by James A. Tweedie

On my most recent visit to England in 2017, I paused to record a number of prominent grave monuments that included poetic tributes to the deceased. Here are the four I found most interesting from the standpoint of poetry. No doubt those of you who live in the British Isles (or elsewhere in the English-speaking world) know of many others which you would have chosen over these. Feel free to share any of your favorites in the comments. The spellings recorded below may seem like typos, but were acceptable renderings of the English language at the time they were written. Three of the four are written in 14 lines, suggesting they were intended as sonnets. The remaining poem (Berkeley—who died two years before Shakespeare) has 12 lines. All are composed in iambic pentameter with rhyming couplets. Three are from the early 17th century and one from the late 18th century. They reflect a time when poetry was more fully integrated into the culture than it is today.

As an aside, we know that Shakespeare’s plays were enjoyed by both the noble and the ignoble, but we cannot assume that common folks in Elizabethan England were literate enough to read and appreciate the words inscribed on these cathedral tombs. The Encyclopedia Britannica comments on this subject as follows: “A revolution in reading and writing was taking place, and by 1640 nearly 100 percent of the (English) gentry and merchant elements were literate. Wealth and literacy were directly related. Possibly 50 percent of the yeomanry but only 10 percent of the husbandry and none of the peasantry were able to read or write. Although literacy among townspeople was higher, the proportions relative to wealth still held true.”

I might add that, among the non-gentrified classes (c. 1640), whatever literacy there was among men was perhaps four to ten times higher than it was for women.

Where: Canterbury Cathedral
Who: Tomb of Robert B. Berkeley, died 1614

He that’s imprisond in the narrow roome
Wer’t not for custome, needs nor verse nor toombe
Nor can from theice a memorie be lent
To hm, who must be his toombs monument
And by the verture of his lasting fame
Must make his toombe live long not it his fame
For when this gaudie monument is gone
Children of th’unborne world shall spye ye stone
That covers him, and to their ffellowes crye
Tis here tis here about Barkley doth lye
To build his toombe then is not thought soe safe
Whose virtue must out live his epitaphe.

 

Where: Canterbury Cathedral
Who: Tomb of Thomas Thornhurst, killed in battle of Isle de Ré, July 17, 1627

Stay gentle reader pass not slightly by
This tombe is sacred to the memory
Of noble Thornhurst what he was & who
There is not roome enough in me to show
Nor his brave story out at length to explaine
Both Germanyes, the new found world & Spaine
Ostendes long seidge & Newfort battle tried
His worth, at last, warring with France he dyed
His blood sealed he last conquest for blacke Ree
Gave him at once a death and victory
His death as well as life victorious was
Fearing least Ree (as might be brought to pass)
By others might he lost in tyme to come
He tooke possession till the day of doome.

 

Where: Canterbury Cathedral
Who: “Sacred to the Memory of William Prude Esq: Lieftennant Coronell in the Belgick Warres. Slayne at ye Siege of Maxtitch (ie. Mastritch) the 12 of July 1632.”

Stand Soldiers; E’re you march (by way of chardge)
Take an Example here, that may inlarge
Your minds to noble Action. Here in Peace
Rests One, whose life was Warre, whose rich increase
Of Fame and Honour from his Valour grew;
Unbeg’d, unbought: For what he wonne he drew
By just deseart; having in servise beene
A Souldier, till neere Sixty from Sixteene
Years of his active life; continually
Feareles of death, yet still prepard to dye
In his religious thoughts: For midst all harmes
He bore as much of Pietie as Armes:
Now Soldiers On, and feare not to intrude
The gates of death by example of this PRUDE

 

Where: Exeter Cathedral
Who: “Near this Place Are deposited the mortal Remains Of LAURA, Wife of GEARGE FERDINAND LORD SOUTHAMPTON, And Second Daughter of the Honble And Rt. Revnt Of this Diocese. She departed this Life at Dawlish in this County June 10th, 1798..on the 34th Year Of her Age.”

Farewell, dear shade!—but let this marble tell
What heavenly worth in youth and beauty fell.
With every virtue blest, whate’er thy lot,
To charm a court, or dignify a cot.
In each relation shone thy varied life
Of daughter, sister, mother, friend, and wife.
Seen with delight in fortune’s golden ray,
Suffering remained to grace thy parting day;
When smiling languor spoke the candid soul,
And patience checked the sigh affection stole;
The gifts of Heaven in piety confest.
Calmly resigned, and every plaint supprest.
The consort’s faith, the parent’s tender care,
Point the last look, and breathe the dying prayer.

 

 


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12 Responses

  1. Leo Zoutewelle

    A very interesting contribution, James; I appreciate your sharing that with us!

