Joshua Scodel, The English Poetic Epitaph (1991) [e-text excerpts]
The eighteenth-century cult of sentiment encouraged a new treatment
of the dead. The mid eighteenth century witnessed the rise of what Ariès
calls "the death of the other," an intensified focus on mourners' memory
of, and enduring grief for, irreplaceable loved ones who have died.1
Personal lament rather than impersonal, edifying panegyric began to
dominate the poetic epitaph.
"Kindred Spirits": The Proper
Reader in the Mid-Eighteenth- to
Early Nineteenth-Century Epitaph
Lawrence Stone argues that this new emphasis on mourners' feelings reflects the growth of a more affectionate relationship between family members.2 Yet although such affection certainly became more widespread as a cultural ideal in the eighteenth century, Stone, as his critics have noted, ignores evidence from earlier periods of intense familial feeling to support his argument for a dramatic change in familial relations.3 At least insofar as it manifests itself in epitaphic rhetoric, the new emphasis reveals not so much the increase of feeling within the family
1 See Philippe Ariès, The Hour of Our Death, trans. Helen Weaver (New York: Random, 1982), 407-556; and Michel Vovelle, La mort et l'Occident de 1300 à nos jours (Paris: Gallimard, 1983), 443-446. On the sentimental novel's emphasis on mourning, see R. F. Brissenden, Virtue in Distress: Studies in the Novel of Sentiment from Richardson to Sade (London: Macmillan, 1974), 6 and passim.
2 Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex, and Marriage, 1500-1800 (New York: Harper, 1977), 246-253. His argument concerning the change in family sentiments is on p. 247. Compare Ariès, 471-473.
3 See, for example, Ralph A. Houlbrooke, The English Family, 1450-1700 (London: Longman, 1984), 14-16, 202-227; and Keith Wrightson, English Society: 1580-1680 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1982), 89-118.
as a new relationship between feelings for intimates, both inside and outside the family, and the public domain. With continuing disagreement over "objective" social criteria for assessing the worth of the dead, intimate grief increasingly seemed the most, and perhaps the only, authentic testimony to the enduring value of the deceased. Expressions of deep personal sorrow thus came to fill the vacuum in authoritative public utterance.
The new epitaphic style appealed to men and women of diverse beliefs. As the virulence of religious conflict declined over the course of the eighteenth century, men of various religious and nonreligious persuasions—conformists and nonconformists, evangelicals and latitudinarians, Methodists and freethinkers—adopted a common rhetoric of feeling. With the established church's decrease in power and authority, furthermore, even conforming poets sought new ways, not envisaged in Anglican doctrine, for the living to express their continuing personal attachment to, and desire for intimate communion with, the beloved dead.4
With economic expansion, increased urbanization, and the growth of the middle classes, more and more literate people of diverse backgrounds composed and read epitaphs.5 Epitaphs were often published several times in the numerous magazines of the period and in the many epitaph anthologies, more common now than at any earlier time.6 Unlike seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century collections, which often included untranslated Latin inscriptions, these later collections presented translations of Latin inscriptions or English compositions alone and thereby appealed to a wider audience. By expressing what were conceived to be
4 English epitaphs support Ariès's claim that whereas eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Catholics increasingly viewed purgatory as "an opportunity to prolong beyond death the solicitude and affections of earthly life," Protestants of the same period, torn between their religious traditions denying contact with the dead and the need to display their continuing feelings for their deceased loved ones, "discovered" various new forms of communication across the barrier of death (pp. 454-468).
5 Statistics on literacy are notoriously unreliable, but recent studies suggest a dramatic rise from the post-Civil Wars period through the 1750s; though stagnant from the second half of the eighteenth through the early nineteenth century, literacy remained higher throughout this period than at any time before 1740. See David Cressy, Literacy and the Social Order: Reading and Writing in Tudor and Stuart England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 177; and R. S. Schofield, "Dimension of Illiteracy, 1750-1850," Explorations in Economic History 10 (1972/1973):445. Stagnation in minimal literacy for the whole population seems to have coincided in the late eighteenth century, moreover, with the growth in reading and writing among the middle classes. Paul Kaufman notes that there was a rapid increase in circulating libraries in the 1750s and that the number rose steadily throughout the second half of the century, which suggests a growing number of readers among the predominantly middle-class patrons of such enterprises; see "The Community Library: A Chapter in English Social History," Transactions of the American Philosophical Association, n. s., 57 (1967): part 7.
6 The epitaph anthologies of John Hackett, W. Toldervy, T. Webb, George Wright, John Bowden, and Thomas Caldwell, among others, all came out between 1750 and 1815.
"natural" human feelings rather than the values of a particular class, the new epitaphic style largely "transcended" the social divisions among readers and writers of epitaphs.
While the influence of classical models declined, certain widely published English authors had far greater impact than ever before. Pope was especially influential. Though his epitaphs upon himself, with their emulation of the classics and their topical assertions of his independence-unto-death from the Hanoverian-Walpole regime, were little imitated, his innovative elegiac epitaphs became extremely popular models.
Epitaphs of the mid eighteenth and early nineteenth century often copy or adapt the endings of the Harcourt and the Digby epitaphs, which memorably express the sorrow of the poet as "friend" of the deceased. Since the word "friend" could in this period refer to a relative, some epitaphs closely echo Pope's lines in order to present mourning relatives addressing the dead.7 Other compositions, by contrast, imitate Pope less directly but follow his practice of blending the mourning of the actual relatives who erected the monument with that of the poet-friend who composed the elegiac inscription, as in the following couplet: "The friend and heir here join their duty: One / Erects the busto, one inscribes the stone."8 Other epitaphs make explicit Pope's implicit contrast between the sincere tribute of the poet-friend and the mere flattery of a hired hand, as in these two examples:
7 For close echoes of the closing lines of the Harcourt or Digby epitaphs (or both), see, for example, "An EPITAPH made by Mr. PITT, and inscribed on a stone, that covers his Father, Mother, and Brother," Gentleman's Magazine 16 (1746):37; the epitaph upon Sarah Newman in T. Webb, ed., A New Select Collection of Epitaphs, 2 vols. (London, 1775), 1:247; "An EPITAPH, supposed to be written by WEEPING ORPHANS over the Grave of their dear PARENTS, in a Church-yard in Kent" in George Wright, Pleasing Melancholy (London, 1793), 55; "Inscription on a SINGLE LADY'S Monument, in a Church, in Somersetshire..." in Wright, Pleasing Melancholy, 144; the epitaph upon Joseph and Sarah Hinds, d. 1801, in Francis Haslewood, The Parish of Benenden, Kent: Its Monuments, Vicars, and Persons of Note (Ipswich, 1889), 48; the epitaph upon Anne Jane Williams, d. 1801, in Bath Abbey; the epitaph upon Lucy Hippsley in Thomas Caldwell, ed., A Collection of Epitaphs and Inscriptions, Ancient and Modern (London, 1802), 172-173; Hannah More, "On the Reverend Mr. Hunter," in The Poems of Hannah More (London, 1816), 310; the epitaph upon Susannah Hadden in William Graham, ed., A Collection of Epitaphs and Monumental Inscriptions, Ancient and Modern (Carlisle, 1821), 123; and the epitaph upon James Sanler, d. 1823, in Haslewood, 82-83.
8 Sir C[harles] H[anbury] W[illiams], "An Epitaph on... Thomas Winnington, Esq.," London Magazine 19 (1750):566. For other examples of the poet placing himself in the poem as a mourning "friend," see "Epitaph on the Rev. Mr A—— Rector of B—— ...," Gentleman's Magazine 17 (1747):96; epitaph upon Richard Children, d. 1753, in John Thorpe, Registrum Roffense: or, A Collection of Antient Records ... of the Diocese and Cathedral Church of Rochester (London, 1769), 856; "An Epitaph in Wisbich church-yard," Scots Magazine 26 (1764):200; G. Colman, "Epitaph on Mr. Powell's Monument at Bristol," Scots Magazine 33 (1771):548; and the epitaph upon Charles Jenner, d. 1774, in Caldwell, 271-272.
No venal muse this faithful picture draws,By their very protestations, such epitaphs suggest that poets continued to be rewarded for their panegyrics upon the social elite. What had changed was not the actual relations between patrons and poets but rather the poets' manner of conceiving and justifying their commemorative function. Assuming the role of the impersonal, public trumpeter of fame, earlier epitaphic poets defended themselves against charges of flattery by appealing to the didactic efficacy of idealized moral exempla. Epitaphic poets from the mid eighteenth century onward, by contrast, authenticated their compositions and testified to the value of the dead by either assuming the voice of the mourning relatives or presenting themselves as grieving friends of the deceased.
Blest saint! desert like yours extorts applause.
Oh! let a weeping friend discharge his due,
His debt to worth, to excellence, and you!
A Son this [monument] rais'd, by holy Duty fir'd,
This sung a Friend, by friendly Zeal inspir'd;
No venal Falsehood stain'd the filial Tear,
Unbought, unask'd, the friendly Praise sincere.9
Poets also often called upon those readers who knew and loved the deceased to show proper responsive feeling. Pope's epitaph upon Gay was a crucial model. Poets imitated Pope's final couplet—"... the Worthy and the Good shall say, / Striking their pensive bosoms—Here lies GAY"—in order to imagine or demand that friends of the deceased pronounce the epitaph's final line:
When ask'd to whom these lovely truths belong,
Thy friends shall answer, weeping, "Here lies STRONG."
... o'er his grave each worthy friend replies
Clasping their friendly hands, "HERE DUGGAN LIES."
... pensive think of your departed friend,
Repeat the tale convey'd in simple strain,
And sighing say—here lies poor honest HAYNE.10
9 Nathaniel Cotton, "On a LADY, who had laboured under a Cancer," in his posthumous Various Pieces in Verse and Prose, 2 vols. (London, 1791), 1:55; and William Hamilton, "Epitaph on Sir James Sooty," d. 1730, in The Poems and Songs of William Hamilton of Bangour, ed. James Patterson (Edinburgh, 1850), 32-33. See also the epitaph upon Mary Basnet, d. 1756, in Graham, 89-90; and the "Inscription on a LADY'S Monument, in Bath Cathedral," in Wright, Pleasing Melancholy, 122-123.
10 I cite Nathaniel Cotton, "An EPITAPH upon Mr. Thomas Strong...," d. 1736, in Cotton, 1:82, an early example; the epitaph upon Mr. Duggan, d. 1779, in A Collection of Epitaphs and Monumental Inscriptions, 2 vols. (London, 1806), 1:29; and the epitaph upon John Hayne, d. 1797, in Thomas F. Ravenshaw, ed., Antiente Epitaphes (from A.D. 1250 to A.D. 1800) (London, 1878), 175.
Such epitaphs suggest that only friends can meaningfully enunciate the most traditional of epitaphic statements, "Here lies X." A formula traditionally associated with epitaphic impersonality must be reauthorized and revitalized by the grief of intimates.
