W. J. B. Owen and Jane Worthington Smyser (eds), The Prose Works of William Wordsworth, Vol. 2
pg 49Editor’s NoteESSAY UPON EPITAPHS.
Editor’s NoteCritical Apparatus1It need scarcely be said, that an Epitaph presupposes a Monument, 2upon which it is to be engraven. Almost all Nations have wished that 3certain external signs should point out the places where their dead are 4interred. Among savage tribes unacquainted with letters this has 5mostly been done either by rude stones placed near the graves, or by 6mounds of earth raised over them. This custom proceeded obviously Editor’s Note7from a twofold desire; first, to guard the remains of the deceased from 8irreverent approach or from savage violation: and, secondly, to pre-Editor’s Note9serve their memory. 'Never any,' says Camden, 'neglected burial but pg 5010some savage nations; as the Bactrians, which cast their dead to the 11dogs; some varlet philosophers, as Diogenes, who desired to be 12devoured of fishes; some dissolute courtiers, as Maecenas, who was 13wont to say, Non tumulum curo; sepelit natura relictos.
- 14I'm careless of a grave:—Nature her dead will save.'
15As soon as nations had learned the use of letters, epitaphs were 16inscribed upon these monuments; in order that their intention might 17be more surely and adequately fulfilled. I have derived monuments and 18epitaphs from two sources of feeling: but these do in fact resolve them-Editor’s Note19selves into one. The invention of epitaphs, Weever, in his Discourse of Editor’s Note20Funeral Monuments, says rightly, 'proceeded from the presage or 21fore-feeling of immortality, implanted in all men naturally, and is 22referred to the scholars of Linus the Theban poet, who flourished about 23the year of the world two thousand seven hundred; who first bewailed 24this Linus their Master, when he was slain, in doleful verses, then 25called of him Œlina, afterwards Epitaphia, for that they were first 26sung at burials, after engraved upon the sepulchres.'
27And, verily, without the consciousness of a principle of immortality 28in the human soul, Man could never have had awakened in him the 29desire to live in the remembrance of his fellows: mere love, or the 30yearning of kind towards kind, could not have produced it. The dog or 31horse perishes in the field, or in the stall, by the side of his companions, 32and is incapable of anticipating the sorrow with which his surrounding 33associates shall bemoan his death, or pine for his loss; he cannot pre-34conceive this regret, he can form no thought of it; and therefore cannot 35possibly have a desire to leave such regret or remembrance behind him. 36Add to the principle of love which exists in the inferior animals, the 37faculty of reason which exists in Man alone; will the conjunction of 38these account for the desire? Doubtless it is a necessary consequence of 39this conjunction; yet not I think as a direct result, but only to be come 40at through an intermediate thought, viz. that of an intimation or 41assurance within us, that some part of our nature is imperishable. At 42least the precedence, in order of birth, of one feeling to the other, is Editor’s Note43unquestionable. If we look back upon the days of childhood, we shall 44find that the time is not in remembrance when, with respect to our own 45individual Being, the mind was without this assurance; whereas, the 46wish to be remembered by our friends or kindred after death, or even 47in absence, is, as we shall discover, a sensation that does not form itself 48till the social feelings have been developed, and the Reason has con-49nected itself with a wide range of objects. Forlorn, and cut off from 50communication with the best part of his nature, must that man be, who 51should derive the sense of immortality, as it exists in the mind of a pg 5152child, from the same unthinking gaiety or liveliness of animal spirits 53with which the lamb in the meadow, or any other irrational creature 54is endowed; who should ascribe it, in short, to blank ignorance in the 55child; to an inability arising from the imperfect state of his faculties to 56come, in any point of his being, into contact with a notion of death; or Critical Apparatus57to an unreflecting acquiescence in what had been instilled into him! 58Has such an unfolder of the mysteries of nature, though he may have 59forgotten his former self, ever noticed the early, obstinate, and un-60appeasable inquisitiveness of children upon the subject of origination? 61This single fact proves outwardly the monstrousness of those sup-62positions: for, if we had no direct external testimony that the minds of 63very young children meditate feelingly upon death and immortality, 64these inquiries, which we all know they are perpetually making 65concerning the whence, do necessarily include correspondent habits of 66interrogation concerning the whither. Origin and tendency are notions Editor’s Note67inseparably co-relative. Never did a child stand by the side of a running 68stream, pondering within himself what power was the feeder of the 69perpetual current, from what never-wearied sources the body of water 70was supplied, but he must have been inevitably propelled to follow this 71question by another: "Towards what abyss is it in progress? what 72receptacle can contain the mighty influx?" And the spirit of the answer 73must have been, though the word might