We usually think of epitaphs as being inscriptions on gravestones, but the word also applies to poems written for or about the dead. Many of these are interesting, and it is worth looking at them. Some may be written by admirers; some may be written by those who despise the subject of their verse–and they may actually write these before he has died)–and some may be written in advance by a person who is contemplating his or her own death.
Robert Burns wrote one on James Grieve, a man whom he despised for being sanctimonious:
On James Grieve, Laird of Boghead, Tarbolton
Here lies Boghead among the dead
In hopes to get salvation;
But if such as he, in Heav’n may be,
Then welcome, hail! damnation.
We are not merely asked to welcome damnation, but to hail it, to cheer it’s coming—in Burns’ view, this is apparently much better than being in a place that welcomes Boghead.
Lord Byron, like the other Romantic poets, detested Lord Castlereagh, a former British Secretary of War and Foreign Secretary who was associated with repressive policies. Castlereagh died in 1822, but Byron wrote this in 1820:
An Epitaph for Castlereagh
Posterity will ne’er survey
A nobler grave than this;
Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:
Stop, traveler, . . .
Leaving the poem unfinished isn’t a sign of Byron’s prudishness (he had none), but a sort of joke. Complete the poem with what he would have said.
Epitaphs for the beloved dead are a different matter. Ben Jonson, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, wrote several. This one was for his son who died of the plague in 1603. He was seven and died on his birthday.
On My First Son
Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy,
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I lose all father now. For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ‘scaped world’s and flesh’s rage,
And if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and asked say, “Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.”
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.
This is sad and moving, but it presents some problems, and instead of analyzing it, I’ll just give you a paraphrase that you can use to clarify what is happening. He says he invested too much in expectations for his son. He says his son was only lent to him, and he had to pay what was owed (must give him up), on the exact day required (his birthday). He wishes he could be immune to the pains of fatherly love. He says that not living—given the world as it is—may be better than life. He says that his son was his best creation (bit of poetry). And he says that he has learned from this never to care too deeply for those he loves.
The epitaphs that poets have written for themselves are especially interesting. Let’s begin with one that is trivial but amusing. John Gay was the author of The Beggar’s Opera, a clever spoof of Italian opera that is still played after three-hundred years.
My Own Epitaph
Life is a jest; and all things show it.
I thought so once; but now I know it.
Chidiock Tichborne’s “elegy” is another matter entirely. (His first name is pronounced Chidik.) Tichborne was a Roman Catholic from an ancient English family, and in 1570 Queen Elizabeth made Catholicism illegal. As a consequence, Tichbborne and his father were persecuted for their faith, and even imprisoned so he took part in the Babington plot, a plan to murder Elizabeth and replace her with Mary Queen of Scots—who was Catholic. He was caught and sentenced to death, and he wrote the elegy in a letter to his wife on Sept 19, 1586, the night before he was hanged, drawn, and quartered. He was probably 28 when he died. (There are slight differences in various versions of the poem. This one closely follows the original. An elegy is a poem of lamentation.)
My prime of youth is but a frost of cares;
My feast of joy is but a dish of pain,
My crop of corn is but a field of tares,
And all my good is but vain hope of gain:
The day is past and yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
The spring has past, and yet it has not sprung;
My fruit is fall’n, and yet my leaves are green,
My youth is spent; and yet I am not old,
I saw the world, and yet I was not seen:
My thread is cut and yet it is not spun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
I sought my death, and found it in my womb,
I looked for life, and saw it was a shade,
I trod the earth, and knew it was my tomb,
And now I die, and now I was but made:
My glass is full, and now the glass is run,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
In the speech Tichborne made before he was executed, he said that his ancient family had borne no stain until he brought a stain upon it. He felt that his life had been self-defeating, had amounted to nothing. This is apparent in the poem, which sets contrary ideas in opposition to each other, a literary device called antithesis. In general, the first statement in each line is an aspect of what his life should have been, and the second statement tells us what he sees as the reality. The most helpful thing I might do is simply to give you a prose paraphrase.
His life was cut short in every way: he should by filled with joy, not pain; he should be like a field of growing corn (wheat for the British), not tares (weeds); he should have achieved good things, not failed hopes; his day (life) is ended, but he never experienced the hoped-for warmth of the sun; and now he is alive, but with no life ahead of him.
The spring of his life is over, but it never led to blossoming; the fruit (his future) is dead, though the leaves are still green; there will be no more youth for him, though he is young; he saw the world around him, but it had taken no notice of him; the thread of his life is cut short, without its even having been spun; and now he is alive, but with no life ahead of him.
He sought his death and found that it was foretold in his being a Catholic in a protestant country; he looked for life, but found it was insubstantial; he walked the earth; and knew it was his tomb; And now he is to die without having really lived; the glass (his life) is filled to the brim, but though full, it is empty; and now he is alive, but with no life ahead of him.
Such a paraphrase copies the meaning of the lines, more or less, but it lacks the effect produced by the poem’s structure, pacing, and antithesis. In other words, it doesn’t really capture the poem at all.
Tennyson was probably the greatest English poet of the Victorian period. He died in 1892, and he wrote Crossing the Bar in 1889, when he was eighty.
Crossing the Bar
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For though from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.
This is very beautiful in the imagery, the rhythms, and the sounds. It needs only a little comment. Those who have lived near a coast know that the bar is a barrier at the entry of a harbor, often a sandbar, and that it is likely to be very dangerous. The “evening bell” refers to the bell rung to tell the time in the evening and also to the bells rung for funerals. His putting “out to sea,” his “embarking,” is death, but that is also turning again “home.” The “bourne” is a boundary, the limits of Time and Place we live within. The Pilot is surely God, and “crossing the bar” is dying.
Robert Louis Stevenson is known for his novels, which are too often referred to as if they are only children’s fare. And, he also wrote plays and poetry. Requiem is outstanding among the poems. In 1890 he moved to Samoa, where he took the name “Tusitala,” which meant story teller. He became a champion of the native Samoans, and they came to love him. When he died (probably of a cerebral hemorrhage) during a walk in 1894 at the age of 44, the Samoans watched over his body all night and then carried him home. As he wanted, his requiem is engraved on his gravestone. (The version on the gravestone errs in adding “the” before “sea,” and that error is repeated in many of the books which include the poem.)
Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie:
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he long’d to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
This beautiful, and nothing needs to be said to explain how it works.