While ignoring Pope's own distinction in the Gay epitaph between worldly rank and moral worth, between heroes and kings and the "Worthy and the Good," imitations of Pope's composition betray the sense of a fundamental division between a small group of intimates, who can truly mourn the deceased, and all other members of society, who cannot. They thereby indirectly suggest the crucial problem of the mid-eighteenth- to early nineteenth-century epitaph. If only those closely tied to the deceased by blood or affection can truly feel the pathos and significance of his or her loss, the public role of the deceased and of the epitaph as a genre is unclear. How can a mere passerby who reads an epitaph truly view the deceased as a friend? The problem was all the more pressing because the growth of a more heterogeneous reading public made the responses of readers increasingly unpredictable. During the same period that some epitaphs explicitly address the intimates of the deceased, others grapple with the problematic relationship between the deceased and the general reading public by addressing the reader as "stranger." "Stranger" is a common form of address in classical epitaphs (Greek xenos; Latin hospes), where it is simply a variant on the various terms for "traveler" or "passerby." Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English and neo-Latin epitaphs occasionally address the "stranger" in the manner of classical epitaphs. The term becomes widespread in the English epitaph, however, only in the mid eighteenth century, when it emerges in an emotionally charged, dialectical relationship to "friend."11 Epitaphs often implicitly or explicitly implore a "stranger" of highly developed sensibility to mourn for the deceased with something close to the feelings of a "friend," as in this early nineteenth-century composition:
If virtue o'er thy bosom bear control,
If thine the generous, thine the exalted soul,
Stranger! approach. This consecrated earth
11 For classical examples of addresses to the "stranger" (xenos or hospes), see Richmond Lattimore, Themes in Greek and Latin Epitaphs (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1962), 230-234. The xenos or hospes of ancient epitaphs did not have the emotionally charged meaning of "stranger" as opposed to "friend" because both the Greek and Latin terms could mean "friend" as well as "stranger"; for a discussion of the antithetical meanings of the classical words and the light they shed on ancient conceptions of friendship, see Émile Benveniste, Le vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes, 2 vols. (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1969), 1:87-101, 360-361.
Demands thy tribute to departed worth.
Beneath this tomb, her spirit sleeps,
Here friendship sighs, here fond affection weeps....12
Requesting that the stranger display sorrow for the deceased akin to that of intimates, the epitaph suggests that the unknown reader can respond properly only if he or she has certain qualities. This poem reveals the most striking rhetorical innovation of mid-eighteenth- through early nineteenth-century epitaphs: their calls for, and expressions of deep uncertainty concerning, the benevolence of strangers.
Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard, first published in 1751, is both exemplary and extremely influential in its dramatization of the uncertainty surrounding the response of the epitaphic reader. Gray meditates in solitary darkness upon the poor buried in the churchyard and upon his own obscure life.13 While the next chapter will discuss the significance of the new attention that Gray and his contemporaries pay to the poor buried in churchyards, here I wish to emphasize Gray's sense of the vulnerability of the churchyard dead and their monuments to contempt or neglect. Gray notes how "frail" the memorials are that protect the buried poor "from insult" and beg "the passing tribute of a sigh" (ll. 77-80).14 Though the poet may himself respond sympathetically to the epitaphs of "the unlettered muse" (l. 81), there is no guarantee
12 Epitaph upon Elizabeth Soane, d. 1815 (Graham, 88, punctuation modified). For other examples of such pathetic appeals to strangers not discussed elsewhere in my text, see "Epitaph," Scots Magazine 24 (1762):544; Hannah More's undated epitaphs upon C. Dicey and Reverend Mr. Love in More, 311, 313; and Anna Seward's epitaph, composed in 1792, upon David Garrick in The Poetical Works of Anna Seward, ed. Walter Scott, 3 vols. (Edinburgh, 1810), 2:186.
13 I have found the following works concerning Gray's Elegy helpful: F. W. Bateson, "Gray's 'Elegy' Reconsidered," in his English Poetry: A Critical Introduction, rev. ed. (London: Longmans, 1966), 127-135; Charles J. Rzepka, The Self as Mind: Vision and Identity in Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), 2-9; Peter M. Sacks, The English Elegy: Studies in the Genre from Spenser to Yeats (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 133-137; John Sitter, Literary Loneliness in Mid-Eighteenth-Century England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), 97-100; Howard D. Weinbrot, "Gray's Elegy: A Poem of Moral Choice and Resolution," SEL 18 (1978):537-551; George T. Wright, "Stillness and the Argument of Gray's Elegy," MP 74 (1977):381-389; the essays by Frank Brady, Bertrand H. Bronson, and Ian Jack in From Sensibility to Romanticism: Essays Presented to Frederick A. Pottle, ed. Frederick W. Hilles and Harold Bloom (London: Oxford University Press, 1965), 139-190; and the essays in Herbert W. Starr, ed., Twentieth-Century Interpretations of Gray's Elegy: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968).
14 I use the text of the Elegy in The Poems of Thomas Gray, William Collins, and Oliver Goldsmith, ed. Roger Lonsdale (London: Longmans, 1969), 117-140. All quotations and translations of Gray's poems are from this edition, hereafter cited as Gray.
that others will. The poet who goes on to imagine his own death as "A youth to fortune and to fame unknown" (l. 118) knows that he, too, is not assured that his gravestone will be read with proper sympathy. Imagining the possible appearance of a "kindred spirit" (l. 96) who will possibly learn of his fate from a local rustic and be guided to read his epitaph, Gray suggests that one's memory after death depends upon chance encounters:
If chance, by lonely Contemplation led,
Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate,
Haply some hoary-headed swain may say....
(ll. 95-97, emphasis mine)
His hope for a "kindred spirit" reminds one of Eloisa's hope that sympathetic lovers will visit her tomb in Pope's Eloisa to Abelard:
If ever chance two wandring lovers brings
To Paraclete's white walls, and silver springs,
O'er the pale marble shall they join their heads,
And drink the falling tears each other sheds,
Then sadly say, with mutual pity mov'd,
Oh may we never love as these have lov'd!
. . . . .
...if some relenting eye
Glance on the stone where our cold reliques lie,
Devotion's self shall steal a thought from heav'n,
One human tear shall drop, and be forgiv'n.
(ll. 347-352, 355-358, emphasis mine)15
Pope heaps up the pathos of mere possibility with "if" clauses that describe the responding lovers and the relenting eye.16 The ending of the poem, however, suggests the central difference between Pope's poetics of death and that of Gray. The final image in Pope's poem is of Eloisa's wish for what she has, in fact, already received, not a reader of her epitaph but the writer of her tale:
15 Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock and Other Poems, ed. Geoffrey Tillotson, The Twickenham Edition of Pope, vol. 2, 2d ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954), 348.
16 The pathetic uncertainty concerning the appearance of sympathetic mourners is Pope's addition to the tradition of Ovidian female love complaint: such uncertainty does not appear in the various passages in Ovid's Heroides in which abandoned women conclude their laments by imagining their monuments and epitaphs, passages from which Pope drew his major inspiration for the ending of Eloisa.
And sure if fate some future Bard shall join
In sad similitude of griefs to mine,
. . . . .
Such if there be, who loves so long, so well;
Let him our sad, our tender story tell;
The well-sung woes will sooth my pensive ghost;
He best can paint 'em, who shall feel 'em most.
(ll. 359-360, 363-366)
In this self-referential coda, Pope not only praises his artful song of woe but also moves away from uncertainty concerning others' reactions in order to focus instead upon his usual subject, his own sensitive response. He appears in his poem as an active writer who has done his all to honor Eloisa's memory and to commemorate himself as a suffering lover. Gray, by contrast, finally appears in his own poem not as an active writer but as the passive, vulnerable object of a hypothetical reader's gaze.
Gray's work is an elegy in the common eighteenth-century sense of a reflective poem, usually about love or death, that is in some way indebted to the Latin love elegy.17 It is also an elegy in the more specific sense of a poem mourning someone's death—in this case, the speaker's own.18 Gray emphasizes his own passivity in death by transforming a traditional generic combination that partakes of both senses. The poem imagines the country "swain" (l. 97) recounting the poet's melancholic behavior, sudden disappearance, and funeral, and then inviting the "kindred spirit" to read the poet's tombstone (ll. 97-116). By turning to his own funeral and epitaph, Gray recalls the generic combination of Herrick's "The cruell Maid," in which a speaker foresees his own burial and provides the inscription he wishes engraved upon his tomb. Pseudo-Tibullus's Elegy 3.2 introduced this generic combination to Roman elegy, and James Hammond's Love Elegies (1742), which established the elegiac associations of the quatrain form used by Gray, contains a poem closely following pseudo-Tibullus.19 More than any other poet who uses this generic combination, Gray surrenders control over his own posthumous self-image. In the compositions of pseudo-Tibullus, Hammond, and even of modest Herrick, the poet who dictates his epitaph counters his
17 On the eighteenth-century sense of elegy, see Ian Jack, "Gray's Elegy Reconsidered," in From Sensibility to Romanticism, 152-155.
18 See also Sacks, 133.
19 See James Hammond, "Elegy IX: He has lost Delia" in The Works of the English Poets from Chaucer to Cowper, ed. Alexander Chalmers, 21 vols. (London, 1810), 11:143. Jack suggests Gray's knowledge of Hammond's poetry in "Gray's Elegy Reconsidered," in From Sensibility to Romanticism, 155. Lonsdale reviews the general evidence of Hammond's influence and cites Elegy IX as a parallel to Gray's concluding epitaph (Gray, 108-109, 138-139).
powerlessness in life with an act of self-definition. Gray's Elegy, by contrast, eliminates the poet's active dictation of his epitaph in order to imagine, instead, the epitaph's possibly being read with sympathy. (Within the fiction of the poem, it is not even clear who composed the final inscription.) In all other examples of the generic combination, the speaker is an unhappy lover. Gray transforms the conventional love theme to underscore his dependence on others for his posthumous identity. The "swain" who postulates that the poet was in life "forlorn, / Or crazed with care, or crossed in hopeless love" (ll. 107-108) clearly does not comprehend the poet's more general sorrow for mortal human beings.20 By presenting a rustic who does not understand him, Gray underscores his need for a sensitive reader, whose posthumous appearance alone can save him from being misunderstood.21
The epitaph itself emphasizes the dependence of the deceased upon the reader's response:
Here rests his head upon the lap of earth
A youth to fortune and to fame unknown.
Fair Science frowned not on his humble birth,
And Melancholy marked him for her own.
Large was his bounty and his soul sincere,
Heaven did a recompense as largely send:
He gave to Misery all he had, a tear,
He gained from Heaven ('twas all he wished) a friend.
No farther seek his merits to disclose,
Or draw his frailties from their dread abode,
(There they alike in trembling hope repose)
The bosom of his Father and his God.
Framed by an evocation of the earth as the mother upon whom the deceased lays his head and a description of the "bosom of his Father" in which the soul of the deceased can "repose," the epitaph depicts death as an escape from the burdens of adult life. Gray's posthumous peace seems somehow dependent, however, upon the reader. While "He gave to Misery all he had, a tear" looks back to the poet's sorrowful tribute to the rural dead, the description of the single friend that he had in life
20 Ironically, some of Gray's contemporaneous readers considered the poet of the Elegy a traditional unhappy lover: Phillip Doddridge's epitaph "On a YOUNG MAN who died for Love; after the Manner of GRAY" (Wright, Pleasing Melancholy, 62), for example, is a pastiche of Gray's epitaph whose title makes explicit what its writer thought implicit in (or at least consistent with) Gray's poem.