be sea or ocean, accompanied 74perhaps with an image gathered from a map, or from the real object in 75nature—these might have been the letter, but the spirit of the answer 76must have been as inevitably,—a receptacle without bounds or dimen-77sions;—nothing less than infinity. We may, then, be justified in Critical Apparatus78asserting, that the sense of immortality, if not a co-existent and twin Critical Apparatus79birth with Reason, is among the earliest of her offspring: and we may 80further assert, that from these conjoined, and under their countenance, 81the human affections are gradually formed and opened out. This is not 82the place to enter into the recesses of these investigations; but the 83subject requires me here to make a plain avowal, that, for my own part, 84it is to me inconceivable, that the sympathies of love towards each 85other, which grow with our growth, could ever attain any new 86strength, or even preserve the old, after we had received from the 87outward senses the impression of death, and were in the habit of having 88that impression daily renewed and its accompanying feeling brought 89home to ourselves, and to those we love; if the same were not counter-90acted by those communications with our internal Being, which are 91anterior to all these experiences, and with which revelation coincides, 92and has through that coincidence alone (for otherwise it could not 93pg 52possess it) a power to affect us. I confess, with me the conviction is 94absolute, that, if the impression and sense of death were not thus 95counterbalanced, such a hollowness would pervade the whole system 96of things, such a want of correspondence and consistency, a dispro-97portion so astounding betwixt means and ends, that there could 98be no repose, no joy. Were we to grow up unfostered by this genial 99warmth, a frost would chill the spirit, so penetrating and powerful, 100that there could be no motions of the life of love; and infinitely less 101could we have any wish to be remembered after we had passed away Critical Apparatus102from a world in which each man had moved about like a shadow.—If, 103then, in a creature endowed with the faculties of foresight and reason, 104the social affections could not have unfolded themselves uncountenanced 105by the faith that Man is an immortal being; and if, consequently, 106neither could the individual dying have had a desire to survive in the 107remembrance of his fellows, nor on their side could they have felt a 108wish to preserve for future times vestiges of the departed; it follows, 109as a final inference, that without the belief in immortality, wherein 110these several desires originate, neither monuments nor epitaphs, in 111affectionate or laudatory commemoration of the deceased, could have 112existed in the world.
Editor’s Note113Simonides, it is related, upon landing in a strange country, found 114the corse of an unknown person lying by the sea-side; he buried it, Editor’s Note115and was honoured throughout Greece for the piety of that act. Another 116ancient Philosopher, chancing to fix his eyes upon a dead body, regarded 117the same with slight, if not with contempt; saying, "See the shell of the 118flown bird!" But it is not to be supposed that the moral and tender-119hearted Simonides was incapable of the lofty movements of thought, to 120which that other Sage gave way at the moment while his soul was Critical Apparatus121intent only upon the indestructible being; nor, on the other hand, that 122he, in whose sight a lifeless human body was of no more value than the 123worthless shell from which the living fowl had departed, would not, in 124a different mood of mind, have been affected by those earthly con-125siderations which had incited the philosophic Poet to the performance Critical Apparatus126of that pious duty. And with regard to this latter we may be assured 127that, if he had been destitute of the capability of communing with the 128more exalted thoughts that appertain to human nature, he would have 129cared no more for the corse of the stranger than for the dead body of a 130seal or porpoise which might have been cast up by the waves. We 131respect the corporeal frame of Man, not merely because it is the 132habitation of a rational, but of an immortal Soul. Each of these Sages pg 53133was in sympathy with the best feelings of our nature; feelings which, 134though they seem opposite to each other, have another and a finer 135connection than that of contrast.—It is a connection formed through 136the subtle progress by which, both in the natural and the moral world, 137qualities pass insensibly into their contraries, and things revolve upon 138each other. As, in sailing upon the orb of this planet, a voyage towards 139the regions where the sun sets, conducts gradually to the quarter 140where we have been accustomed to behold it come forth at its rising; 141and, in like manner, a voyage towards the east, the birth-place in our 142imagination of the morning, leads finally to the quarter where the sun 143is last seen when he departs from our eyes; so the contemplative Soul, 144travelling in the direction of mortality, advances to the country of 145everlasting life; and, in like manner, may she continue to explore those 146cheerful tracts, till she is brought back, for her advantage and benefit, 147to the land of transitory things—of sorrow and of tears.