    Reply
  2. Sally Cook

    Dear James –
    These are poignant poems which fly across the centuries to our eyes and ears. I read each of them aloud and was amazed to find how easy it was to understand each one.
    The British have a great tradition of literacy. Have you ever noticed in your own work to lean toward sonnets and especially,hose made up of rhymed couplets?
    I myself have a female ancestor whom King John locked up (and threw the key away) because she talked too much, and apparently about the inconvenient things. I fear this may be a genetic characteristic, so I’ll cut this short and let others have the floor.

    Reply
  3. Joseph S. Salemi

    Well, like most funerary inscriptions, they are hardly brilliant in any real poetic sense. They simply sing the praises of the departed. It should be noted that in every case, these are from the tombs of very affluent persons whose families could afford a sumptuous monument and the literary services of a paid eulogist.

    Interestingly enough, one can note the difference in the style of the last monument (to Laura, wife of Lord Southampton). The three earlier epitaphs are strongly 17th-century in style, spelling, and tone; and the first (to Berkeley) even has a whiff of the metaphysical manner about it. But Laura’s epitaph verse is pure 18th-century, with its personal, sentimental, and intimate portraiture. Thomas Gray, Alexander Pope, and Samuel Johnson had changed things.

    Reply
  4. Morgan Michaels

    The Greek and Latin epitaphs are shorter, pithier and freer from bombast.

    Reply
  5. Margaret Coats

    You might want to have the text of the last poem corrected. The third line ends, “they lot,” while the photo shows clearly that these words should be “thy lot.”

    Regarding literacy in England at Shakespeare’s time, the Protestant revolution had brought about a considerable decline. Earlier, boys and girls together might have received rudimentary instruction from a celibate village parson who had no immediate family, or from a chantry priest who was not occupied all day in religious duties, or even at a small local religious house (such as those first suppressed by Henry VIII). The situation was bleaker for girls, who could no longer hope to spend even a brief time in a convent, as many had done before. This may help explain the dismal literacy rate among women as well as among poorer men, but it is true as well that England had been inexplicably poor in nuns during the later Middle Ages (in contrast to most surrounding countries).

    For a tomb poem, I’ll quote one by American poet Henry Van Dyke (1852-1933), originally written “For Katrina’s Sundial.” The second part of it now appears on the Grosvenor monument in London to British victims of terrorist fanaticism on September 11, 2001.

    Hours fly,
    Flowers die;
    New days,
    New ways
    Pass by;
    Love stays.

    Time is
    Too slow for those who wait,
    Too swift for those who fear,
    Too long for those who grieve,
    Too short for those who rejoice,
    But for those who love,
    Time is not.

    Reply
  6. James A. Tweedie

    Margaret, I don’t want to enter a tedious debate, and I am not familiar with the impact that the reformation had on either education and/or literacy in England. I am, however, familiar with the impact of the Protestant reformation on education in Scotland, a summary of which is presented in an insightful article recently issued by the Moray House School of Education at the University of Edinburgh https://www.ed.ac.uk/education/about-us/maps-estates-history/history/part-one
    From which I paste an excerpt:

    Part 1: “Education Following the Reformation in Scotland”
    The Reformation had a significant impact on the development of education in Scotland.

    In August 1560 the Scottish Parliament approved a number of acts leading to Scotland becoming a Protestant country. The Reformed Scottish Church recognised that education had to be a national priority, both for its intrinsic worth but also to ensure everyone could read the Bible.

    John Knox in 1560 outlined a plan for ‘the vertue and godlie upbringing of the youth of this Realm’. Education for rich and poor alike was seen as a joint enterprise between the family, the school and the Kirk. His Book of Discipline provided an outline for the establishment of a national education scheme, which encompassed parish primary schools, burgh grammar schools, high schools and the ancient universities:

    “Therefore we judge it necessary that every several church have a schoolmaster appointed, such a one as is able, at least, to teach Grammar and the Latin tongue, if the town be of any reputation. If it be [rural] …… then must either the Reader or the Minister there appointed take care over the children and youth of the parish, to instruct them in their first rudiments, and especially in the Catechism …… And further, we think it expedient that in every notable town …… there be erected a [High School] in which the Arts, at least Logic and Rhetoric, together with the tongues, shall be read by sufficient masters, for whom honest stipends must be appointed. …… Lastly, the great schools called Universities shall be replenished with those apt for learning.”

    John Knox

    At first the achievement of this aim proved difficult because of Scotland’s relative poverty and the prevailing political circumstances, despite the continuing efforts of the Kirk. However, in 1696 the Scottish Parliament passed its ‘Act for Setting Schools’, whereby every parish not already equipped with a school was required to establish a schoolhouse and to provide for a schoolmaster.