21 On the "swain" and the "kindred spirit" as "contrasting kinds of audiences," see also Rzepka, 7.
hints at the friendly reader he hopes to have in death. Though the poet longs for someone to "inquire his fate," he also hopes that this sympathetic inquirer will not attempt to discover more of his virtues or faults than he sees fit to tell. The reticent epitaph clearly demands a reader whose combination of sympathy and tact can save the deceased from both neglect and intrusion.
By his very admission of unspecified "frailties," Gray increases his dependence on the sympathetic forbearance of the reader. The poet's acknowledgment of flaws and his implicit plea for sympathy is both innovative and influential. Any reference at all to character flaws in the deceased is very rare in nonsatiric epitaphs before Gray. In the seventeenth century, Jonson's epitaph upon Elizabeth, L. H. is unique in this regard. In the early eighteenth century, Pope felt compelled to concede the childlike foibles of his friend Gay in order to protect him from harsher criticism, but otherwise Pope commemorates only legendary or fictional female figures, like Eloisa and the "unfortunate lady," as flawed heroines who nevertheless deserve forgiveness and sympathetic remembrance. Gray and later eighteenth-century poets, some directly indebted to him, are the first to portray their contemporaries and themselves as frail human beings who can only hope for the sympathy and forgiveness of the reader. In the late 1750s, for example, William Beattie concludes his epitaph upon himself by noting his failings and by making explicit the call for sympathetic response that Gray keeps beautifully oblique:
Forget my frailties;—thou art also frail:Beattie tries to capture the sympathy of his unknown readers by insisting that he was a friend to all of humanity whose flaws were those to which all human beings are sadly prone. Less confident than earlier poets in their readers' reverence for the dead, Gray and his successors try to arouse their readers' pity. Epitaphic poets tend not to present the deceased
Forgive my failings;—thou thyself mayst fall:
Nor read unmov'd my artless, tender tale,
I was a friend, O man, to thee, to all.22
22 [William Beattie], "An EPITAPH. Designed for its author," Scots Magazine 19 (1757):238. For other late eighteenth-century evocations of the frailties of the deceased, see, for example, the epitaphs upon Richard Savage, d. 1743, in John Hackett, Select and Remarkable Epitaphs on Illustrious and Other Persons ..., 2 vols. (London, 1757), 1:260; Mrs. Rocky Squire, d. 1760, in A Collection, 2:182; William King, d. 1763, in Gentleman's Magazine 34 (1764):139; Laurence Sterne, d. 1768, in Webb, New Select Collection, 1:130; George Campion, d. 1774, in The Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Notes and Queries 2 (1894):125; and the epitaph closely modelled upon Gray's at the conclusion of "The FUNERAL. An ELEGY," Scots Magazine 28 (1766):317.
as powerful moral examples; instead, they beg the sensitive passerby to show his or her benevolence toward the all too vulnerable dead.
Like many inscriptions, Gray's epitaph piously declares the Christian hope of the deceased in the Resurrection.23 The description of such hope as "trembling" is, however, unusual. It is true that Christians work out their salvation in "fear and trembling," and that the mixture of hope and fear is a common response of the living, and even more of the dying, as they confront their God. Epitaphs, however, normally speak of the dead's confidently lying "in hope(s)" of the "joyful Resurrection," for the decorum of Christian panegyric demands that the inscription record the untroubled hope of one whose time to work out his or her salvation is, after all, past.24 The image of the deceased in the "bosom" of God suggests in Calvinist fashion that the afterlife is a period of waiting for full bliss or damnation, and "trembling" increases the reader's sense of the dead's vulnerability in this interim state. The epitaph thus hints at an analogy between God and the reader, both of whom are implicitly implored to be beneficent—one by judging with mercy and the other by mercifully respecting the deceased.
In an early version of the end of the Elegy preserved in manuscript, Gray described himself, rather than the "kindred spirit," as being "By Night & lonely Contemplation led / To linger in the gloomy Walks of Fate." Instead of ending with the reading of his tombstone, the poet concluded with advice to himself:
No more with Reason & thyself at strife;
Give anxious Cares & endless Wishes room
But thro' the cool sequester'd Vale of Life
Pursue the silent Tenour of thy Doom.25
In the early 1740s Gray decided, not without regret, to live on his limited inheritance in the relatively modest, retired manner of a fellow at Cambridge rather than to pursue a lucrative legal career.26 The stanza expresses
23 On the piety of the final stanza, see Weinbrot, "Gray's Elegy," 548-549.
24 Lonsdale cites as possible sources for Gray's line several combinations of fear or trembling and hope, all of which describe the living or dying, not the dead (Gray, 140). For some early eighteenth-century examples of epitaphs that use the formulaic "in hope(s)["] or "in spe(m)" to describe the dead who confidently await the Resurrection, see John Le Neve, ed., Monumenta Anglicana: Being Inscriptions on the Monuments of several Eminent Persons ... 1600-1715, 5 vols. (London, 1718-1719), 1:22, 28, 45-46, 99, 186, 213, 276; 5:195, 238-239, 241, 249, 253-254.
25 Gray, 131.
26 By his death in 1741 Gray's father, a scrivener, had dissipated the family fortune. Gray consequently received a far smaller inheritance than he had hoped; see R. W. Ketton-Cremer, Thomas Gray: A Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955), 66-68.
Gray's wish to accept fully his (comparatively) modest station, which he figures hyperbolically as a life and death of silence and obscurity. In the final version of the poem, Gray transforms his desire not to be at "strife" with himself and his "silent ... Doom" into the wish for someone to read about the completed life of a "youth unknown" with sympathetic understanding. The "kindred spirit" who would save the retired poet from total oblivion is both a stranger and a friend in the classical sense of an alter ego or other self. He is both the projection and imagined cure of an unhappy, divided self that seeks both to escape, and to receive recognition from, the world.
The "kindred spirit" is not Gray's earliest version of a friend who would save him from oblivion. The poet's turn to an unknown figure for validation is a compensatory response to tragedy within his intimate circle. In his 1742 translation of Propertius's Elegy 2.1, Gray celebrated his posthumous survival in the memory of his closest friend, Richard West; in the Elegy, composed some years after the death of West, Gray could only anxiously hope to be remembered by an unknown reader. While reflecting Gray's specific loss of a friend upon whose memory he could rely, the movement from the Propertius translation to the Elegy also reveals in diachronic form the combination of trust in intimates and anxious uncertainty concerning the reading public that pervades the funerary poetry of the period.
In Propertius's Elegy 2.1, the Roman poet rejects public, political poetry in favor of private elegies celebrating his love. He concludes, however, by reconnecting himself to the public realm by imagining his own death and suggesting that his great patron, Maecenas, might pronounce the true epitaph upon the poet who died for love: "Therefore when at last the Fates demand my life, and I shall be no than a brief name on a little stone of marble, then ... if perchance [si ... forte] thy journeying lead thee near my tomb, stay awhile thy chariot with carven yoke, and weeping pay this tribute to the silent dust: 'An unrelenting maid wrought this poor mortal's death'" (emphasis mine).27 While Propertius imagines Augustus's right-hand man publicly validating the poet's private experience, he also emphasizes, out of deference to his high-ranking patron, that such validation would come only if the busy Maecenas should happen to come upon the poet's humble tomb. Gray's translation, sent in a letter of April 1742 to his friend West, wholly eliminates the uncertainty of "if perchance" ("si ... forte"):
27 "Quandocumque igitur vitam mea fata reposcent, / et breve in exiguo marmore nomen ero, /...../ si te forte meo ducet via proxima busto, / esseda caelatis siste Britanna iugis, / taliaque illacrimans mutae iace verba favillae: / 'Huic misero fatum dura puella fuit' " (Propertius, Elegy 2.1.71-72, 75-78).
When that my fates that breath they gave shall claim,
When the short marble but preserves a name,
A little verse, my all that shall remain,
Thy passing courser's slackened speed retain
. . . . .
Then to my quiet urn awhile draw near,
And say, while o'er the place you drop a tear,
Love and the fair were of his life the pride;
He lived while she was kind, and, when she frowned, he died.28
Gray and West frequently sent one another translations from the classics, and their versions of Roman poems are simultaneously literary exercises and displaced but still deeply felt explorations of their personal relationship.29 In July 1737 West, sick and "melancholy," sent Gray a translation of pseudo-Tibullus's Elegy 3.5. In the Latin elegy the poet fears his approaching death and hopes that his friends will remember him after death: "May ye live happy and with thoughts of me" the poet exclaims.30 Making the voice of the Roman poet his own but increasing the sense of the poet's isolation, West adds to the Latin poem that he will die "unknown" without even "nature" noticing his death. Only some friends will cherish his memory, a small group who are all the more important because of the general oblivion.31 In his letter of April 1742, Gray reciprocates such a poetic gesture. He translates another Roman elegist's imagining of his own death, and by implicitly identifying Maecenas with West, asks his friend to remember Gray's own "quiet urn."32 In his translation of pseudo-Tibullus, West had made more private
28 Gray, "[Translation from Propertius, Elegies II.i]," ll. 99-102, 105-108 in Gray, 47.
29 Ian Jack treats Gray's and West's versions of Roman poetry as personal exchanges whose basis in classical poems provides a balancing "element of formality and convention" ("Gray's Elegy Reconsidered," in From Sensibility to Romanticism, 150-151). This characterization is somewhat misleading, for the poems are, with significant exceptions, quite faithful translations of their Roman models rather than free imitations: they do not modernize the details or, most importantly, change the names of the Roman speaker and addressee. Jack is nevertheless correct that the poems are, in an important sense, personal communications: ancient poets allow the friends to express through authoritative voices their own sentiments to and for one another.
30 "Vivite felices, memores et vivite nostri" (pseudo-Tibullus, Elegy 3.5.31).
31 The Correspondence of Thomas Gray, ed. Paget Toynbee and Leonard Whibley, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1935), 1:63-64.
32 In a letter of December 1736, West sent Gray a translation of an elegy of Tibullus, now lost, saying that his "low spirits and constant ill health" led him to "elegies of woe" (Correspondence of Gray, 58). Besides pseudo-Tibullus's Elegy 3.5, the most sorrowful Tibullan elegy is Elegy 1.3, in which Tibullus complains of being sick in a foreign land, imagines his death, and hopes that a stone with the epitaph he has composed will be placed over his body (ll. 1-56). If this was indeed the poem that West translated, Gray would have further motivation to reciprocate his friend's translations of appeals for posthumous commemoration with a similar translation of his own.
the relationship between the poet and his friends. Insofar as Gray identifies Maecenas with West, he similarly privatizes his poem by transforming Propertius's address to a major public figure into a personal epistle to his intimate friend. Thus, like many compositions of the period, Gray's translation imagines a friend speaking—and thus authenticating—a final epitaphic message. This explains the change, whether consciously made or not, from Propertius's "si ... forte" to Gray's indicative: Gray is confident that his closest friend will speak the appropriate commemorative words. The very year in which Gray translated Propertius, however, West died. Their private realm of friendship having became a world of solitude, Gray lost his assurance of a friend's loving memory.