148On a midway point, therefore, which commands the thoughts and 149feelings of the two Sages whom we have represented in contrast, does 150the Author of that species of composition, the laws of which it is our 151present purpose to explain, take his stand. Accordingly, recurring to Critical Apparatus152the twofold desire of guarding the remains of the deceased and pre-153serving their memory, it may be said that a sepulchral monument is 154a tribute to a man as a human being; and that an epitaph (in the 155ordinary meaning attached to the word) includes this general feeling and 156something more; and is a record to preserve the memory of the dead, 157as a tribute due to his individual worth, for a satisfaction to the 158sorrowing hearts of the survivors, and for the common benefit of the 159living: which record is to be accomplished, not in a general manner, Critical Apparatus160but, where it can, in close connection with the bodily remains of the Editor’s Note161deceased: and these, it may be added, among the modern nations of 162Europe, are deposited within, or contiguous to, their places of worship. Editor’s Note163In ancient times, as is well known, it was the custom to bury the dead Editor’s Note164beyond the walls of towns and cities; and among the Greeks and 165Romans they were frequently interred by the way-sides.
166I could here pause with pleasure, and invite the Reader to indulge 167with me in contemplation of the advantages which must have attended Critical Apparatus168such a practice. We might ruminate upon the beauty which the monu-169ments, thus placed, must have borrowed from the surrounding images 170of nature—from the trees, the wild flowers, from a stream running 171perhaps within sight or hearing, from the beaten road stretching its pg 54172weary length hard by. Many tender similitudes must these objects 173have presented to the mind of the traveller leaning upon one of the 174tombs, or reposing in the coolness of its shade, whether he had halted Critical Apparatus175from weariness or in compliance with the invitation, 'Pause, Traveller!' 176so often found upon the monuments. And to its epitaph also must have 177been supplied strong appeals to visible appearances or immediate 178impressions, lively and affecting analogies of life as a journey—death 179as a sleep overcoming the tired wayfarer—of misfortune as a storm 180that falls suddenly upon him—of beauty as a flower that passeth away, 181or of innocent pleasure as one that may be gathered—of virtue that Editor’s Note182standeth firm as a rock against the beating waves;—of hope 'under-183mined insensibly like the poplar by the side of the river that has fed it,' 184or blasted in a moment like a pine-tree by the stroke of lightning upon 185the mountain-top—of admonitions and heart-stirring remembrances, 186like a refreshing breeze that comes without warning, or the taste of 187the waters of an unexpected fountain. These, and similar suggestions, Editor’s Note188must have given, formerly, to the language of the senseless stone a 189voice enforced and endeared by the benignity of that nature with which 190it was in unison.—We, in modern times, have lost much of these 191advantages; and they are but in a small degree counterbalanced to the 192inhabitants of large towns and cities, by the custom of depositing 193the dead within, or contiguous to, their places of worship; however Critical Apparatus194splendid or imposing may be the appearance of those edifices, or 195however interesting or salutary the recollections associated with them. 196Even were it not true that tombs lose their monitory virtue when thus 197obtruded upon the notice of men occupied with the cares of the world, 198and too often sullied and defiled by those cares, yet still, when death 199is in our thoughts, nothing can make amends for the want of the 200soothing influences of nature, and for the absence of those types of 201renovation and decay, which the fields and woods offer to the notice 202of the serious and contemplative mind. To feel the force of this senti-203ment, let a man only compare in imagination the unsightly manner in 204which our monuments are crowded together in the busy, noisy, un-205clean, and almost grassless church-yard of a large town, with the still 206seclusion of a Turkish cemetery, in some remote place; and yet further 207sanctified by the grove of cypress in which it is embosomed. Thoughts 208in the same temper as these have already been expressed with true Editor’s NoteCritical Apparatus209sensibility by an ingenuous Poet of the present day. The subject of his Critical Apparatus210poem is "All Saints Church, Derby:" he has been deploring the for-211bidding and unseemly appearance of its burial-ground, and uttering a pg 55Critical Apparatus212wish, that in past times the practice had been adopted of interring the 213inhabitants of large towns in the country:—
- 214 'Then in some rural, calm, sequestered spot,
- 215 Where healing Nature her benignant look
- 216 Ne'er changes, save at that lorn season, when,
- 217 With tresses drooping o'er her sable stole,
- 218 She yearly mourns the mortal doom of man,
- 219 Her noblest work, (so Israel's virgins erst,
- 220 With annual moan upon the mountains wept
- 221 Their fairest gone,) there in that rural scene,
- 222 So placid, so congenial to the wish
- 223 The Christian feels, of peaceful rest within
- Critical Apparatus224 The silent grave, I would have stray'd.
