Epigraph

English Epigraphs

The student of English poetry must often have been struck by its richness in that form of verse which may best be called the Epigraph—the brief sententious effort, answering somewhat to the epigram as understood and practised by the Greeks, but unlike the Latin, French, and English epigram in being sentimental instead of witty, and aiming rather at all-round neatness than at pungency or point. Our language abounds, of course, in examples of short lyrical compositions, such (to name familiar instances) as Beaumont and Fletcher's ‘Lay a garland on my hearse,' Congreve's ‘False though she be to me and love,' Goldsmith's ‘When lovely woman stoops to folly,' Shelley's ‘Music, when soft voices die,' and MacDonald's ‘Alas, how easily things go wrong!'—all of these being only eight lines long. There are, indeed, plenty of lyrical performances even more brief than this; such as Mr. Marzials' ‘tragedy' in quatrain:

‘She reach'd a rosebud from the tree,
And bit the tip and threw it by;
My little rose, for you and me
The worst is over when we die!'

But, then, the epigraph is never lyrical. It belongs to the order of reflective poetry, and consists of a single thought, expressed with as much brevity and grace as possible. A common form of it is the epitaph; another is the inscription; while at other times the poets have used it for the purpose of enshrining some occasional or isolated utterance.

The thoroughly successful epitaphs—at once short, and wholly poetical in expression—are among the most famous and popular things in literature. Who does not remember the admirable tribute to ‘Sidney's sister, Pembroke's mother'—usually ascribed to Ben Jonson, but sometimes attributed to Browne? Jonson penned an epitaph on ‘Elizabeth L. H.,' which would have been exquisite had it consisted only of the following:

‘Underneath this stone doth lie
As much beauty as could die;
Which, in life, did harbour give
To more virtue than doth live.'

Even as they stand, the lines, as a whole, may fairly compare with those on Lady Pembroke. How happy Pope was in his epitaphs is familiarly known. The art was just that in which he might naturally be expected to excel. The time-honoured couplet on Newton need not be quoted: the ‘octave' on Sir Godfrey Kneller is most notable for the final bit of hyperbole:

‘Living, great Nature fear'd he might outvie
Her works, and, dying, fears herself may die.'

And, talking of epitaphs, one is reminded of the quaint comment by Sir Henry Wotton ‘On the Death of Sir A. Morton's Wife':

‘He first deceased; she, for a little, tried
To live without him, liked it not, and died'—

surely a piece of work as nearly as possible perfect in its way. In the matter of inscriptions, we have, of course, that by Ben Jonson on Shakespeare's portrait, and that by Dryden under Milton's picture—the last-named being by no means deserving of its reputation. We have also the well-known lines by Pope, ‘written on glass with Lord Chesterfield's diamond pencil;' the equally well-known sentence on Rogers by Lord Holland; and the less-hackneyed and even more flattering couplet composed by Lord Lyttelton for Lady Suffolk's bust (erected in a wood at Stowe):

‘Her wit and beauty for a Court were made,
But truth and goodness fit her for a shade.'

 

The writers of verse have naturally shone in such concentrated testimonies to the merits of those whom they delighted to honour. Our literature is full of eloquent and graceful summaries of individual gifts and acquirements, apart altogether from the ordinary inscription or epitaph. Pope celebrated Lady Wortley Montagu's beauty in a couple of lines too frequently cited to need reproduction. Less often quoted is David Graham's concise but sufficient criticism on Richardson's ‘Clarissa':

‘This work is Nature's; every tittle in't
She wrote, and gave it Richardson to print.'

James Montgomery, in a well-turned quatrain, said of Burns that he ‘pass'd through life ... a brilliant trembling northern light,' but that ‘thro' years to come' he would shine from far ‘a fix'd unsetting polar star.' It will be remembered that, in another quatrain, Lord Erskine besought his contemporaries to ‘mourn not for Anacreon dead,' for they rejoiced in the possession of ‘an Anacreon Moore.' James Smith wrote of Miss Edgeworth that her work could never be anonymous—‘Thy writings ... must bring forth the name of their author to light.' And so on, and so on: the poetry of compliment presents many such conceits.

A treatise, indeed, might be written on the epigraphs in which poets have praised their lady-loves or their friends—from Herrick's Julia to, say, Tennyson's General Gordon. Rather, however, let us turn to what the bards have been at pains to say about themselves, recalling, for example, Herrick's ‘Jocund his Muse was, but his Life was chaste,' and Matthew Prior's triplet ‘On Himself.' Colman the Younger wrote:

‘My muse and I, ere youth and spirits fled,
Sat up together many a night, no doubt;
But now I've sent the poor old lass to bed,
Simply because my fire is going out.'

But how inferior is this, both in feeling and in expression, to the dignified epigraph in which Landor celebrated the seventy-fifth anniversary of his birthday:

‘I strove with none, for none was worth my strife;
Nature I loved, and, next to Nature, Art;
I warmed both hands before the fire of life;
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.'

 

In the couplet and quatrain of pure sentiment and reflection, some of the most delightful of our poetry is embodied. Herrick was conspicuously fond of this species of verse, and his works abound in gems of style and fancy, the difficulty being, not to find them, but to select from them. The beauty of one is apt to be rivalled by that of its neighbour. Thus we find on one page:

‘When words we want, Love teaches to indite;
And what we blush to speak, she bids us write.'

And on another:

‘Love's of itself too sweet; the best of all
Is when love's honey has a dash of gall.'

Then there is Lord Lyttelton's distich about ‘Love can hope when reason would despair;' there are Aaron Hill's famous lines on ‘modest ease in beauty,' which, though it ‘means no mischief, does it all.' There are Sir William Jones's ‘To an Infant Newly Born;' Wolcot's ‘To Sleep;' Luttrell's ‘On Death;' and many, many others.

Of nineteenth-century writers, the most admirable composer of the epigraph has been Landor, who in this, as in some other respects, may be placed in the same category with Herrick. What, for instance, could be prettier than this?

‘Your pleasures spring like daisies in the grass,
Cut down, and up again as blithe as ever;
From you, Ianthe, little troubles pass
Like little ripples in a sunny river.'

How well-phrased, again, is this:

‘Various the roads of life; in one
All terminate, one lonely way.
We go; and “Is he gone?”
Is all our best friends say.'

 

Among living authors, Mr. Aubrey de Vere can lay claim to a quatrain which is entirely faultless:

‘For me no roseate garlands twine,
But wear them, dearest, in my stead;
Time has a whiter hand than thine,
And lays it on my head.'

To this, Sir Henry Taylor wrote a pendant scarcely less fortunate in idea and wording. Lord Tennyson has in his day written several epitaphs, inscriptions, and other trifles; but none of them have quite the perfection which might have been looked for from so great a master of poetic form. Mr. Matthew Arnold produced, with others, this excellent epigraph:

‘Though the Muse be gone away,
Though she move not earth to-day,
Souls erewhile who caught her word,
Ah! still harp on what they heard.'

 

Finally, the reader may be recommended to glance at Mr. William Allingham's little book of ‘Blackberries,' in which they will find a large number of such ‘snatches of song,' many of them fresh in conception and finished in execution.