Gray's well-known sonnet lamenting West's death ends with the despairing poet addressing, vainly, one who cannot hear him: "I fruitless mourn to him that cannot hear, / And weep the more because I weep in vain."33 Gray also wrote a Latin elegy upon his friend. While the first book of De Principiis Cogitandi opens with an address to the living West, the fragmentary second book laments West's death. In the Latin poem, Gray not only addresses the deceased but also implores a response from him: "But, if, released from cares as you are, but not beyond mortal concerns, you look back with pity on once-familiar toils and are free to perceive our trivial anxieties; if, by chance [si forte] you look down from your lofty seat on the storm of human passion, the fears, the fierce promptings of desire, the joys and sorrows and the tumult of rage so huge in our tiny hearts, the furious surges of the breast; then look back on [i.e., look down upon] these tears."34 Despite the view of the established church that the dead have no consciousness of the living, Gray longs for the sympathetic attention of his deceased friend. He reintroduces precisely what was omitted from the Propertius translation: the "si forte" of now truly pathos-laden conditionality. It is this phrase that also reappears in the Elegy, completed in 1750 but still in some sense reflecting Gray's loss of West.35 While the Latin poem for West expresses
33 Gray, "Sonnet [on the Death of Mr. Richard West]," ll. 13-14 in Gray, 68.
34 "... atque oh si secura, nec ultra / Mortalis, notos olim miserata labores / Respectes, tenuesque vacet cognoscere curas; / Humanam si forte alta de sede procellam / Contemplere, metus stimulosque cupidinis acres, / Gaudiaque et gemitus, parvoque in corde tumultum / Irarum ingentem, et saevos sub pectore fluctus: / Respice, et has lacrimas..." (De Principiis Cogitandi: Liber Secundus, ll. 20-27 in Gray, 328, 332, emphasis in translation mine).
35 The Elegy was sent to Horace Walpole in 1750 but its dates of origin are less certain. In a scrupulous account of the evidence, Lonsdale argues that the poem was probably begun in 1745-1746, rather than shortly after West's death in 1742, as Gray's friend William Mason suggested (see Gray, 103-110). The Elegy is nevertheless partly a response, distanced both by time and by the imaginative workings of the poet, to a death that so affected him. Sacks rightly notes that Gray's "residual grief for Richard West" is an important context for the Elegy (p. 133).
uncertainty as to whether a deceased friend will remember the living, mourning poet, the English elegy expresses uncertainty whether there will be a living friend to remember the dead poet. Both reveal Gray's lack of assurance, after West's death, in the death-transcending response of a friend. The unknown reader who would respond as a "kindred spirit" is Gray's imagined substitute for the now-dead West, and the "If chance" (l. 9) of the Elegy echoes the original uncertainty of Propertius concerning Maecenas, an uncertainty that Gray happily eliminated from his Propertian translation when he was confident of his friend's answering love.
Gray did have an important friend at the time he composed the Elegy, Horace Walpole, the son of the former prime minister, but Gray's ambivalence toward Walpole encouraged all the more his turn to an unknown reader for sympathetic understanding. Gray had loved Walpole since their school days at Eton, but in 1741 the two quarreled while on their continental tour. After they were uneasily reconciled in 1745, Walpole slowly replaced the deceased West as the reader of Gray's poems, and it was to him that Gray first sent his Elegy in 1750.36 Difference in rank greatly complicated the two men's relations. After their reconciliation, Gray viewed the prime minister's son, ambivalently, as a tie to the world of the rich and powerful that he had forsworn.37 The "kindred spirit" is an imagined substitute not only for the absent West but also for the present yet elusive Walpole, whose Maecenas-like greatness made it uncertain whether he could truly be [...] the alter ego whom Gray craved.
Gray was highly ambivalent about the publication of his poem. Walpole, not Gray, circulated the Elegy and finally arranged for the work's publication when unauthorized publication was imminent.38 Gray's hope for a "kindred spirit" nevertheless suggests that he needed as well as feared the responses of unknown readers to the epitaph that portrayed his retired life. The Elegy indeed provides a powerful metaphor for Gray's authorial relationship to the public. Like Herrick's epitaphs upon himself, which represent a vulnerable self to the world in a time of sociopolitical crisis, Gray's representation of himself as dead and dependent for his posthumous reputation on a sympathetic reader reveals his sense of the author as a vulnerable figure who confronts, at a distance, a public of strangers upon whose goodwill he must rely.
36 On Gray's love for Walpole, see Bruce Redford, The Converse of the Pen: Acts of Intimacy in the Eighteenth-Century Familiar Letter (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 100-107; on their subsequent relationship and its relevance to Gray's poetry, see Roger Lonsdale, "The Poetry of Thomas Gray: Versions of the Self," Proceedings of the British Academy 59 (1973):114, 118-119.
37 On Gray's ambivalence toward Walpole, see also Lonsdale, 118.
38 On the publication of the Elegy, see Lonsdale's discussion in Gray, 110-111.
In a poem about the dead, Gray's highly unusual term for his desired reader, "kindred spirit,"39 suggests not only a person who shares the sympathies of the deceased, but also one who is all spirit, one who has in some way transcended earthly existence and can therefore respond with the greatest sensitivity to the dead. The poet Anna Seward clearly registered the strange evocativeness of the term. In an epitaph upon a woman who died in 1781, Seward addresses the reader thus:
O, gentle Stranger! may one generous tearHere the "kindred Spirit" is the spirit of the deceased hovering near the tombstone. Seward's use of Gray's term to refer to the deceased rather than the living reader suggests the interchangeability of the living and the dead as imagined by both Gray and Seward. Seward invites only a certain kind of "stranger" to "greet" the deceased—a virtuous Christian whose spiritual values ensure sympathy with the dead. She hints that the "kindred Spirit" will truly appear only if the proper reader of faith and charity is present. Like other compositions of the period, Seward's epitaph imagines the living and the dead somehow communicating across the barrier of death. Such communication depends, however, upon the presence of a deeply sensitive reader, and Seward's question, like Gray's "If chance," emphasizes that one cannot be sure that such a reader will appear.41
Drop, as thou bendest o'er this hallow'd earth!
Are truth, and science, love, and pity thine,
With liberal charity and faith sincere?
Then rest thy wandering step beneath this shrine,
And greet a kindred Spirit hovering near!40
Gray's "If chance" clause and Seward's question are both restrained versions of an epitaphic formula that emerges in the mid eighteenth century concerning the ideal reader. The following two passages are representative:
Oh! if from early youth one friend you've lov'd,
Whom warm affection chose, and taste approv'd;
39 Lonsdale, who finds numerous verbal echoes in Gray's Elegy, finds no parallels for "kindred spirit."
40 Seward, "On Lady Miller," in Seward, 2:183.
41 Compare Robert Southey's 1796 inscription for the cenotaph of Rousseau at Ermenonville: "Stranger! ... / Here, if thy breast be full, / If in thine eye the tear devout shall gush, / His SPIRIT shall behold thee, to thine home / From hence returning, purified of heart" (Southey, The Minor Poems, 3 vols. [London, 1815], 2:115). The lines seem to suggest that Rousseau's "SPIRIT" will "behold" the stranger if, and only if, that stranger has the requisite sensibility to mourn the deceased.
If you have known what anguish rends the heart,A long clause or series of clauses characterizing the ideal reader of the epitaph, either interrogatives or conditionals beginning with "if": this rhetorical formula first emerges in epitaphs of the 1740s and is ubiquitous from about 1750 through the first two decades of the nineteenth century.43 Like the copious praise of the deceased's place in history that was popular in late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century epitaphs, the extended characterization of the ideal reader lengthens the epitaph and further separates it from its epigrammatic roots. Though some elements of the rhetorical formula may be found in earlier epitaphs, the long description of the ideal reader and the emphasis upon the uncertainty of his or her appearance is novel. Two Theocritean epitaphs ask
When such, so known, so lov'd, for ever part;
Approach!—For you the mourner rears this stone,
To sooth your sorrows, and record his own.
Reader, if youth should sparkle in thine eye,
If on thy cheek the flower of beauty flows;
Here shed the tear, and heave the pensive sigh,
Where beauty, youth, and innocence repose.
Doth wit adorn thy mind? doth science pour
Its ripen'd bounties on thy vernal year?
Behold where death has cropp'd the plenteous store,
And heave the sigh, and shed the pensive tear.42
42 More, "Inscription on a Cenotaph in a Garden...," in More, 312; and the epitaph upon Miss Thicknesse (no date) in Wright, Pleasing Melancholy, 181-182.
43 For some mid-eighteenth- to early nineteenth-century epitaphs, not cited elsewhere in my discussion, which have at least three lines demanding, either with a question or an "if" clause, whether the reader has the requisite qualities, see: Richard Rolt's epitaph upon Samuel Burt, d. 1751, in W. Toldervy, ed., Select Epitaphs, 2 vols. (London, 1755), 2:188-189; William Mason, "EPITAPH on Mrs. MASON ...," Gentleman's Magazine 18 (1778):598; "On a Lady" in Webb, New Select Collection, 1:126-127; "An EPITAPH" in [Robert Dodsley, ed.], A Collection of Poems, 6 vols. (London, 1766), 5:92-93; epitaph upon George Campion, d. 1774, in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Notes and Queries 2 (1894):125; epitaph upon Mr. Worth, d. 1779, in Caldwell, 51; epitaph upon Robert Lowth, d. 1787, in A Collection, 1:140; epitaph upon Miss Croft, d. 1789, in Nathaniel Frobisher (publisher), Frobisher's New Select Collection of Epitaphs: Humorous, Whimsical, Moral and Satyrical (London, c. 1790s), 201; "On a benevolent YOUNG LADY, aged Twenty-three" in Wright, Pleasing Melancholy, 104; epitaph upon John Danby, d. 1798, in Graham, 98; epitaph upon Sarah Fletcher, d. 1799, in The Oxford Book of Death, ed. D. J. Enright (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 326; Anna Seward's epitaph upon Rev. William Bagshot Stevens, d. 1800, in Seward, 2:194; "Designed for a Stone in the Church Yard of Haddington...," in A Select Collection of Epitaphs and Monumental Inscriptions, with Anecdotes (Ipswich, 1806), 62; epitaph upon Thomas Wakefield, d. 1806, in Richmond Parish Church; epitaph upon Mrs. Mary Franklin, d. 1811, in Graham, 102; More, "Reverend Mr. Penrose," in More, 307, and the undated epitaph upon a "young man" in Silvester Tissington, ed., A Collection of Epitaphs and Monumental Inscriptions... (London, 1857), 165-166. Several of Southey's (pseudo-inscriptional) "Inscriptions" of the 1790s use the conventional "if" clauses: see Southey, 2:109, 115-116, 121, 122, 127-128.
readers, if they are virtuous, to show reverence for the deceased (Greek Anthology 7.658, 13.3), but Greek compositions do not normally express, even so briefly, concern about their readers.44 A few Latin sepulchral inscriptions briefly single out those who, if they have the requisite humanity or have had a similar experience of loss, can mourn the deceased properly, but the brevity of these rare passages suggests little genuine anxiety concerning readers.45 Early seventeenth-century English epitaphs sometimes devote a line or couplet to castigating a reader who, if he is as "hard" as the tombstone, will not mourn or appreciate the deceased. The hyperbole of such attacks suggests little uncertainty concerning the assumed reader.46 Like the occasional classical inscription, some late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century English epitaphs use a brief "if" clause to describe the virtuous reader they wish to address.47 The restraint of the gesture still suggests little worry, however, about obtaining this reader.
