The writer visited the Westminster Abbey whenever he felt in a serious mood. He diverted himself by reading the inscriptions of the graves of the famous people buried in this ancient church. The solemn atmosphere of the place suited his serious mood and set him thinking. The inscriptions on the tombs and monuments recorded the birth and death of the dead person and if seemed as if these people had done nothing worthwhile in their lives. These monuments built in memory of the illustrious dead seemed, to be satire upon them, making it seem as if they had done nothing else except being born and dying. These inscriptions recalled to the writer the characters: epics who have high sounding names but are there merely to be failed and then become famous merely for dying! The tombstones in the Abbey seemed to be a register of people who were born and who died. There is humour and irony in the reference to tombstones as ‘registers of existence’. They merely record facts which are common to all men. He is mildly satiric about these epitaphs in the Abbey: the monuments may be made of brass or marble, what they record is common to all of them.

      Line. 40-47. Upon this I......heap of matter: When Addison visited the Westminster Abbey, he diverted himself by watching the digging of a grave. As it was being dug, Addison could sec pieces of bone or skull mixed in the soil being thrown out. The soil seemed to be very like the decaying matter which must have been part of the human body before. This made him to think how death was a great leveler, how beauty, riches, fame or ugliness were nothing in front of death. In these graves, women and men, friends and enemies, priests and monks, who, in their lives would never be so close together lay in the graves, all mixed up in a heap of matter. The bodies of these people had broken down into pieces and then into dust and mingled together in one heap from which it was impossible to find out which was whose body since there was nobody but only decayed matter, which had got inextricably mixed with the earth. Addison here mediates on how transitory this life on earth is and how, in the eyes of death, all are same. How after a period of time the body got completely mixed with the dust to become indistinguishable from one another. Death shows the emptiness of earthly ambition and fame, riches and beauty, conflicts and enmities. One can see a slight reference to the gravedigger's scene in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

      Line. 63-70. I could not but......execution: In a serious mood, Addison visits the Westminster Abbey and entertains himself by reading the inscriptions on the monuments and tombs. He criticizes the extravagant praises of some of the epitaphs on the tombs. He is sure that the dead men on whom such extravagant praises were showered, would blush if they could get out of their graves and see these epitaphs. Addison is pleased at some of the modern epitaphs which he felt were in a good taste. They expressed correct thoughts in sensible terms and were no extravagant. They were in a beautiful style. As such, they honored the dead and at the same time, spoke well of the living person who had composed them. Addison as usual is against extravagance in any sphere. He is a self-appointed keeper of the society’s good taste and offers the advice that before putting the inscriptions on the monuments or tombs, their text should be submitted to a group of learned men of intelligence so that they can be scrutinized. Only the sensible and good texts should be put into use. It is necessary that the public monuments and inscriptions on them should be in a good taste and elegant because it is these buildings and writings that influence a foreign visitor to the country in forming a judgment about the cultural heritage or the lack of it in a country. This is Addison in his habitual role of teacher and preacher.

      Line. 75-79. The inscription is......reap any honour: Addison has often been to the Westminster Abbey to see the tombs of the famous people buried there. The tomb of Sir Cloudesly Shovel who was a great English admiral has often annoyed him. It is because this monument does not give a correct picture of the man in whose honour it has been made. The monument is most ridiculous showing as it does a dandy where as the admiral was a rough and brave sailor. The inscription matches the ridiculous nature of the monument. The epitaph does not give any information about the brave and gallant deeds of the admiral in the battles he fought. It gives, instead, an account of how he came to die. He was drowned in a ship-wreck and thus his death gave him no opportunity to show his bravery or nobility. The epitaph concentrates on his death which had no possibility of bringing him honour and misses out on the various deeds of gallantry he had to his credit in his life. Addison finds this ridiculous and wants the inscriptions to tell about the achievements of the dead person. This is a sound advice and in keeping with the role he had appropriated for himself—as a reformer of senseless actions and ignorance.

      Line. 89-96. I know that......consider with terror: Whenever Addison is in a serious mood, he visits the Westminster Abbey where he entertains himself by looking at the tombs of the famous people who are buried there. He reads the inscriptions on the tombs and meditates upon them. This kind of amusement may not be liked by all people. There are some to whom the idea of looking at tombs and thinking of death would not be entertaining. It would make them gloomy and make them imagine melancholy things. This happens in the cases of weak and timid-natured people given to a morbid imagination. As far as Addison is concerned, he was not the type of person to indulge in melancholy or gloomy thoughts. He has the disposition to be able to appreciate nature; in all aspects. He can enjoy the delights of nature, the cheerful scenes of nature and he can also get pleasure out of seeing a dreadful and serious aspects of nature. He is thus able to gain from the contemplation of the very things which make others fearful. He learns to accept death; he learns that in death all human beings are equal, that riches or beauty are short-lived and to be consumed ultimately by death. Addison had taken on the role of the reformer of public manners and morals. Here, too, he does not leave aside his role of preacher. He looks for instruction in every experience. There is a light tone of superiority in his manner of saying that he does not know what it is to be melancholy, implying that he is not a timorous person.

      Line. 102-109. When I see kings......appearance together: Visiting the graves in Westminster Abbey may not be thought to be an amusing way of spending one’s time. But Addison enjoyed these visits which he made when he was in a serious mood. He thought that one could improve one’s mind by seeing the inscriptions on the tombs and contemplating upon them. Tombs brought the subject of death into one’s mind. Seeing the tombs, Addison says that he is made to realize how death finishes all the useless vanities of life. When he sees the tombs of the beautiful people, he slowly stops feeling any envy. When he sees the tombs of the great, all his desires fade away as they become irrelevant in the face of death. When he sees how the kings lay beside those very people who ousted them, sees the great theologians who divided the world into religious sects lying in their graves. Addison wonders at the futility of those trivial rivalries and quarrels and competitions which beset them when they were alive. When he sees the dates of the deaths of the various people, he thinks that these dates will be meaningless on that great day, the doomsday when all will rise from the graves and face God. Then the people who died centuries ago will become contemporaries with those who died yesterday. Addison assumed the role of a preacher and these lines are in keeping with this role. He expects people to improve themselves and get rid of envy and desire for they are useless in the context of death which will overcome all one day. The essay has been written in a meditative mood.

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