Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Elegies Ending "Here": The Poetics of Epitaphic Closure (1)

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Elegies Ending "Here": The Poetics of Epitaphic Closure (1)

Article excerpt

You too will say: here--here here is my finishing line.

--Aleksander Wat

In sixteenth-century England, literature in the graveyard--epitaphs--became literature of the graveyard. That is, writing that began insistently "here," as inscriptions on tombstones, often appeared as citations within other texts. Epitaphs, or references to them, emerge with increasing frequency in a number of Tudor and Stuart discourses, arising in part as a textual response to the dissolution of Catholic memorial practices. Epitaphs are replaced, or re-cited, in a striking range of contexts, from Elizabeth I's first speech to Parliament (in which she avows her virginity with a proleptic tombstone inscription) to Sir Philip Sidney's Defence of Poesy (whose last word is an epitaph-less curse) to Shakespeare's Timon of Athens (where an apparently double epitaph has long been cause for editorial puzzlement). By the early seventeenth century, "epitaph" gets invoked figuratively, with no correlative text whatsoever (John Donne was particularly ingenious in his use of this word--he calls himself an epitaph in both "The Paradox" and "Nocturnall upon S. Lucies Day" [18, 9]).

I stick quite closely to the locative etymology (strictly, [writing] on a tomb) of the epitaph, treating it as a subgenre of the epigram. For the purposes of my argument, what counts as an "epitaph" must be either a text declared as such, or a text that invokes a spatial gesture towards the tombstone, most commonly employing the phrase "here lies." "Epitaphic," as a qualifier, is not sufficient to describe the many interesting, contiguous, yet nonetheless distinct forms of eulogy, epicede (funeral ode), famous last words, and so forth. Thus Raphael Holinshed's term "funeral epigram" might be one of the most appropriate descriptions of an epitaph along the dual dimensions of theme and mode that Gerard Genette offers for classifying genres (3.57). (2) Contemplating the apparently simple "here" of the epitaph necessarily entails contentious debates surrounding the presence or absence of substance in the early modern period (two notable instances include "Here is my body," (3) or, "'Tis here." / "'Tis here." / "'Tis gone." [Hamlet 1.123-24]). Despite the apparently grounded and immovable nature of the epitaphic here, this form becomes surprisingly amenable to transposition as we reach the end of the sixteenth century.

One kind of text in which the epitaph was frequently recited was the elegy. Ben Jonson's poem "On My First Son" is a paradigmatic instance, as the early, mournful address to the deceased child eventually shifts to a terminal epitaph, which announces "here doth lie / Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry" (48). Many such epitaphs were never inscribed, "with no intentions that they should ever come under the mason's chisel" (Moore 2). What, then, was the non-funerary function of epitaphs in these elegies? Closure is a typical response, yet the closure that the epitaph apparently provides for the elegy remains a subject for critical inquiry. This is especially the case if one considers the possibility that epitaphic closure became an early modern convention (if not an innovation) that marked a shift from medieval notions of time and composition via emerging patterns of textual quotation that are still recognizable to us today.


What remains most intriguing about the early modern epitaph (and has been heretofore "strangely neglected"--a familiar critical gesture (4)) is its re-citation. Thus I am primarily interested in examining the epitaph not as a generic tradition unto itself but rather as a citational move within a whole range of English Renaissance contexts. Most non-"poetic" epitaphs do not merit the close reading that we normally associate with great lyric poetry--in fact, there might be nothing more to read beyond the word "epitaph." But the placement of these epitaphs matters and is almost invariably significant. …

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