With its long, hypothetical descriptions of the reader, the epitaph from the mid eighteenth through the early nineteenth century reveals, by contrast, a radical shift in the relationship between the living and the dead and the epitaph and its readers. The clause or clauses can postulate either a reader who could sympathize with the mourner that composed the inscription, or one who could truly grieve for the deceased. The precise qualities that the reader must have varies. In all cases, however, epitaphs that use the new formula focus less on what they teach the reader than on what the reader must already be, know, and feel in order to commune as a friend with the mourner or the deceased. By suggesting
44 It is suggestive that the two Theocritean epitaphs were probably first translated into English in the late eighteenth century; see Francis Fawkes, The Idylliums of Theocritus (London, 1767), 276-277, 280.
45 Thomas Warton's Inscriptionum Romanarum Metricarum Delectus (London, 1758), a collection of Roman inscriptions, includes a rare classical example of an "if" clause that evokes a properly humane reader: "Stay, traveler, and if you have any humanity, weep, / While you see my melancholy bones gathered together [here]" ("Hospes sta, et lacruma [sic], si quicquam humanitus [sic] in te est, / Ossua dum cernis consita maesta mihi"; ("Lesbiae ossa hic sita sunt" in The Poetical Works of the Late Thomas Warton, ed. Richard Mant, 2 vols. [Oxford, 1802], 2:351). The inscription clearly appealed to later eighteenth-century taste. For another Roman example, discovered in the nineteenth century, see Franciscus Buecheler, ed., Anthologia Latina, Pars Posterior: Carmina Latina Epigraphica (Leipzig: Teubner, 1895-1897), 2:456 (no. 988).
46 See, for example, the epitaphs upon Cecilia Bulstrode in The Complete Works of Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson, 11 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1925-1952), 8:371-372; Salomon Hext, d. 1606, in Le Neve, 4:13; Sir John Newdigate, Knight, d. 1610, in Harefield Parish Church; and Lucy Bromfield, d. 1618, in Ravenshaw, 62. Donne's brief evocation of the good reader in his epitaph upon Elizabeth Drury is a rare early seventeenth-century example of an "if" clause describing the desired reader.
47 See, for example, the epitaphs upon Marmaduke Carvox, d. 1665, and Thomas Rokeby, d. 1699, in Le Neve, 2:109-110, 204-205.
the possibility that the reader will not have the requisite qualities, such epitaphs express a new kind of pathos. In addition to the sorrow of death and mourning, these epitaphs evoke, and seek to overcome, the additional pathos of the dead's possible neglect by the living or of mourners' possible emotional isolation in a society that ignores their loss.
The new epitaphic style both reflects and reflects upon the changing nature of the reading public. Noting the growing "call for fellow-feeling" in poetry of the later eighteenth century, Eric Rothstein suggests that poets simplified the responses they demanded in order to address a larger and less learned readership.48 While epitaphs reveal this striving for simple emotional responses, their avowed uncertainty concerning readers' reactions—despite such simplification—is equally striking and registers their anxiety concerning their increasingly diverse audience.49 Increased emphasis on the necessity of sincere feeling coupled with the intensified awareness of a heterogeneous public explain the epitaph's obsessive calls for proper readers: poets addressed themselves to a feeling few.50 Even when men and women composed inscriptions for their relatives or loved ones with no thought of publication, they imitated the many published epitaphs centering on the reader and adopted the period style's formula as the "natural" way of expressing their feelings toward the dead.
Epitaphic calls for an ideal reader parallel contemporary funerary monuments that challenge the spectator to feel the proper emotions. In the 1760s and 1770s, compositions become popular in which a group of mourners with diverse reactions surrounds an urn. The lack of any actual representation of the deceased, whose dust is hidden in the urn, reveals the necessary role of subjective feeling in evoking the dead and thus challenges the spectator to manifest the appropriate response.51 A
48 Eric Rothstein, Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Poetry, 1660-1780 (Boston: Routledge, 1981), 119-120.
49 For recent discussions of the ways in which an enlarged readership affected eighteenth-century literary production, see Alvin Kernan, Samuel Johnson and the Impact of Print (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), 62-70 and passim; and, with particular reference to the rise of the novel, J. Paul Hunter, " 'The Young, the Ignorant, and the Idle': Some Notes on Readers and the Beginnings of the English Novel," in Anticipations of the Enlightenment in England, France, and Germany, ed. Alan Charles Kors and Paul J. Korshin (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987), 259-282.
50 For discussions of the ways in which eighteenth-century texts thematize the problematic relationship between authors and readers, see Bertrand H. Bronson, "Strange Relations: The Author and His Audience," in his Facets of the Enlightenment: Studies in English Literature and Its Contexts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), 298-325; Sitter, passim; and, with reference to the novel, J. Paul Hunter, "Novels and 'the Novel': The Poetics of Embarrassment," MP 85 (1988):480-498, which discusses novelists' self-conscious engagement with a readership diverse in its social, educational, political, and religious background.
51 Ronald Paulson argues that in the period 1760-1770 painting and sculpture, including funerary monuments, concentrated on "the pathetic response (among other responses) to [p. 331] a center of emptiness and/or transcendence"; see his "The Aesthetics of Mourning," in Studies in Eighteenth-Century British Art and Aesthetics, ed. Ralph Cohen (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 148-181; the quotation summarizing his argument is on p. 166. (I unfortunately saw too late to take into account the expanded version of this essay in Ronald Paulson, Breaking and Remaking: Aesthetic Practice in England, 1700-1822 [New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1989], 203-245.) See also the discussion of mourning figures in late eighteenth-century monuments in David Irwin, "Sentiment and Antiquity: European Tombs, 1750-1830," in Mirrors of Mortality: Studies in the Social History of Death, ed. Joachim Whalley (New York: St. Martin's, 1981), 136-137, 148-150.
funerary form ubiquitous from the 1780s to the middle of the nineteenth century consists of a woman mourning over an urn. Though she sometimes represents an actual widow or other female relative of the deceased, the woman also personifies grief, the emotion the spectator should feel confronting the urn whose intense inner significance only the sensitive can appreciate.52
The new monumental style challenged the spectator to display proper sensitivity toward the dead during the very period when the public to whom funerary monuments appealed was becoming larger and more socially diverse. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, more and more middle-class patrons acquired monuments. While costly and elaborate allegorical monuments declined, smaller and simpler monuments sharply rose in popularity. By depicting grief in an emotionally direct, easily comprehensible fashion, the woman mourning over an urn appealed to the taste and pocketbooks of numerous patrons. The motif was extensively reproduced in monuments of every scale.53 The gender-specific depiction of grief as a mourning woman underscores, however, the problematic relationship between the dead and the public. Increasingly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, upper- and middle-class women were confined to the family and home and consequently participated only in the domestic aspects of mourning. While they were discouraged from attending funerals because they were deemed too sensitive to bear the public ritual, they were expected to remain in secluded mourning for long periods.54 The woman mourning over an urn thus suggests that the truest mourning is deeply private. Publicizing deeply personal sorrow, the mourning woman challenges the sensitive spectator somehow to enter into the intimacy of private grief. Whether such a feeling spectator will be forthcoming is as uncertain as the appearance of the "kindred spirit" in Gray's Elegy.
52 On the rise of this form, see Nicholas Penny, Church Monuments in Romantic England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), 67-70; and Margaret Whinney, Sculpture in Britain: 1530 to 1830 (Baltimore: Penguin, 1964), 155-156. Penny notes that one often cannot identify the grieving woman as a relative of the deceased.
53 See Whinney, 155-156.
54 See Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 408-410.
With the gradual deterioration of the paternalist social hierarchy and
the growth of capitalist relations beginning around the middle of the
eighteenth century, the upper and middle classes began to view the lower
orders as a distant, independent, and sometimes dangerously discontented
"other."1 The social elite increasingly treated the humble churchyard
graves and inscriptions of their social inferiors as alien but
important forms of cultural production. In various ways members of
the privileged classes sought to bridge the sociocultural gap that they
perceived in funerary practices: they chose burial in the churchyard
rather than the church interior to assert their sympathetic connection
to the poor; they admired and collected the epitaphs of the humble;
and they sought to "improve" the lower orders' literary efforts by providing
them with "correct" epitaphic models.
Praising Honest Creatures:
Paternalist Commemoration from the
Mid Eighteenth to the Early
While Pope displayed his unique sensibility by commemorating persons society would otherwise have misinterpreted or forgotten, from the mid eighteenth century onward numerous members of the elite displayed their benevolence by memorializing humble creatures whom society would otherwise have wholly ignored. It became fashionable for
1 On the widening social and cultural gap between the upper and middle ranks and the poor around the middle of the eighteenth century, see Ralph Malcolmson, Popular Recreations in English Society, 1700-1850 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), 89-171; Ralph Malcolmson, Life and Labour in England, 1700-1780 (New York: St. Martin's, 1981), 146-153; and E. P. Thompson, "Patrician Society, Plebeian Culture," Journal of Social History 7 (1974):382-405.
the privileged to compose epitaphs upon their laborers, domestic servants, and pets. Paternalist epitaphs upon the lower classes, or upon pets that could represent the lower classes, nostalgically reaffirmed the affective bond between the ostensibly benign elite and the supposedly contented lower orders. Such epitaphs suggested that the lowly at their most vulnerable—in death—could depend upon their social superiors for rescue from oblivion.
The cult of feeling manifested itself in very different ways in epitaphs upon the "great" and in epitaphs upon the lowly. While the former increasingly consisted of personal laments for irreplaceable individuals and extended pleas for the sympathetic response of strangers, the latter redeployed brief, impersonal panegyric rhetoric in order to commemorate the simple, generic virtues of the lowly. The humble thus became vehicles for affirming supposedly common, uncontested social values. Because of their crucial ideological function, epitaphs upon the lowly were widely published and quickly became highly conventional. While their formulaic quality seemed to demonstrate the social elite's conceptual mastery over potential challenges to its cultural hegemony, it also contributed to poets' growing sense of the epitaph as a hollow, subliterary genre.