* * * *
- 225 —wandered forth, where the cold dew of heaven
- 226 Lay on the humbler graves around, what time
- 227 The pale moon gazed upon the turfy mounds,
- 228 Pensive, as though like me, in lonely muse,
- 229 'Twere brooding on the dead inhumed beneath.
- 230 There while with him, the holy man of Uz,
- 231 O'er human destiny I sympathised,
- 232 Counting the long, long periods prophecy
- 233 Decrees to roll, ere the great day arrives
- 234 Of resurrection, oft the blue-eyed Spring
- 235 Had met me with her blossoms, as the Dove,
- 236 Of old, returned with olive leaf, to cheer
- 237 The Patriarch mourning o'er a world destroyed:
- 238 And I would bless her visit; for to me
- 239 'Tis sweet to trace the consonance that links
- 240 As one, the works of Nature and the word
- 241 Of God.'—
- John Edwards.
242A village church-yard, lying as it does in the lap of nature, may 243indeed be most favourably contrasted with that of a town of crowded 244population; and sepulture therein combines many of the best tendencies 245which belong to the mode practised by the Ancients, with others 246peculiar to itself. The sensations of pious cheerfulness, which attend 247the celebration of the sabbath-day in rural places, are profitably 248chastised by the sight of the graves of kindred and friends, gathered 249together in that general home towards which the thoughtful yet happy pg 56250spectators themselves are journeying. Hence a parish-church, in the 251stillness of the country, is a visible centre of a community of the living 252and the dead; a point to which are habitually referred the nearest 253concerns of both.
254As, then, both in cities and in villages, the dead are deposited in close 255connection with our places of worship, with us the composition of an 256epitaph naturally turns, still more than among the nations of antiquity, 257upon the most serious and solemn affections of the human mind; upon 258departed worth—upon personal or social sorrow and admiration— 259upon religion, individual and social—upon time, and upon eternity. 260Accordingly, it suffices, in ordinary cases, to secure a composition of Critical Apparatus261this kind from censure, that it contain nothing that shall shock or be 262inconsistent with this spirit. 'But, to entitle an epitaph to praise, more Editor’s Note263than this is necessary. It ought to contain some thought or feeling 264belonging to the mortal or immortal part of our nature touchingly 265expressed; and if that be done, however general or even trite the senti-266ment may be, every man of pure mind will read the words with 267pleasure and gratitude. A husband bewails a wife; a parent breathes a 268sigh of disappointed hope over a lost child; a son utters a sentiment of 269filial reverence for a departed father or mother; a friend perhaps 270inscribes an encomium recording the companionable qualities, or the 271solid virtues, of the tenant of the grave, whose departure has left a 272sadness upon his memory. This and a pious admonition to the living, 273and a humble expression of Christian confidence in immortality, is the 274language of a thousand church-yards; and it does not often happen that 275anything, in a greater degree discriminate or appropriate to the dead Editor’s Note276or to the living, is to be found in them. This want of discrimination Critical Apparatus277has been ascribed by Dr. Johnson, in his Essay upon the epitaphs of 278Pope, to two causes; first, the scantiness of the objects of human praise; Critical Apparatus279and, secondly, the want of variety in the characters of men; or, to use 280his own words, 'to the fact, that the greater part of mankind have no Critical Apparatus281character at all.' Such language may be holden without blame among 282the generalities of common conversation; but does not become a critic 283and a moralist speaking seriously upon a serious subject. The objects 284of admiration in human-nature are not scanty, but abundant: and every 285man has a character of his own, to the eye that has skill to perceive it. 286The real cause of the acknowledged want of discrimination in sepulchral 287memorials is this: That to analyse the characters of others, especially 288of those whom we love, is not a common or natural employment of men 289at any time. We are not anxious unerringly to understand the consti-pg 57290tution of the minds of those who have soothed, who have cheered, who 291have supported us: with whom we have been long and daily pleased or 292delighted. The affections are their own justification. The light of love Critical Apparatus293in our hearts is a satisfactory evidence that there is a body of worth in 294the minds of our friends or kindred, whence that light has proceeded. 295We shrink from the thought of placing their merits and defects to be 296weighed against each other in the nice balance of pure intellect; nor 297do we find much temptation to detect the shades by which a good 298quality or virtue is discriminated in them from an excellence known by 299the same general name as it exists in the mind of another; and, least 300of all, do we incline to these refinements when under the pressure of 301sorrow, admiration, or regret, or when actuated by any of those feelings 302which incite men to prolong the memory of their friends and kindred, 303by records placed in the bosom of the all-uniting and equalising 304receptacle of the dead.
