Literary Epitaphs
and the question of monuments

What are the words that we’ll be remembered by? Jessica Lim reflects on the desire to set our legacies in stone.

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 the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.’

The last three lines from Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem, written in 1890, four years before his death, are engraved on his tombstone in Samoa. Plagued by poor health, it is understandable that Stevenson would have contemplated his own mortality, and considered the relationship between life and death. This poem presents a positive vision. Stevenson’s persona asserts in the poem that he will find true rest in his grave, his ultimate “home.” Insisting upon the “homeliness” of death affirms that death is not merely imminent, but that it is immanent, always an intrinsic part of who we are. Stevenson, it seems, was quite at peace with this idea.

Stevenson’s poem is neatly unified by rhyme and a rhythmic pattern known as the dolnik. The dolnik, a Russian poetic metre, is quite common in English nursery rhymes (as compellingly argued by Derek Attridge). It is characterised by reading lines not in syllabic stress patterns (e.g. alternating weak-strong or strong-weak) but in the number of stresses per line.  The first three lines are read with four main stresses, and the final line is a catalectic, or cut, line, with three main emphases and a silently stressed syllable. Try reading it aloud:

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 [“silent” beat]

The rhythm and the rhyming pattern provide a sense of closure and comfort⎯a rhythmic closure not included on Stevenson’s tombstone itself, which features only the final three lines of the second stanza. The epitaphic poem acts as the fulfilment of the poet’s wishes, a contented ode to a purpose-driven life.

Stevenson’s epitaph provides a strong contrast to that of John Keats. Keats asked his friends for his famous epitaph: “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.”

On its own, the statement reads as an affirmation of the impermanence of all existence, but Keats’s friends found it necessary to add a statement before Keats’s requested epitaph: “This grave contains all that was Mortal of a Young English Poet Who on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his Heart at the Malicious Power of his Enemies Desired these Words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone: Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.

Keats’s tombstone becomes not his own statement but an interpretation of his poetic output and creative life: one that deflects attention to Keats’s sonnet ‘When I have fears that I may cease to be’, where Keats utters his fear of dying before he has achieved his creative potential, and finds solace only in the enduring beauty and power of nature. It perpetuates the narrative that literary critics, ‘his Enemies,’ succeeded in sapping the life and inspiration from Keats. Yet, as Keats’s personal letters suggest, Keats did not die railing against death, or defeated by his critics, but with a gentle acknowledgement of death’s inevitability: “Severn⎯S […] dont [sic] be frightened⎯thank God it has come.”

The discrepancy between Keats’s personal attitude toward death and the cultural memory of Keats’s attitude toward his own death raises the question of literary monuments and epitaphs. To what extent do epitaphs capture the motives and feelings of the individual they seek to memoralise? Or, perhaps, Stevenson and Keats may inspire us to wonder: should we consider which words will live on after our deaths?

More on epitaphic writing.


Categories: Reflections