Gray's Elegy is an early and influential example of the new concern for the laboring poor, a hitherto neglected group of the dead. The poem contrasts the church monuments of the elite and the humble churchyard tombstones of the poor: on the one hand, the church's "storied urn[s]" and "animated bust[s]" (l. 41) and, on the other, the "frail memorial[s]" (l. 78) placed among the "rugged elms" and "yew-tree's shade" (l. 13) and decked with "shapeless sculpture" (l. 79) and inscriptions by the "unlettered muse" (l. 81).2 Pope's "Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady" may have suggested Gray's contrast between two kinds of commemoration, one associated with elite art and the other with "humble" nature. Both Pope's and Gray's poems explore society's differential treatment of the dead, and both embrace the cause of the outcast—Pope's condemned suicide, Gray's disdained poor—to attack the "proud" ("Elegy to the Memory," l. 43, Elegy, l. 37).3 While Pope affirms the dignity of a unique, fictional character, however, Gray affirms the moral worth of an entire social group.
Gray distinguishes between great and poor not only in terms of art
2 I cite the text of Gray's Elegy in The Poems of Thomas Gray, William Collins, and Oliver Goldsmith, ed. Roger Lonsdale (London: Longmans, 1969), 117-140.
3 F. W. Bateson suggests that Pope's "Elegy" was the major model for Gray's Elegy as an attack on the "proud" in "Gray's 'Elegy' Reconsidered," in his English Poetry: A Critical Introduction, rev. ed. (London: Longmans, 1966), 131-132.
and nature but also in terms of silence and sound.4 The contrast is here paradoxical. The commemorative art of the elite, for all its noisy claims, cannot overcome the silence of death:
Can storied urn or animated bustBy contrast, the churchyard monuments of the poor, who in life "kept the noiseless tenor of their way" (l. 76), make the poet hear the cries of the dead for recognition:
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour's voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flattery soothe the dull cold ear of Death?
Yet even these bones from insult to protect,Gray hears the humble churchyard monuments "implore" the sympathetic stranger's attention. He suggests that the desire for remembrance shared by rich and poor is best expressed by the latter because their artless monuments in the natural landscape most authentically articulate, for those willing to listen, the "voice of nature" in all its humble neediness. By being so near the silence of death, the poor's obscure lives of "noiseless tenor" reveal what the social elite attempt to forget, the closeness of all mortals to death. By their evident vulnerability to contempt or neglect,
Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture decked,
Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.
Their name, their years, spelt by the unlettered muse,
The place of fame and elegy supply:
And many a holy text around she strews,
That teach the rustic moralist to die.
For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
This pleasing anxious being e'er resigned,
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
Nor cast one longing lingering look behind?
On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
Ev'n from the tomb the voice of nature cries,
Ev'n in our ashes live their wonted fires.
4 For other discussions of sound and silence in the Elegy, see Bateson, 133; Peter M. Sacks, The English Elegy: Studies in the Genre from Spenser to Yeats (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 134-136; and George T. Wright, "Stillness and the Argument of Gray's Elegy," MP 74 (1977):381-389.
the poor's "frail memorial[s]" similarly lay bare what the social elite's grand monuments attempt to hide, the weakness of all mortal attempts to escape oblivion. Those who are most silent in life are thus the most expressive in death.
Gray's meditation upon the universal desire for posthumous recognition may be contrasted with such a classical treatment of the same subject as Cicero's in the Tusculan Disputations:
The begetting of children, the prolongation of a name ... the very burial monuments, the epitaphs—what meaning have they except that we are thinking of the future as well as the present? ... somehow it comes about that there is in men's minds a sort of deeply rooted presentiment of future ages, and this feeling is strongest and most evident in men of the greatest genius and the loftiest spirit. ... So far, I am speaking of statesmen, but what of poets? Have they no wish to become famous after death? ... But if universal agreement is the voice of nature [Quod si omnium consensus naturae vox est], and all throughout the world agree that there is something appertaining to those who have passed away from life, we too are bound to hold the same opinion; and if we think that spirits of outstanding ability or moral worth have the clearest insight into the meaning of nature [vim naturae], because they are blest with the highest nature [natura optima], then, inasmuch as all the best characters do most service for posterity, the probability is that there is something of which they will have sensation after death.5Cicero argues that the "voice of nature" (naturae vox) or "universal agreement" pronounces the human spirit immortal. Like Gray, Cicero treats monuments and epitaphs as signs of the universal human desire for remembrance, a desire that seems to presuppose human immortality and the consequent ability to enjoy posthumous fame. Following Plato's Symposium (208c-209e), however, Cicero discerns a hierarchy in the human striving for remembrance: though all human beings desire to be remembered, only men of the "highest nature," such as the great statesmen and poets, actively seek fame in the noblest ways and thereby best reveal the human desire for remembrance.6 While Gray's Elegy recalls
5 "Quid procreatio liberorum, quid propagatio nominis ... quid ipsa sepulcrorum monumenta, elogia significant nisi nos futura etiam cogitare? ... sed nescio quo modo inhaeret in mentibus quasi saeclorum quoddam augurium futurorum, idque in maximis ingeniis altissimisque animis et exsistit maxime et apparet facillime.... Loquor de principibus: quid poëtae? nonne post mortem nobilitari volunt? ... Quod si omnium consensus naturae vox est omnesque, qui ubique sunt, consentiunt esse aliquid quod ad eos pertineat, qui vita cesserint, nobis quoque idem existimandum est et si, quorum aut ingenio aut virtute animus excellit, eos arbitramur, quia natura optima sint, cernere naturae vim maxime, veri simile est, cum optimus quisque maxime posteritati serviat, esse aliquid, cuius is post mortem sensum sit habiturus" (Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 1.14.31-1.15.35).
6 For several other Ciceronian passages arguing that great men's desire for posthumous fame is proof of man's immortality, see De senectute 23.82 and the list of parallels in J. G. F. Powell, ed., Cato Maior: De senectute (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 261.
the classical notion of the universal need to be remembered, the poet pointedly relocates the naturae vox. Instead of among men of the "highest nature," he hears the "voice of nature" most clearly among the lowly who cry out from their churchyard graves.7
Gray makes clear his revision of classical conceptions of immortality by suggesting a connection between the buried villagers and great men of the sort singled out by Cicero, those who consciously pursue immortality because they possess the "highest nature." Between his attack on proud church monuments and his sympathetic response to humble churchyard gravestones, he reflects on the unrealized potential for fame of those buried in the churchyard:
Perhaps in this neglected spot is laidBy suggesting that the villagers may have had the heroic capacities and genius of great statesmen and poets, the kind of men Cicero commended, Gray defends the worth of those whose social position denied them both the glory and the guilt of public achievement. Gray's ensuing meditation upon the "voice of nature" and "wonted fires" (l. [91,] 92) of the dead further suggests that the poor achieve in death what they could not in life: those who in life had only potential "voice" ("Some mute inglorious Milton") and "celestial fire" attain in death a voice and fire deserving the sympathetic attention of the living.8
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands that the rod of empire might have swayed,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.
. . . . .
Some village-Hampden that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood.
(ll. 45-48, 57-60)
Like Pope's benevolent commemorations of the vulnerable dead, Gray's elegiac focus on the churchyard inhabitants contributes to the poet's memorializing portrait of himself as a man whose sentiments transcend the unfeeling norms of polite society. By imagining his own burial
7 Gray certainly knew the Tusculan Disputations: he paraphrases a passage from the work (5.3) in a January 1747 letter to Walpole; see The Correspondence of Thomas Gray, ed. Paget Toynbee and Leonard Whibley, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1935), 1:262-263.
8 In the earlier version of the poem preserved in the Eton manuscript, "Hampden" was "Cato," "Milton" was "Tully," and "Cromwell" was "Caesar" (see Gray, 127-128, notes 57, 59, and 60). Gray wished to give the poem a greater English flavor, but the earlier version's Roman references, including the reference to Cicero, make clear that Gray invokes classical values in order to reject classical elitism.
and monument in the churchyard, Gray links himself in death to the poor whose worth he defends against the "proud." It is true that unlike the poor, he is commemorated not by name and the formulaic pieties of an "unlettered muse" but instead by an anonymous poetic epitaph that reveals his unique sensibility far better than could any name or formula. Nevertheless his churchyard epitaph, like theirs, authentically, expresses the vulnerability of mortal men through its self-conscious humility: the epitaph that declares the "frailties" of an "unknown youth" who humbly "lies upon the lap of earth" awaiting the sympathetic response of the "kindred spirit" is the poet's self-chosen analogue to the rustics' "frail" churchyard monuments and inscriptions.
By treating the buried poor as the truest representatives of all the vulnerable dead, Gray makes explicit the association often implicit among his contemporaries of the poor with the dead as groups all too frequently neglected by society. Such an association is evident in the work of the influential moral philosopher and economist Adam Smith. In both The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), one of the most popular expositions of "sentimental" morality, and his classic treatise on economics, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), Smith argues that a free market economy, which relies on humanity's "natural selfishness and rapacity" rather than on its "benevolence," produces extreme economic inequality but increases the wealth of all.9 The Theory of Moral Sentiments qualifies the approval of "commercial society," however, by suggesting that such a society depends upon a disregard for the poor that renders their lot akin to death.10
Smith's ethical treatise argues that "sympathy" or "fellow feeling" depends on imagining oneself in the situation of those with whom one sympathizes.11 Because human beings find it far easier to sympathize with others' joys than with others' sorrows,12 they sympathize more readily with the rich and powerful than with the poor and powerless.
9 See Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie, corr. ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1979), 184-185; and Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. R. H. Campbell and A. S. Skinner; textual ed. W. B. Todd, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1976), 1:26-27. On the popularity and influence of Smith's ethical treatise, see Brissenden, 36-37.
10 My discussion of Smith's ambivalent attitude toward "commercial society" is indebted to Istvan Hont and Michael Ignatieff, "Needs and Justice in the 'Wealth of Nations': An Introductory Essay," in their anthology Wealth and Virtue: The Shaping of Political Economy in the Scottish Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 1-44. On Smith's concern for the conditions of the poor, see also Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age (New York: Vintage, 1983), 42-63.
11 Smith, Theory, 9.
12 See Smith, Theory, 47. On Smith's concern with the limits of human sympathy, see also David Marshall, The Figure of Theater: Shaftesbury, Defoe, Adam Smith, and George Eliot (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 167-192.
