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Quoting Death in Early Modern England: The Poetics of Epitaphs Beyond the Tomb (review)

From: Parergon
Volume 26, Number 2, 2009
pp. 190-192 | 10.1353/pgn.0.0156

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It is Scott Newstok’s contention that the epitaph is more than a geographical marker indicating a burial plot and its occupant, conveying a variation of the message ‘here lies’. He explores implications of those words in his introductory discussion of the possibilities of ‘not here but “here”, “in quotation marks”’ (p. 1), and in the extension of ‘epitaph’ to refer not only to a grave marker but also to other writing. He includes those composed during their subjects’ lifetimes and epitaphs for fictional characters, and distinguishes them from elegies. The freedom with which the word is used is exemplified in John Donne’s designation of ‘himself as an epitaph’ (p. 9).

Newstok investigates more familiar associations in ‘Pointing to the “Graue Forme”’ (pp. 33–58), and presents definitions associating it with inscriptions on tombs (pp. 47–8), extending the discussion to consider the whereabouts of the epitaph and its purposes. As well as telling of the deceased, epitaphs gave the warning of memento mori, to inform the living of their inevitable fate. Martin Luther approved of ‘cemeteries that “would inspire devotion in those who go there”’ (p. 17). The idea of the epitaph can be taken further, and in his consideration of Tudor epitaphs, beginning with Malory’s for Arthur, Newstok notes Elizabeth I’s declaration of her intention to merit the inscription ‘Here lyes interr’d ELIZABETH | A virgin pure untill her Death’ (p. 66). Since her symbolic marriage to England would be disturbed by marriage or the naming of a successor, she made her life as queen a rehearsal of her death, in effect, a premortal epitaph, and a motif characterising her reign. In the event, those words were not in fact used on her tomb. Instructions left in wills, in which the testator prescribed the style of epitaph, omitting only the date of death, offer a less dramatic form of premortal epitaph.

Self-composed epitaphs and those for fictitious characters are paradoxical, and Newstok examines tensions they provoke, including the flattery that provoked the question: ‘Where are all the bad people buried?’ (p. 88). Accuracy cannot be expected to extend further than the geographical or monitory messages. Collections of epitaphs were made, and Newstok describes several, including those of John Stow (pp. 98–104), John Weever (pp. 104–6) and Sir John Mennes (pp. 106–8).

None could deny the warning of mortality, which Newstok designates ‘the Poetics of movere’. Many epitaphs stress that all who read their words must lose all life’s joys and follow the deceased to dust. From an account of the musical gifts of Amphion and Orpheus, and references to them in medieval and Renaissance literature, including those made by John Lydgate and Sir Philip Sidney, Newstok turns to epitaphs not inscribed, including those composed for Sidney, for whom no tomb was built.

It is but a short step to epitaphs cited in drama, beginning with those of passion plays, which have as their most dramatic aspect the absence of a body. Newstok explores the idea of sincerity ‘as the antithesis to hypocrisy’ (p. 142), relating this to the sentiments expressed in epitaphs, in particular to those in Renaissance plays. He contrasts memorial pronouncements of Shakespeare’s plays with the poet’s ‘own doggerel epitaph’ (p. 162), opining that Shakespeare expressed a shallow but sincere wish that his bones not be moved to a charnel house, whereas readers ‘yearn for a more profound sincerity’ (p. 163), when they attempt to read a deeper meaning into the lines.

Newstok admits his perversity in ‘delaying the most “literary analysis” until the conclusion’ (p. 169), in the last chapter (pp. 169–88), and preceding chapters seem intended to serve as very detailed background for this, a somewhat unbalanced ordering of material. The literary references include epitaphs for pet birds and medieval timor mortis poems, but, as in other chapters, it seems that critics gain more attention than the literature. One would prefer to read Newstok’s own thoughts rather than trace the threads he spins between references to criticism, since even the many copious footnotes he provides do not always make these connections convincing. The very last part of the book, ‘Epilogue: “Epitaph” for...

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