Wednesday, February 7, 2018


All my life I have arrived early. Some people never do, but I invariably do, for planes and trains and dates and interviews, sometimes for ideas as well, and back in the 1990s most definitely for recognising the new world that technology was introducing. Now, as I get older, and death does not seem so far off, I am determined that, for this one event at least, I am going to be as late as possible, fully aware that, once gone, I will be remembered for all time as that one thing that I never ever was: the late David Prashker.

But if the life has been really, truly, deeply worth the living, if the tracks made in the sand run deep enough to endure the sandstorms of time, if carpe really has been diemmed, then, even despite the fact that life is ultimately meaningless, and what we may have achieved will probably be admitted to oblivion with our bones - can we not still say "better late than never"?

Like Riddles, Epitaphs are a much overlooked literary genre, unlike those Elegies and Obituaries which have made such enormous contributions to our reading pleasure, and assisted our mis-remembering of great men and women, and charcoal-fuelled our ability to laugh back at Death by fantasising immortalities. An epitaph is usually less than a haiku, less even than a Tweet. Though there are exceptions.

Sir Walter Raleigh's self-written epitaph has its own page elsewhere in this blog (click here), as does W.H. Auden's extended epitaph for W.B. Yeats (click here), but I must confess (confession is generally understood to be a good thing before entering the fields of death) that I like best the clever one-liners. H.G. Wells for example: "Goddamn you all: I told you so". Or Dorothy Parker's "Excuse my dust". Or: "Here lies W. C. Fields. On the whole I would rather be living in Philadelphia." Few better than Alexander Pope's

                                                  Epitaph on Sir Isaac Newton                                                    (died March 21, 1727)
                                   NATURE and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night:
                                   God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light.

What else is there to say?!

Harry Houdini's grave. Can we assume he is not in there?

Several of the poems collected in this blog are elegies or obituaries, rather than Epitaphs - Celan and Sachs' witness-testimony from the Holocaust, Owen's war-poetry, Lowell's graveyard in Nantucket, Yevtushenko's "Babi Yar". But elegies and obituaries are not the same as Epitaphs because, like Thomas Grey's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, there is no specific honouree, but only the infinitude of Unknown Martyrs, Unknown Victims, Unknown Soldiers, the mass of anonymous individuals and the mess of thousands of undeserving square miles of otherwise perfectly innocent, decent land, needed to feed the survivors not to shroud the pointlessly dead: the graveyards of graveyards, so to speak.

Which ones then to include here? Swift's shouldn't really be, because he wrote it himself, and incomprehensibly, but every human being should be able to claim what he claims here (though alas very few can), and so I am including it anyway.

Swift's Epitaph

SWIFT has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-besotted traveller; he
Served human liberty.

The great Irish poet Edmond Spenser certainly did not write this himself:

Here lyes
(expecting the second Comminge of our Saviour Christ Jesus)
the body of Edmond Spenser, the Prince of Poets in his time;
whose divine spirit needs no other witness
than the works he left behind him.

which is not all that different in conceit from the lines on the gravestone of his near-contemporary John Donne:

                                                Reader, I am to let thee know,
                                                Donne's body only lies below;
                                                For could the grave his soul comprise,
                                                Earth would be richer than the skies.

Shakespeare's "Sonnet 81" is an epitaph - indeed, it was from this Sonnet that I drew my own "Homage to William Shakespeare", echoing him back to himself.


                                             Or I shall live your epitaph to make,
                                             Or you survive when I in earth am rotten;
                                             From hence your memory death cannot take,
                                             Although in me each part will be forgotten.
                                             Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
                                             Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
                                             The earth can yield me but a common grave,
                                             When you entombed in men's eyes shall lie.
                                             Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
                                             Which eyes not yet created shall o'er-read,
                                             And tongues to be your being shall rehearse,
                                             When all the breathers of this world are dead;
                                             You still shall live (such virtue hath my pen)
                                             Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men. 

Shakespeare's own grave in Holy Trinity Church, in Stratford upon Avon (unlike his very boring monument in Westminster Abbey, which simply quotes something obscure from "The Tempest") has this:

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)


Ben Jonson famously wrote an epitaph for his drinking-companion and writer-rival Will Shakspeare (click here to read it), but it is this farewell to his 7-year-old son that seems to me more memorable:

                                     Farewell, thou child of my right hand and joy;
                                     My sin was too much hope of thee, lov'd 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 scap'd World's and flesh's rage,
                                     And, if no other misery, yet age?
                                     Rest in soft peace and ask'd say here doth lie
                                     Ben Jonson his best piece of poetrie.
                                     For whose sake, henceforth, all his vows be such
                                     As what he loves may never live too much.

Byron’s Epitaph to his Dog surely merits inclusion:

                                  Boatswain (1803-1808)

                                  Dog of Lord Byron

                                  Near this spot
                                  are deposited the remains of one
                                  who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
                                  Strength without Insolence,
                                  Courage without Ferocity,
                                  and all the Virtues of Man without his Vices.
                                  This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery,
                                  if inscribed over human Ashes,
                                  is but a just Tribute to the memory of
                                  Boatswain, a DOG
                                  who was born in Newfoundland, May 1803,
                                  and died at Newstead, Nov 18, 1808.

I particularly like the next one, because we remember the man for his politics, but he wanted to be remembered for his profession, which was a printer of books:

            Benjamin Franklin (1706-90)

            The body of
            B. Franklin,
            Like the cover of an old book
            its contents torn out,
            and stripped of its lettering and gilding,
            lies here, food for worms.
            But the work shall not be wholly lost,
            for it will, as he believed, appear once more,
            in a new and more perfect edition,
            corrected and amended
            by the Author.

Which goes well with this, a rather sadly negative farewell for one of America's great authoresses:

Mrs. Aphra Behn (1640-89)

Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be
Defence enough against Mortality.

Shelley on Keats really deserves to be included, but alas it's way too long - you can read it by clicking here. The same is true of the Scots poet Rabbie Burns, whose "Holy Willie's Prayer" might allow me to draw what started satirically to a conclusion in the same vein. Except that ends require monuments, not satires. And where better to go when you want a great monument in England, than to the office of Sir Christopher Wren, architect? And he will happily provide, found where he is buried, in his greatest achievement, St Paul's Cathedral. So perfectly succinct. So obvious. The carpe fully diemmed.

Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723)

Si monumentum requiris circumspice

[If you require a monument, look around.]

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