Editor’s Note305The first requisite, then, in an Epitaph is, that it should speak, in a 306tone which shall sink into the heart, the general language of humanity 307as connected with the subject of death—the source from which an 308epitaph proceeds—of death, and of life. To be born and to die are the 309two points in which all men feel themselves to be in absolute co-310incidence. This general language may be uttered so strikingly as to 311entitle an epitaph to high praise; yet it cannot lay claim to the highest 312unless other excellencies be superadded. Passing through all inter-Critical Apparatus313mediate steps, we will attempt to determine at once what these excel-314lencies are, and wherein consists the perfection of this species of 315composition.—It will be found to lie in a due proportion of the common 316or universal feeling of humanity to sensations excited by a distinct and 317clear conception, conveyed to the reader's mind, of the individual, 318whose death is deplored and whose memory is to be preserved; at 319least of his character as, after death, it appeared to those who loved 320him and lament his loss. The general sympathy ought to be quickened, 321provoked, and diversified, by particular thoughts, actions, images,— 322circumstances of age, occupation, manner of life, prosperity which the 323deceased had known, or adversity to which he had been subject; and 324these ought to be bound together and solemnised into one harmony by 325the general sympathy. The two powers should temper, restrain, and 326exalt each other. The reader ought to know who and what the man 327was whom he is called upon to think of with interest. A distinct con-Editor’s Note328ception should be given (implicitly where it can, rather than explicitly) 329of the individual lamented.—But the writer of an epitaph is not an 330anatomist, who dissects the internal frame of the mind; he is not even pg 58331a painter, who executes a portrait at leisure and in entire tranquillity: 332his delineation, we must remember, is performed by the side of the 333grave; and, what is more, the grave of one whom he loves and admires. 334What purity and brightness is that virtue clothed in, the image of Editor’s Note335which must no longer bless our living eyes! The character of a deceased Critical Apparatus336friend or beloved kinsman is not seen, no—nor ought to be seen, other-Editor’s Note337wise than as a tree through a tender haze or a luminous mist, that 338spiritualises and beautifies it; that takes away, indeed, but only to the 339end that the parts which are not abstracted may appear more dignified 340and lovely; may impress and affect the more. Shall we say, then, that 341this is not truth, not a faithful image; and that, accordingly, the purposes 342of commemoration cannot be answered?—It is truth, and of the highest 343order; for, though doubtless things are not apparent which did exist; 344yet, the object being looked at through this medium, parts and pro-345portions are brought into distinct view which before had been only 346imperfectly or unconsciously seen: it is truth hallowed by love—the 347joint offspring of the worth of the dead and the affections of the living! 348This may easily be brought to the test. Let one, whose eyes have been 349sharpened by personal hostility to discover what was amiss in the 350character of a good man, hear the tidings of his death, and what a 351change is wrought in a moment! Enmity melts away; and, as it dis-352appears, unsightliness, disproportion, and deformity, vanish; and, 353through the influence of commiseration, a harmony of love and beauty 354succeeds. Bring such a man to the tombstone on which shall be 355inscribed an epitaph on his adversary, composed in the spirit which we Critical Apparatus356have recommended. Would he turn from it as from an idle tale? No;— 357the thoughtful look, the sigh, and perhaps the involuntary tear, would 358testify that it had a sane, a generous, and good meaning; and that on 359the writer's mind had remained an impression which was a true 360abstract of the character of the deceased; that his gifts and graces were 361remembered in the simplicity in which they ought to be remembered. 362The composition and quality of the mind of a virtuous man, con-363templated by the side of the grave where his body is mouldering, ought 364to appear, and be felt as something midway between what he was on 365earth walking about with his living frailties, and what he may be 366presumed to be as a Spirit in heaven.
