The first in a three-part series on writers’ epitaphs.
“In lapidary inscriptions, a man is not upon oath.” —Samuel Johnson
Got a brittle, expensive medium? Bring an elastic ethics.
Dr. Johnson understood that words on headstones provide cover stories. Acts of make-believe inscribed in stone may be as banal as an incorrect—or fudged—year of birth; the phrase “In Loving Memory” must be a fiction much of the time. On the other hand, great writers have composed words for headstones, real and imaginary, that offer us complex fictions in which we may dwell, as if in compensation for loss. For such writers, good grief is infused with imagination.
Witness this epitaph in the collection of the Yale Library, from an autograph manuscript composed circa 1728:
The Body of
Like the Cover of an old Book,
Its Contents torn out,
And Stript of its Lettering and Gilding,
Lies here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be wholly lost:
For it will, as he believ’d, appear once more,
In a new & more perfect Edition,
Corrected and Amended
By the Author.
He was born Jan. 6. 1706.
The Benjamin Franklin who wrote this was twenty-two, living in Philadelphia, a runaway apprentice passing as a journeyman printer for going on five years, daily making good on his lie by daily making good books, pamphlets, newspapers, broadsides, and printed ephemera. The fictions elaborated in this text and the fictions at play in Franklin’s life as fabricated in his Autobiography (1793) overlap prodigiously. Ever the forward thinker, Franklin sets himself down here not with a lie, but as a make-believe construction of impressionable paper and ink and cloth and thread and board. A man in his prime, nowhere near his final reckoning, he is already concerned with judgment, about how he might be read. His vision anticipates his revision, the replacement of signatures he’s struggled to compose with signatures composed by the Lord.
An epitaph typically reinforces values we look for in strong poems: gravity, brevity, levity, and the authority of the speaker’s experience, granted in epitaph’s special case by his death. Franklin is ahead of himself in his rock-solid grasp of these conventions. First, he imagines the grief of those who attend this text as grave, and does not fail to evoke the seriousness of death. Second, he is brief, for his estate or his survivors must pay for his epitaph by letter and line and inch of brittle stone, in a world where a chisel is expensive. Third, he responds to the downcast gaze of family and friends with winking humor, in a metaphor hammered at each caesura, punctuation mark, and line-break until it is so beaten out it suggests the lightness of eternity. (Recall John Donne’s “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” and its fiction of a love “like gold to aery thinnesse beate.”) Lastly, though these words were not carved on the tomb where his body rots beside his wife’s, there is a clear implication that Franklin’s center-justified prose provides instruction to his survivors.
Franklin’s handling of his epitaph, which is of no use till God knows when, gives us a sharper likeness of him than the hundred-dollar bill. He offers us a concrete figure for his Christian faith, a book; yet he conveys a sense that his firmest faith is vested not in what the Good Book says, but what his forthcoming Autobiography will tell us. Whatever rewriting his soul will suffer, Franklin anticipates that he will be revised—corrected, and amended, and even gilded—on this side of the grave, while there is still time for him to enjoy his being issued in a second edition.
* * *
For the genre, Franklin’s imaginary inscription is somewhat long-winded. Epitaphic fictions may be extremely compressed; sometimes they achieve greater scope because they are tiny portions of larger works. William Butler Yeats’s epitaph—the final stanza of his late poem, “Under Ben Bulben”—is measured out in three lines and two short imperatives, a mere twelve syllables. Even so, it conjures two fictions.
Yeats’s speaker’s first command is so idealistic it may not be followed. His second command would be nonfiction only when its reader is mounted.
In the year of Yeats’s birth, conveyance on horseback meant the fastest speeds attainable (even today, speed corresponds to power). At the time of Yeats’s reburial (the body was moved from France to Ireland in 1948) under the stone pictured above, the first world was on the cusp of the jet age. Even in Ireland, Yeats might have said, “That is no country for old men.”
Perhaps the imperatives on his stone are addressed to a fictional someone who literally remembers the past that Yeats remembers, some “aged man,” “some paltry thing, / A tattered coat upon a stick… ” They may even be addressed to a more idealistic fiction, a present-day reader come to pay his respects, a reader for whom elevated views and dignified gaits and romantic clops of iron shoes on cobblestone are continuous with the present—a reader who, like Yeats, bears the past inside him. Either way, twelve quick syllables after such a visitor arrives, the speaker of the epitaph has told him to move on. Yeats never really sailed to Byzantium. No one was ever really going to approach his grave on the back of a horse. And only in fictions do we meet anyone capable of casting such a cold eye on life or death.