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Poetry from Headstones

Verses on the gravestones of Poets


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If poets cannot fashion a lyrical leave taking for themselves then what hope do the rest of us have? The ability to sum up a life in a few unforgettable phrases is, after all, their stock-in-trade. Sometimes the mots justes that the writer has lined up for his epitaph do find their appointed place on his or her headstone.

 

We have already encountered William Butler Yeat’s memorable epitaph:

 

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death,
Horseman, pass by!

 

These lines come from his poem Under Ben Bulben and the final stanza reads:

 

Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago, a church stands near,
By the road an ancient cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase;
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:

 

Yeats got his wish to be laid to rest in his beloved Sligo, but his final burial came after a convoluted process that began with his death in France in 1939 and culminated in his disinterment and relocation to Ireland in 1948.

 

Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, also crafted his final farewell in the poem Requiem, and its final three lines are inscribed upon his tombstone on a Samoan hillside.

 

Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie:
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

 

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he long’d to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

 

Rupert Brooke, the war poet, has written one of the most famous and affecting elegies in the whole literary canon:

 

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England

 

Yet these prophetic lines do not adorn his gravestone. He did die, and does lie buried, in a foreign field, but his inscription is of a more prosaic nature. He succumbed to blood poisoning on April 23, 1915 on the French hospital ship Duguay-Trouin moored in Trebuki Bay on the Greek island of Skyros. He was carried to his grave in an olive grove in a torch lit procession. He is buried in a cairn grave with a crude wooden cross bearing the legend:

 

Here Lies a Servant of God
Sub-Lieutenant in the English Navy
Who Died for the Deliverance of Constantinople from the Turks

 

In the Protestant cemetery in Rome, the graves of two of England’s greatest and most infamous poets can be found, Keats and Shelley.

 

This Grave
contains all that was Mortal
of a
Young English Poet
Who
on his Death Bed
in the Bitterness of his Heart
at the Malicious Power of his Enemies
Desired
these words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone

 

"Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water."
John Keats, Protestant Cemetery, Rome

 

Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange
Percy Bysshe Shelley Protestant cemetery Rome

 

Oscar Wilde had long been a refugee from the country of his birth. He died in France, and is buried in Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, beneath an elaborate Jacob Epstein sculpture, upon which the following lines are inscribed:

 

And alien tears will fill for him
Pity's long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.
Oscar Wilde Pere Lachaise, Paris

 

The national bards of Scotland and England, Robert Burns and William Shakespeare, lie in their native lands, their tombs engraved with poetry somewhat less memorable than their own majestic muses might have warranted:

 

O Rabbie Burns, the Man, the Brither
And art thou goune--and gone for ever;
And has thou crossed that unknown river,
Life's dreary bound?
Like thee, where shall we find anither
The world around?
Go to your sculptur'd ash of state;
But by thy honest tombs, ye Great,
In all the tinsel tr turf I'll wait,
Thou man of worth.
And weep the sweetest poet's fate,
E'er lived on earth.
To the Memory of Robert Burns the Ayrshire Bard who was born at Doonside
On the 29th of January 1759, and died at Dumfries on the 22nd of July 1796

 

Good frend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To digg the dust encloased heare!
Blest be the man that spares thes stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.
William Shakespeare Stratford on Avon

 

Ulster has its own Nobel Prize winning poet in the living form of Bellaghy’s Seamus Heaney. Amongst the fraternity of deceased versifiers, we offer two candidates for the mantle of bardic champion: James Orr, the Bard of Ballycarry and Francis Davis, the Weaver Poet.

 

While truth and right bless Erin's plains Or freedom's sons her standard rear,
Or while they spumat slavry's chains, The name of Orr they ~ revere
The venal lay his soul despised, For virtue fair the lyre he strung,
For truth and right he ever prized, And truth and right he nobly sung
His friendship true and ever kind To kindred bosoms still was shown;
His generous heart which God refined, Made love and sympathy its own
If genius and truth, taste combined, With candour fair can honour claim,
Posterity his brows bind With bays of never ending fame
His name Broad Land ~ revere, Nor fail to have him memoryed,
Who oft in numbers strong and clear Her rural scenes immortalized
No more his Brethem kind and bright Shall him invest with honours grand
No more hell teach the rules of right, That guide to light the sacred band
No more alive hell tune the lyre, And bid dull care away depart,
Or wake the strains which mirth inspire And soothe to peace the troubled heart
Near Templecorran's ruined fane That with the wild blast nods he lies
Where solitude and silence reign, Till the last trump shall bid him rise
"When lost amang nettles, yell fmd if ye search My stane o' remembrance is marked with an arch" Sacred to the memory of James Orr, The Bard of Ballycarry, Obiit 24 April 1816 AE 46

 

Erin, loved land! from age to age Be thou more great, more fam'd and free This monument to the Poet, the Patriot and the Philanthropist was erected by the contributions of various liberal individuals in Broadisland, Carrickfergus, Isle Magee, Larne, Belfast, Ballymena, & of the following Masonic Lodges, viz the Grand Lodge of Ireland and Nos 41, 43, 107, 162, 175, 177, 258, 248, 253, 615, 1012, and 1014, Orr's own Lodge.
Templecorran cemetery, County Antrim

 

With the soul of a loving and chivalrous knight
Whose instinct is genius, whose language is light
A child of the people has builded a name,
And the weaver has woven a garment of fame
In memory of Francis Davis, Ireland's weaver poet, born 1810, died 1885
Love of the right and hate of the wrong To Francis Davis, a self taught scholar, a gifted poet and an ardent patriot, this cross has been erected in token of admiration for his brilliant genius and purity of purpose by the memorial committee of the Belfast Young Ireland Society
Milltown cemetery, Belfast

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