367It suffices, therefore, that the trunk and the main branches of the 368worth of the deceased be boldly and unaffectedly represented. Any 369further detail, minutely and scrupulously pursued, especially if this be 370done with laborious and antithetic discriminations, must inevitably 371frustrate its own purpose; forcing the passing Spectator to this con-372clusion,—either that the dead did not possess the merits ascribed to pg 59373him, or that they who have raised a monument to his memory, and 374must therefore be supposed to have been closely connected with him, Editor’s Note375were incapable of perceiving those merits; or at least during the act of 376composition had lost sight of them; for, the understanding having been 377so busy in its petty occupation, how could the heart of the mourner be 378other than cold? and in either of these cases, whether the fault be on the 379part of the buried person or the survivors, the memorial is unaffecting 380and profitless.
381Much better is it to fall short in discrimination than to pursue it too 382far, or to labour it unfeelingly. For in no place are we so much disposed 383to dwell upon those points, of nature and condition, wherein all men 384resemble each other, as in the temple where the universal Father is 385worshipped, or by the side of the grave which gathers all human Editor’s Note386Beings to itself, and 'equalises the lofty and the low.' We suffer and 387we weep with the same heart; we love and are anxious for one another 388in one spirit; our hopes look to the same quarter; and the virtues by 389which we are all to be furthered and supported, as patience, meekness, Critical Apparatus390good-will, justice, temperance, and temperate desires, are in an equal 391degree the concern of us all. Let an Epitaph, then, contain at least these 392acknowledgments to our common nature; nor let the sense of their 393importance be sacrificed to a balance of opposite qualities or minute Editor’s Note394distinctions in individual character; which if they do not, (as will for 395the most part be the case,) when examined, resolve themselves into a 396trick of words, will, even when they are true and just, for the most part 397be grievously out of place; for, as it is probable that few only have 398explored these intricacies of human nature, so can the tracing of them 399be interesting only to a few. But an epitaph is not a proud writing shut 400up for the studious: it is exposed to all—to the wise and the most 401ignorant; it is condescending, perspicuous, and lovingly solicits 402regard; its story and admonitions are brief, that the thoughtless, the 403busy, and indolent, may not be deterred, nor the impatient tired: the 404stooping old man cons the engraven record like a second horn-book;— 405the child is proud that he can read it;—and the stranger is introduced 406through its mediation to the company of a friend: it is concerning all, 407and for all:—in the church-yard it is open to the day; the sun looks 408down upon the stone, and the rains of heaven beat against it.
Editor’s Note409Yet, though the writer who would excite sympathy is bound in this 410case, more than in any other, to give proof that he himself has been 411moved, it is to be remembered, that to raise a monument is a sober 412and a reflective act; that the inscription which it bears is intended to be Editor’s Note413permanent, and for universal perusal; and that, for this reason, the 414thoughts and feelings expressed should be permanent also—liberated pg 60415from that weakness and anguish of sorrow which is in nature transitory, 416and which with instinctive decency retires from notice. The passions 417should be subdued, the emotions controlled; strong, indeed, but Critical Apparatus418nothing ungovernable or wholly involuntary. Seemliness requires this, 419and truth requires it also: for how can the narrator otherwise be trusted? 420Moreover, a grave is a tranquillising object: resignation in course of 421time springs up from it as naturally as the wild flowers, besprinkling 422the turf with which it may be covered, or gathering round the monu-Editor’s Note423ment by which it is defended. The very form and substance of the 424monument which has received the inscription, and the appearance of 425the letters, testifying with what a slow and laborious hand they must 426have been engraven, might seem to reproach the author who had given 427way upon this occasion to transports of mind, or to quick turns of 428conflicting passion; though the same might constitute the life and 429beauty of a funeral oration or elegiac poem.