    The Kirk had a central role in the supervision of such schools and in the appointment of the schoolmaster or dominie. From these early developments there grew a respect in Scotland for education and learning. From the 18th century onwards parish and burgh schools provided many Scots with a good standard of education leading to Scotland at this time having the highest standard of literacy of any European nation.

    Reply
  7. Joseph S. Salemi

    Knox was a vicious and seditious fanatic, just like his pal in Geneva, John Calvin.

    Reply
    • James A. Tweedie

      I shall not be baited into a pointless debate over Reformation history. Nor do I believe that the SCP is an appropriate venue to initiate an exchange of derogatory comments concerning those who took part in it. Those were, indeed, vicious and seditious days when the European alignment of the political, economic, and religious status quo was being challenged from many directions and for many different reasons. If you have spleen to vent, I invite you to contact me by email and vent it there.

      Reply
      • Joseph S. Salemi

        I neither baited you, nor made any comment that isn’t historically accurate.

  8. Margaret Coats

    James, I’m glad you mention education in Scotland, providing a great opportunity to quote a Scots poem related to the current topic of tomb poetry. It shows both literacy and extreme devotion to Bible reading in the Catholic Middle Ages. This is my modernization of some lines from Henry the Minstrel’s monument to the Scottish hero, William Wallace, unjustly executed by the English (here called “Southerns”) in 1305. Blind Harry does cite his sources, but even if he fictionalizes, he presents Wallace as acting in a way that fellow medieval Scots would recognize and admire.
    Wallace knew that he needed to make sacramental confession of bloodshed he had committed, even in a just war. That being done, this was his last request.

    A Psalter book had Wallace on him ever;
    From early childhood he had left it never.
    In wisdom he had always hoped to speed,
    But he was stripped of it with all his weed.
    This grace he asked Lord Clifford, noble knight,
    To let him have his Psalter book in sight.
    A priest then held it open to behold
    While they did unto him all that they would.
    Steadfast he read, as they his body tore;
    True Southerns said that naught to him felt sore.
    Good devotion so was his beginning,
    Which he sustained, and fair was thus his ending.
    With speech and spirit prayerful, all can soar
    To lasting bliss, we trust, forevermore.

    The Latin Psalter was the basic text for education in Catholic Europe. Wallace held on to the book that had taught him letters. Reading the Bible in his second native language sustained him through a barbaric death. Scottish Protestants (unlike modern secularists) inherited the Catholic perspective that education is good in itself. But as they prioritized the Bible in the vernacular, a new system of education was needed to support their new belief system. This is one thing behind the mistaken idea of medieval ignorance and upward progress since Protestantism arrived. Trying to make progress, the Scots floundered for a while, then followed the English with the King James Bible for religion and Julius Caesar for Latin scholarship. Their classics are now scorned, while modern secularists battle over what readings will best support the latest belief system.

    Should you like old books enough to read more of Blind Harry on Wallace (in Lowland Scots!), I recommend “Poets and Poetry of Scotland,” Volume I, edited by James Grant Wilson and available at Internet Archive.

    Reply
    • James A. Tweedie

      Margaret, I did not anticipate that my posting of English tomb poetry would spin off into a discussion of the effects of the Reformation on literacy in England (and Scotland). I now regret responding to your opening comment by posting information related to post-reformation education in Scotland. The Reformation period was a tumultuous era that unraveled and re-raveled the spiritual, economic, political, and educational foundations of Western Europe. It was what it was and you and I and all the rest of us continue to be shaped and influenced by the fallout from those 16th & 17th-century conflicts and contentions. I, for one, am not inclined to either defend my Protestant forebears or introduce a negative critique of Roman Catholocism, then or now. And, as an admirer of the great contributions of the Middle Ages to art, architecture, music, literature, and theology, I do not number myself among those who subscribe to “the mistaken idea of medieval ignorance.” And I am not particularly inclined to debate whether “upward progress since Protestantism arrived” is a “mistaken idea” or not. As with most subjects presented in this matter, a definitive answer on which we can all agree is no doubt unattainable.

      Even so, I appreciate your poetic citation regarding the faith (and literacy) of William Wallace. He was a mighty warrior, a gallant leader of a proud people, and a well-educated man of refined manners who, for simply being Scottish, was considered a barbarian by the English.

      I also appreciate your spotting the typo in the final poem. If Evan is reading this he has my permission to change the word “they” to the word, “thy” in the third line.

      Reply
  9. C.B. Anderson

    James,

    I don’t wish to enter into the controversies raised above; I just want to thank you for reviving some nearly-lost examples of what might be called occasional verse. I’m sure that back in the day anyone with any literary aspirations would have been quite capable of writing a verse or two to grace a tombstone. This art has, for the most part, been lost, and I will immediately begin writing a suitable verse for my own epitaph.

    Reply

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