Subject Material

Poetry Project about Epitaphs

Published: 24.06.2014, Updated: 05.03.2017
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Here we suggest an in-depth project based on work by the two poets Edgar Lee Masters (1868 - 1950) and W. H. Auden (1907 - 1973). Masters is renowned for his collection of epitaphs in Spoon River Anthology (1915) and among Auden's extensive literary work, we find the poem "Epitaph On a Tyrant" (1940).

Epitaphs are texts written or performed to commemorate a deceased person, e.g. an inscription on a tombstone or a brief statement by which the dead person might be characterised.

Famous Epitaphs

Gammel grav på en kirkegård ved sjøenScottish tombstone epitaph"Consider, friend, as you pass by: As you are now, so once was I. As I am now, you too shall be. Prepare, therefore, to follow me."


KeatsThe English Poet John Keats "Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water"

 

Epitaph for the Unknown Soldier (written by W. H. Auden)

"To save your world you asked this man to die:
Would this man, could he see you now, ask why?"

 

The American poet Dorothy ParkerThe American poet Dorothy Parker "Excuse my dust."


Winston ChurchillSir Winston Churchill

"I am ready to meet my Maker.
Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter."

Competence Aims

If you read a selection of English language literature from the 1900s (e.g. the poems listed below) and choose to elaborate on a topic that is curricular in this Social Studies English course, you will combine these two aims.

  • tolke minst ett større skjønnlitterært verk og en film og et utvalg av annen engelskspråklig litteratur fra 1900-tallet og fram til i dag
  • presentere et større fordypningsarbeid med emne fra samfunnsfaglig engelsk og vurdere prosessen

(From the Teaching Plan in Social Studies English)

 A project should be an extensive work, and depending on your approach, you may also include other aims from the teaching plan.

Epitaphs

William Shakespeare Grave. photo.William Shakespeare's Grave  

The word epitaph is derived from Greek taphos meaning "tomb". In an epitaph we expect a short text crediting a dead person. It might be an inscription on their tombstone, or it might be used more figuratively. On some occasions the deceased has specified the epitaph in advance, or it is chosen by family and friends after the burial. As for style it might be in form of a verse with rhyme or it might be free verse without a fixed rhyme pattern. Literary devices such as alliteration, aphorisms, puns, allusions (especially to the Bible) and anagrams are commonly used.

Whereas the tradition of epitaphs goes back to ancient Greece, it became exceedingly popular for notable people in the Renaissance to have an epitaph, of which William Shakespeare's is a good example (picture above).

As for contents, what do we expect in an epitaph? While most list name, date of birth and death, some also record achievements. Others warn the living about the fact that they also are going to die one day (Memento Mori).

Edgar Lee Masters and W. H. Auden have both written epitaphs of fictional characters. Exactly how fictional they are, might be questioned, though. There is no question about the reality in their epitaphs. This reality is something that you can explore in the suggested project work.

 

Edgar Lee MastersEdgar Lee Masters

Edgar Lee Masters grew up in Lewistown, Illinois. The local churchyard, the residents and the nearby river, were sources of inspiration to his major work - Spoon River Anthology (1915).The anthology which comprises monologues from deceased townspeople, soon became one of the most notable poetry books in the history of American literature. Through the epitaphs Masters reveals the nature of 244 local small town citzens from all walks of life in contemporary America. The poems are delivered by the dead themselves in a free verse style. As one would expect, they talk about their past experiences and essential turning points in their lives, though most of them do not reveal how they really died. For once they can speak their minds, since they do not have to be afraid of the consequences any more - they are already dead.

The Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters

In the first poem in the anthology Masters introduces us to the cemetery (possibly inspired by the local churchyard - Oak Hill) and the major deceased characters.

"The Hill"
Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom and Charley,
The weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter?
All, all are sleeping on the hill.
One passed in a fever,
One was burned in a mine,
One was killed in a brawl,
One died in a jail,
One fell from a bridge toiling for children and wife—
All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.

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Where are Ella, Kate, Mag, Lizzie and Edith,
The tender heart, the simple soul, the loud, the proud, the happy one?
— All, all are sleeping on the hill.
One died in shameful child-birth,
One of a thwarted love,
One at the hands of a brute in a brothel,
One of a broken pride, in the search for heart’s desire;
One after life in far-away London and Paris Was brought to her little space by Ella and Kate and Mag
— All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.
Where are Uncle Isaac and Aunt Emily, And old Towny Kincaid and Sevigne Houghton,
And Major Walker who had talked With venerable men of the revolution?
— All, all are sleeping on the hill.
They brought them dead sons from the war,
And daughters whom life had crushed,
And their children fatherless, crying—
All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.
Where is Old Fiddler Jones Who played with life all his ninety years, Braving the sleet with bared breast,
Drinking, rioting, thinking neither of wife nor kin,
Nor gold, nor love, nor heaven?
Lo! he babbles of the fish-frys of long ago,
Of the horse-races of long ago at Clary’s Grove,
*Of what Abe Lincoln said
One time at Springfield.
(archive.org)

* What did Abraham Lincoln say to his fellow residents in Springfield, Illinois when he left for Washington for his inauguration? On February 11, 1861, he delivered this farewell address:

"My friends, no one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him who can go with me, and remain with you, and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell."

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You may access all the epitaphs in Spoon River Anthology here 

 

 

W. H. AudenW. H. Auden 

W. H. Auden was born in England, but later he moved to the USA. Many consider him to be one of the most notable, but also one of the most controversial writers of the 20th century. In his poetry he often explores the nature of love and religious, ethical and political themes. One of his poems, "Funeral Blues" ("Stop All the Clocks"), has been immortalized in the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral.
"Epitaph on a Tyrant" was dated January 1939, and there may be many allusions to contemporary tyrants, e.g. Franco, Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin.

 

 

 

 

 Epitaph on a Tyrant by W. H. Auden

The poem starts like this:

"Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,"

Read the poem here 

Suggested Topics

  • Social and cultural differences in epitaphs
  • Poetry as social commentary
  • Epitaphs as poetry
  • What we could learn from the dead
  • The messages in epitaphs
  • The choice and the potential of the epitaph form

Based on some of the Spoon River epitaphs (e.g. the ones represented by Margaret Fuller Slack, Trainor the druggist, Deacon Taylor, Amanda Barker and Mrs. Benjamin Painter or Elizabeth Childers) you may elaborate on:

  • Ethics
  • Turn-of-the-century America (19th/20th Century)
  • Gender issues
  • Life in small towns
  • The American Dream

Based on "Epitaph on a Tyrant" you may dwell on:

  • Dictators and tyrants
  • Wars and international conflicts
  • Democracy and freedom of expression

Resources

If you want to work further with the texts of W. H. Auden and Masters, it is a good idea to check online resources such as Shmoop, CliffsNotes and Sparknotes.