430These sensations and judgments, acted upon perhaps unconsciously, 431have been one of the main causes why epitaphs so often personate the Editor’s Note432deceased, and represent him as speaking from his own tomb-stone. The 433departed Mortal is introduced telling you himself that his pains are 434gone; that a state of rest is come; and he conjures you to weep for him Editor’s Note435no longer. He admonishes with the voice of one experienced in the 436vanity of those affections which are confined to earthly objects, and 437gives a verdict like a superior Being, performing the office of a judge, 438who has no temptations to mislead him, and whose decision cannot but 439be dispassionate. Thus is death disarmed of its sting, and affliction 440unsubstantialised. By this tender fiction, the survivors bind themselves 441to a sedater sorrow, and employ the intervention of the imagination in 442order that the reason may speak her own language earlier than she 443would otherwise have been enabled to do. This shadowy interposition 444also harmoniously unites the two worlds of the living and the dead by Critical Apparatus445their appropriate affections. And it may be observed, that here we have 446an additional proof of the propriety with which sepulchral inscriptions 447were referred to the consciousness of immortality as their primal 448source.
449I do not speak with a wish to recommend that an epitaph should be 450cast in this mould preferably to the still more common one, in which 451what is said comes from the survivors directly; but rather to point out 452how natural those feelings are which have induced men, in all states 453and ranks of society, so frequently to adopt this mode. And this I have 454done chiefly in order that the laws, which ought to govern the com-455position of the other, may be better understood. This latter mode, pg 61456namely, that in which the survivors speak in their own persons, seems 457to me upon the whole greatly preferable: as it admits a wider range of 458notices; and, above all, because, excluding the fiction which is the 459groundwork of the other, it rests upon a more solid basis.
460Enough has been said to convey our notion of a perfect epitaph; but Critical Apparatus461it must be borne in mind that one is meant which will best answer the 462general ends of that species of composition. According to the course Editor’s Note463pointed out, the worth of private life, through all varieties of situation 464and character, will be most honourably and profitably preserved in 465memory. Nor would the model recommended less suit public men, in Critical Apparatus466all instances save of those persons who by the greatness of their 467services in the employments of peace or war, or by the surpassing 468excellence of their works in art, literature, or science, have made them-469selves not only universally known, but have filled the heart of their 470country with everlasting gratitude. Yet I must here pause to correct 471myself. In describing the general tenour of thought which epitaphs 472ought to hold, I have omitted to say, that if it be the actions of a man, 473or even some one conspicuous or beneficial act of local or general Critical Apparatus474utility, which have distinguished him, and excited a desire that he 475should be remembered, then, of course, ought the attention to be 476directed chiefly to those actions or that act: and such sentiments dwelt 477upon as naturally arise out of them or it. Having made this necessary Editor’s Note478distinction, I proceed.—The mighty benefactors of mankind, as they 479are not only known by the immediate survivors, but will continue to be 480known familiarly to latest posterity, do not stand in need of biographic 481sketches, in such a place; nor of delineations of character to individualise Critical Apparatus482them. This is already done by their Works, in the memories of men. 483Their naked names, and a grand comprehensive sentiment of civic 484gratitude, patriotic love, or human admiration—or the utterance of 485some elementary principle most essential in the constitution of true Critical Apparatus486virtue;—or a declaration touching that pious humility and self-487abasement, which are ever most profound as minds are most susceptible 488of genuine exaltation—or an intuition, communicated in adequate 489words, of the sublimity of intellectual power;—these are the only 490tribute which can here be paid—the only offering that upon such an 491altar would not be unworthy.
- Editor’s Note492 'What needs my Shakspeare for his honoured bones
- 493 The labour of an age in piled stones,
- 494 Or that his hallowed reliques should be hid
- 495 Under a star-ypointing pyramid?
- pg 62496 Dear Son of Memory, great Heir of Fame,
- 497 What need'st thou such weak witness of thy name?