People scramble for wealth and station in order to be "taken notice of with sympathy."13 Though moralists rightly urge the fortunate to show "fellow feeling" for the poor,14 the poor are normally despised or "overlooked."15
The dead are also vulnerable to disregard. Though the opening chapter of the moral treatise argues that human beings "sympathize even with the dead," such sympathy largely depends, paradoxically, upon the living's neglect of the deceased:
It is miserable, we think, to be deprived of the light of the sun; to be shut out from life and conversation; to be laid in the cold grave ... to be no more thought of in this world, but to be obliterated, in a little time, from the affections, and almost from the memory, of ... dearest friends and relations. Surely, we imagine, we can never feel too much for those who have suffered so dreadful a calamity. The tribute of our fellow-feeling seems doubly due to them now, when they are in danger of being forgot by every body; and, by the vain honours which we pay to their memory, we endeavour, for our own misery, artificially to keep alive our melancholy remembrance of their misfortune.16The notion that "dearest friends and relations" soon grow emotionally distant from the dead exemplifies in extreme form the eighteenth-century social elite's sense of the living's disregard for the deceased. While many of his contemporaries suggest that only intimates truly care about the dead, who are forgotten by society as a whole, Smith suggests that not even intimates care deeply about the deceased. Since Smith later defines "affection" as "habitual sympathy,"17 his assertion that the living "sympathize" with the dead because they pity them for being "obliterated ... from the affections" of intimates means that such sympathy is only a second-order, compensatory response to the lack of "habitual sympathy." By means of "vain honours" such as monuments and epitaphs, the living "artificially" remember the "misfortune" of those whom they are naturally inclined to forget because of their "dull sensibility to the afflictions of others."18
Smith's descriptions of the neglected poor recall his opening description of the dead: the poor are deprived of the "daylight of honour and approbation," just as the dead are "deprived of the light of the sun"; the poor man is "out of the sight of mankind" and "in the midst of a crowd is in the same obscurity as if shut up in his own hovel," just as
the dead are "shut out from life and conversation ... in the cold grave."19 Smith's other writings similarly describe the poor's lot as akin to death: his 1763 lectures on jurisprudence note that the poor man is "buried in obscurity" and "thrust down into the lowest part of the earth";20 in one of its bleaker moments, The Wealth of Nations describes the urban poor "sunk in obscurity and darkness."21 Smith's ethical treatise notes, however, that the upper classes regard the poor's condition as even "worse than death,"22 and their state is indeed worse in Smith's view, for the poor generally evoke no second-order sympathetic response from their fellow men. To sympathize with the deceased poor would therefore be, in Smith's scheme, to sympathize with those who are doubly forgotten in the general pursuit and admiration of wealth and power. With the widening gap between rich and poor beginning in the mid eighteenth century, however, members of the social elite increasingly reassert their bond with the poor by displaying precisely such sympathy.
Over the course of the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, for example, the upper and middle classes increasingly chose churchyard burial, like Gray in the Elegy, as a sentimental assertion of their ultimate kinship to the churchyard poor. This new trend represented a major shift in conceptions of churchyard burial. During the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, fears of mixing worship of the living God with worship of the dead resulted in a minority of the Protestant elite, especially those of the Puritan faction, cho[o]sing churchyard burial despite the prestige of church burial and commemoration.23 In the late seventeenth century the percentage of the social elite buried in the churchyard rose considerably.24 Though the crowding of churches with bodies and monuments was partially responsible for the increasing use of the
19 Smith, Theory, 51.
20 Adam Smith, Lectures on Jurisprudence, ed. R. L. Meek, D. D. Raphael, and P. G. Stein (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 341.
21 Smith, Wealth, 2:795.
22 Smith, Theory, 50.
23 Philippe Ariès notes without adequately explaining the churchyard burials of members of the elite in England in The Hour of Our Death, trans. Helen Weaver (New York: Random, 1982), 90-92. For examples of Puritan ministers who chose churchyard burial in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, see Patrick Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 370-371; and R. C. Richardson, Puritanism in North-West England: A Regional Study of the Diocese of Chester to 1642 (Manchester: Manchester University Press; Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1972), 30.
24 See Ariès, 338-339; and Clare Gittings, Death, Burial and the Individual in Early Modern England (London: Croom Helm, 1984), 139-141 and 145-146. John Le Neve's anthology of epitaphs upon the elite, Monumenta Anglicana: Being Inscriptions on the Monuments of several Eminent Persons ... 1600-1715, 5 vols. (London, 1718-1719), reveals a rise in the percentage of churchyard inscriptions beginning in the second half of the seventeenth century: there are 10 churchyard inscriptions out of total of 454, around 2 percent, for the years 1600-1649; 20 such inscriptions out of 818, almost 2.5 percent, for the years [p. 360] 1650-1679; 30 out of 515, almost 6 percent, for the years 1680-1699; and 31 out of 347, almost 9 percent, for the years 1700-1715.
churchyard, more men and women than ever before chose to be buried in the churchyard out of religious conviction that the dead should be separated from the living. Sir Matthew Hale, who died in 1676, expressed the views of many of his contemporaries when he claimed that "churches were for the living ... Churchyards for the dead."25 In addition to increasing the popularity of the plain wall tablet, the iconoclasm of the Civil Wars dissuaded some of the social elite from continuing burial practices that were at best divisive and at worst temptations to idolatry.
The religious scruples of the elite did not prevent them, however, from asserting social distinctions in death. Some families distinguished between the churchyard as the appropriate burial place and the church as the site of monuments expressing enduring social status: a family who in the 1690s buried a gentlewoman in the churchyard "by her own appointment" also erected a cenotaph to her memory in the church, thus affirming her status and their own.26 In the late seventeenth century those who chose churchyard burial also began erecting substantial churchyard monuments, in imitation of the church monuments they had forsaken.27
Gray's contrast between church and churchyard in terms of social class and the distinction between art and nature both exemplifies and influences the new eighteenth-century sense of the distinction between indoor and outdoor commemoration. Increasingly, the upper and middle ranks chose simpler, outdoor memorials not out of specifically religious scruples but out of a desire to assert in death their links to "simple" nature and to the socially humble, who were deemed closest to nature. Both the private gardens of the social elite and the public churchyards reveal this new cult of natural simplicity. William Shenstone's garden at Leasowes, for example, had urns dedicated to friends absent or dead with inscriptions that honored the person's simplicity and love of nature.28
25 Quoted in Samuel Clarke, The Lives of Sundry Eminent Persons in this Later Age (London, 1683), 130. In 1692, an Oxfordshire gentleman, Griffith Higgs, "meekly" chose to be buried outside near the church door because he "fear'd" church burial; see F. N. Davis, ed., "Anthony à Wood's and Richard Rawlinson's Parochial Collections (Third Part)," Oxfordshire Record Society 11 (1929):275-276. Protestants of all religious persuasions increasingly rejected church burial: Gittings cites the similar sentiments of the Low Church bishop Hall and the High Church, non-juror archbishop Sancroft (p. 141).
26 See the epitaph of Bridget Wilford, d. 1692, in Le Neve, 3:137.
27 Thomas Parnell's "A Night-Piece on Death," published posthumously in 1722, describes the proudly ascending churchyard monuments that "Adorn the rich, or Praise the great" (l. 44); see The New Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century Verse, ed. Roger Lonsdale (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 117.
28 See The Poetical Works of William Shenstone, ed. Rev. George Gilfillan (1854; rpt., New York: Greenwood Press, 1968), 274, 278-281; and the discussion of Shenstone's inscriptions [p. 361] in Richard A. Etlin, The Architecture of Death: The Transformation of the Cemetery in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1984), 176-184.
Shenstone chose to be buried and commemorated in the local churchyard, and his 1771 epitaph by Richard Graves, cited earlier for its address to the reader, contrasted his "simple urn" with the "monumental bust, / Or sumptuous tomb" typical of the "great."29 Some echoed Gray's Elegy to suggest the significance of churchyard burial: an epitaph upon a middle-class woman who died in 1779 praises the "frail memorial" of the deceased, placed amid the "rude branches" and "green sod" of the churchyard, as superior to "all the monuments of proudest art"; in a 1791 composition entitled "Epitaph on and by Himself in a Country Church-yard," a poet imagines his "poor clay" buried in lowly "sod" rather than in a church's "proud tomb"; in an early nineteenth-century churchyard epitaph, a grieving sister contrasts the "simple stone" that she erected to her brother, an army officer, with the "storied urn" and "monumental bust" (cf. Elegy, l. 41) of the proud.30
Some members of the eighteenth-century social elite made explicit their wish to be buried in the churchyard in order to assert, in death, their link to the poor. In 1740, for example, Lady Beatrice Webb chose, as her epitaph states, churchyard burial "in compassion for the poor."31 Goody Two-Shoes (1766) provides a fictional analogue for such a choice. In an early episode of the book, a local gentlewoman's elaborate church burial is described as an unwholesome "display [of] the Pride of the Living, or the Vanity of the Dead."32 Goody's monument stands at the end of the story in pointed contrast to such aristocratic pride, since the prosperous, benevolent heroine is commemorated in the churchyard where she was buried so that the poor can continue to "encounter" in their own milieu their middle-class friend.
During the late eighteenth century members of the social elite also began to take note of, and to provide models for, churchyard epitaphs upon the lower classes. Magazines printed correspondents' transcriptions and praise of humble churchyard inscriptions. Gray responded sympathetically to epitaphs that "teach the rustic moralist to die," and others
29 See [Richard Graves], "On an URN (now erecting) to the Memory of WILLIAM SHENSTONE, Esq. in Hales Owen Church-yard, Shropshire," Gentleman's Magazine 41 (1771):564.
30 Epitaph upon Mrs. Ann Cooper, d. 1779, in Frederick Teague Cansick, ed., A Collection of Curious and Interesting Epitaphs ... of Saint Pancras, Middlesex, 2 vols. (London, 1869), 1:59; Gentleman's Magazine 61 (1791):1047; and epitaph upon Archibald Septimus Hedge, d. 1805, in William Graham, ed., A Collection of Epitaphs and Monumental Inscriptions, Ancient and Modern (Carlisle, 1821), 177.
31 Cansick, 1:38.
32 Goody Two-Shoes, intro. Charles Welsh (1766; rpt., London, 1881), 47.
began to appreciate the piety of humble churchyard inscriptions.33 While over the course of the seventeenth century medieval memento mori formulae virtually disappeared from epitaphs upon the social elite, they continued to be inscribed upon modest churchyard gravestones; in 1793 George Wright praised an anonymous churchyard inscription that used such a formula as the most "suitable" epitaph for "rich or poor."34 The educated classes not only appreciated, however, but also sought to control the epitaphic compositions of the lower orders. The Methodist Arminian Magazine, which had a wide circulation among the middle and lower classes, often included model epitaphs and campaigned against both morally improper and grammatically incorrect inscriptions. In one issue readers were warned not to leave the composition of epitaphs "to illiterate Relations, Parish-Clerks, or Stone-Masons, to the great scandal of the Nation in general, and of Religion in particular."35 John Bowden's The Epitaph Writer (1791) was one of several anthologies designed specifically for "the Use of those Artists who write or engrave Epitaphs for the middle and lower Ranks of People." It contains brief, pious compositions deemed suitable for the most modest kinds of memorials, plain tombstones and wooden markers.36
Those who associated churchyard commemoration with the poor and provided models for their epitaphs often ignored the fact that the vast majority of the poor neither sought nor received memorials, however humble. The majority of churchyard memorials during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were not for laboring poor but for the more prosperous yeomen farmers, craftsmen, and tradesmen, whose brief gravestone inscriptions expressed Christian pieties or proclaimed the enduring value of their simple but dignified way of life.37 By contrast,
33 See, for example, the comments of an anonymous "tourist" upon his collection of churchyard epitaphs by "village poets" in Kentish Register 2 (1794):355-356; and the praise of a military private's churchyard epitaph, cited in support of Gray's claim that humble epitaphs "teach the rustic moralist to die," in Monthly Magazine and British Register 1 (1796):98-99.