- 498 Thou in our wonder and astonishment
- 499 Hast built thyself a livelong monument,
- 500 And so sepulchred, in such pomp dost lie,
- 501 That kings for such a tomb would wish to die.'
Neither have any neglected buriall, but some savage Nations, as Bactrians, (which cast the dead to their dogs) some varlet Philosophers, as Diogenes which desired to be devoured of fishes; some dissolute Courtiers as Mecenas, who was wont to say.
- Non tumulum curo, sepelit natura relictos.
For neuer any (saith Camden) neglected buriall but some sauage nations; as Bactrians, which cast their dead to the dogs; some varlet Philosophers, as Diogenes, who desired to be devoured of fishes; some dissolute Courtiers, as Mecænas who was wont to say,
- Non tumulum curo sepelit natura relictos.
- I'm carelesse of a graue:
- Nature her dead will saue.
- "A simple child,
- That lightly draws its breath,
- And feels its life in every limb,
- What should it know of death!"—
- What tribes of happy youth have gambolled here,
- Nor in their wild mirth ever thought how near
- Their sensible warm motion was allied
- To the dull earth that crumbled at their side.
- Even now of that gay train who there pursue
- Their noisy sports with rapture ever new
- There are to whom the buoyant heart proclaims
- Death has no power oer their particular frames.
- But hence, these follies, light as laughter prov'd!
- Yes, they are gone—and oh that ages back,
- Some Champion of the church, had too prevail'd
- To close her vaults; and where unsightly now
- Her outer court its surface spreads, in heaps
- Trodden and bare and vile, to bid in peace
- The sylvan beauties of the garden bloom.
- Then in some etc.
- now where,
- On columns ivy-wreath'd, o'er statues, urns,
- And obelisks, the Temple of the Dead,
- In Gothic state aspir'd; an open Pile;
- While through inwoven arches, richly foil'd
- With the dark verdure of intruding trees,
- Or sombre windows where enamel'd forms
- Of saints are seen, the dazzling glare of day
- Came, solemniz'd, within; a twilight gloom,
- Chilling, with awe sublime, the soul:—and now
- Had wander'd forth etc.
I have an unwearied pleasure in perusing & thinking on Wordsworth's poetry; & think his pamphlet exceeds all that have been written since Burke's on the french revolution. It is excellent in argument, beautiful in metaphors & similes, and sublime in its moral & philosophical strains. Such a work is a treat which I do not often enjoy. Of his poetry [I] have not now leisure to say what I feel: taken as a whole, I mean, reflecting on almost every individual poem, I cannot better express my sentiments than by applying his own words "Then gentle maiden, move along these shades,—In gentleness of heart, with gentle hand—Touch … for there is a Spirit in the woods" [words].
The best subject for Epitaphs is private virtue; virtue exerted in the same circumstances in which the bulk of mankind are placed, and which, therefore, may admit of many imitators. He that has delivered his country from oppression, or freed the world from ignorance and errour, can excite the emulation of a very small number; but he that has repelled the temptations of poverty, and disdained to free himself from distress at the expense of his virtue, may animate multitudes, by his example, to the same firmness of heart and steadiness of resolution.
The scantiness of human praises can scarcely be made more apparent than by remarking how often Pope has, in the few epitaphs which he composed, found it necessary to borrow from himself … [iii. 263–4:] The difficulty in writing epitaphs is to give a particular and appropriate praise. This, however, is not always to be performed, whatever be the diligence or ability of the writer, for the greater part of mankind 'have no character at all' [Pope, Moral Essays, II. 2], have little that distinguishes them from others equally good or bad, and therefore nothing can be said of them which may not be applied with equal propriety to a thousand more. It is indeed no great panegyrick that there is inclosed in this tomb one who was born in one year and died in another; yet many useful and amiable lives have been spent which yet leave little materials for any other memorial. These are, however, not the proper subjects of poetry, and whenever friendship or any other motive obliges a poet to write on such subjects, he must be forgiven if he sometimes wanders in generalities and utters the same praises over different tombs.
- For whilst to th' shame of slow-endeavouring art,
- Thy easie numbers flow, and that each heart
- Hath from the leaves of thy unvalu'd Book,
- Those Delphick lines with deep impression took,
- Then thou our fancy of it self bereaving,
- Dost make us Marble with too much conceaving.