34 George Wright, Pleasing Melancholy (London, 1793), 97. For a critique of such interest in humble churchyard pieties, see Charles Lamb's attack upon the "Such as I am, such you shall be" formula as one of "those impertinent and misbecoming familiarities, inscribed upon your ordinary tombstones," in his essay "New Year's Eve" (1821) in Elia and the Last Essays of Elia, ed. Jonathan Bate (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 35.
35 Arminian Magazine 7 (1784):564. On the circulation of the Arminian Magazine, see Louis Billington, "The Religious Periodical and Newspaper Press, 1770-1870," in The Press in English Society from the Seventeenth to the Nineteenth Centuries, ed. Michael Harris and Alan Lee (Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; London: Associated Universities Press, 1986), 115-116.
36 John Bowden, The Epitaph-Writer (1791), i. The early nineteenth-century Epitaphs for Country Church Yards (London, n.d.) is another anthology of brief, pious churchyard inscriptions intended for the humble. Both Wright's Pleasing Melancholy of 1793 and the anonymous Collection of 1806 also contain numerous inscriptions of this kind.
37 For discussion and examples of such epitaphs, see Frederick Burgess, English Churchyard [p. 363] Memorials (London: Lutterworth Press, 1963), 114, 229-241; Kenneth Lindley, Of Graves and Epitaphs (London: Hutchinson, 1965), 113-128; and Kenneth Lindley, Graves and Graveyards (London: Routledge, 1972), 50-59.
while many of the laboring poor wished for a "decent" funeral, far fewer felt the need for a material monument celebrating their way of life. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries many laborers joined groups known as "friendly societies," one of whose chief tasks was to provide funerals for their members. There were also burial societies devoted exclusively to this task.38 To the consternation of some upper-class reformers, such societies often provided very elaborate funeral ceremonies. If members had received less extravagant funerals, they could certainly have purchased modest monuments with brief inscriptions.39 The members of such groups desired, however, to reaffirm the community of relatives, friends, and neighbors in the face of death, and this intense focus on the local community did not encourage the erection of monuments with epitaphs addressed to the unknown passerby. Illiteracy, which remained high among the poor, especially in the countryside, further discouraged interest in epitaphs.40 A monument with an inscription clearly meant far less to an illiterate laborer and to his or her surviving family and friends than the show of communal respect at a funeral.
Ironically, however, during the same period in which authors such as Hervey and Mackenzie imagined the rejection of public epitaphs, focusing instead on the memories of a smaller community of "friends," other authors projected their concern with public commemoration onto the laboring poor. Assuming that all men desired public memorials, with self-conscious generosity they began publishing brief panegyric epitaphs upon the poor, for whom they also erected humble churchyard memorials.
38 On "friendly" and burial societies, see Gittings, 60-65; M. Dorothy George, London Life in the Eighteenth Century (1925; rpt., New York: Harper, 1964), 302-303, 399-400, n. 94; and Margaret D. Fuller, West Country Friendly Societies (Lingfield, Surrey: Oakwood Press for University of Reading, 1964), 83-87. Peter Linebaugh discusses the intense concern with "decent" burial—which normally meant, at a minimum, a Christian burial rite, a shroud, and a coffin—among condemned criminals and the sympathetic working-class crowds at Tyburn in "The Tyburn Riot against the Surgeons," in Albion's Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England, ed. Douglas Hay et al. (London: Penguin, 1975), 65-118.
39 In the early nineteenth century, funerals financed by burial societies were reported to cost as much as ten to fifteen pounds (George, 303); in the same period one could obtain a modest tombstone for a few pounds (Burgess, 271-281).
40 During the 1750s 63 to 64 percent of the women and about 40 percent of men were unable to sign their names; see R. S. Schofield, "Dimension of Illiteracy, 1750-1850," Explorations in Economic History 10 (1972/1973):445. Gray's Elegy itself acknowledges the widespread illiteracy of the rural poor by including the illiterate "swain" who beckons the "kindred spirit" to peruse Gray's gravestone epitaph because the stranger can read (l. 115). Gray's sympathetic response to the churchyard epitaphs does not bridge the gap between himself and such a "swain."
Such epitaphs clearly responded to increasing social unrest. The living conditions of much of the laboring poor deteriorated around the middle of the eighteenth century. Laborers lost their land to enclosures, were deprived of various customary rights, and experienced a decline in real wages. They expressed their discontent in rioting, particularly during the many harvest crises. The French Revolution further alarmed the English upper and middle classes, who feared that the laboring poor's discontent might lead to revolution at home. The social elite reacted to the suffering and discontent of the poor both with humanitarian attempts to improve their condition and with efforts to instill in them the "industry" and self-discipline that would supposedly alleviate their plight.41 While earlier in the century Pope displayed his benevolence by commemorating laborers who had been dramatically singled out in death by lightning, from the mid eighteenth century onward members of the elite commemorated laborers—some of them real, some imaginary—simply for being hardworking and contented. Such epitaphs offered models for imitation to those among the poor who were literate and reassuringly proved to the commemorators, if not to the poor themselves, the enduring bond of sentiment between high and low.
Some epitaphs upon contented laborers describe the peaceful "verdant" setting of their humble churchyard graves in order to suggest that the lot of the laborer, in death as in life, is part of the natural and beneficent order of things.42 Others extend the social range of the "honest" ideal in order to praise the "honest" labor of the hardworking poor. The opening and close of a brief epitaph upon "a Poor Labouring Man" is typical: "Honest, industrious, without guile or art, / His task performing with a cheerful heart ... / So pass'd his days; and, having done his best, / This honest, faithful poor man sunk to rest."43 One glimpses the harsher attitudes that underlie and necessitate such sentimentalization of "honest" labor in J. Arbuthnot's claim in 1773 that the enclosure of
41 On changing socioeconomic conditions and rural laborers' riots, see E. J. Hobsbawm and George Rudé, Captain Swing (New York: Random, 1968); on the attitude of the social elite to the conditions of the poor, see Daniel A. Baugh, "Poverty, Protestantism, and Political Economy: English Attitudes toward the Poor," in England's Rise to Greatness, 1660-1763, ed. Stephen B. Baxter, Clarke Library Professorship Publications, no. 7 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 63-108 (especially pp. 84-93); and Himmelfarb, 23-146.
42 See, for example, "In a Country Churchyard," in W. Toldervy, ed., Select Epitaphs, 2 vols. (London, 1755), 2:211; "On a Poor but truly Worthy MAN, aged Forty-three," in Wright, Pleasing Melancholy, 136-137; and "On a poor Labouring MAN, in a Church-yard, in Lincolnshire," in Wright, Pleasing Melancholy, 172-173.
43 A Collection, 1:179. For other epitaphs upon "honest" laborers not discussed in my text, see "An Epitaph on a poor honest Man," London Magazine 12 (1743):514; "On a poor Industrious HUSBANDMAN, in Yorkshire," in Wright, Pleasing Melancholy, 126; "On a truly pious woman...," in Wright, Pleasing Melancholy, 196; and the untitled quatrain upon a "poor ... honest man," in Graham, 132.
common lands was socially beneficial because common lands encouraged the poor's "idleness" and independence, whereas enclosure drove the poor to "honest industry" in the service of others, and in the argument of a "Kentish freeholder" in 1776 that the lower orders' response to "hard times" could only be "honest labour" and "patient resignation."44
It was not unusual for rural clergymen to compose epitaphs upon the "honest" members of their flock. Edward Young, for example, composed several epitaphs upon lowly parishioners, including a simple churchyard inscription of 1749 upon an "honest man" who had been "Industrious in low estate."45 In 1810 the Somerset rector John Skinner erected a churchyard tombstone to a day laborer with the following didactic inscription: "Here lieth James Britten / who was what every true Briton should be, / An honest, Good Man, / he died December 17, 1810. Aged 70. / Reader Mayest thou both live and die as he did."46 Skinner's diary suggests the motives behind such commemoration: he considered Britten a hardworking, contented, church-attending man, the very opposite of so many of Skinner's unruly parishioners.47 The epitaph provided a moral example to those humble members of the parish who could read simple English prose. Whatever the epitaph's efficacy as lesson, furthermore, Skinner could feel that as both a benevolent gentleman and a parish minister he had shown commendable respect for a virtuous man of low degree.48
44 J. Arbuthnot, An Inquiry into the Connection between the Present Price of Provisions and the Size of Farms (1773), 128, cited in K. D. M. Snell, Annals of the Labouring Poor: Social Change and Agrarian England, 1660-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 173; and Gentleman's Magazine 36 (1766):524.
45 Edward Young, "Epitaph at Welwyn, Hertfordshire," in his Poetical Works, intro. Rev. J. Mitford, 2 vols. (London: 1896), 2:193-194. Young also wrote epitaphs upon a servant, a cook, and a thresher; see Harold Forster, Edward Young: The Poet of the Night Thoughts, 1683-1765 (Alburgh Harleston, Norfolk: Erskine Press, 1986), 263.
46 John Skinner, Journal of a Somerset Rector, 1803-1834, ed. Howard and Peter Coombs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 59.
47 Skinner, 58.
48 One may contrast the plain, didactic English inscription upon Britten with the Latin inscription Skinner wrote two years later upon his wife, in which he bids "farewell" ("Vale") to his "dearest" ("charissima"); see Skinner, 72-73. While the Britten epitaph attempts to instruct the many, the epitaph upon Skiner's wife expresses personal feelings accessible only to the more educated few.
|Section||[Excerpt from Chapter 10 "Kindred Spirits": The Proper Reader in the Mid-Eighteenth- to Early Nineteenth-Century Epitaph]||p. |
|Section||[Excerpt from Chapter 11 Praising Honest Creatures: Paternalist Commemoration from the Mid Eighteenth to the Early Nineteenth Century]||p. |
|Digital Library ID:||ScJ_1991|
|Title:||The English poetic epitaph: commemoration and conflict from Jonson to Wordsworth [e-text excerpts]|
|Author:||Scodel, Joshua, 1958-|
Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press, 1991|
|Medium:||viii, 425p.: ill.; 24 cm|
|Holding Library:||English Faculty Library, University of Oxford|
|Shelfmark:||EFL Main Libr B 3.8<EPIT>|
|Notes:||34 pages (pp. 312-331, 352-365): OCR, proofreading, and markup by The Thomas Gray Archive, 13 - 16/07/2004.|
|Copyright of the |
|Copyright © 1991 Cornell University. Used by permission of the publisher, Cornell University Press.|
|Summary:||Arguing that the poetic epitaph's changing representations of the deceased are inseparable from changing relations among the living, Scodel's book situates the development of the English poetic epitaph from the seventeenth through the early nineteenth century within the central conflicts of English collective life. Combining discussion of broad historical trends with close analysis of works by the most original poets, Scodel examines how such writers as Jonson, Donne, Carew, Herrick, Marvell, Cowley, Dryden, Pope, Johnson, Gray, and Wordsworth transform generic conventions in order to create their individual epitaphic poetics. Chapters 8 through 11 examine the eighteenth-century epitaph, the excerpts reprinted here from chapters 10 and 11 discuss Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" in this context.|