Poetry Morbid and Vivid

My research on the Latin verse inscriptions is progressing nicely. Over the last week or so, I have collected and analysed the evidence for the ways in which the Romans themselves engaged with their inscribed poetry – essentially asking a very simple question: assuming having poetry engraved on stone was not an end in itself, who would actually read it – and how and why? I had planned to blog about some of the remarkable statements that I encountered as I went along in my research, but then something unexpected happened.

As I went to Dundee last weekend, I used the opportunity to explore this city a little further. Most tourist guides that I consulted had suggested that Dundee is worth an excursion, but not a long one. I cannot claim myself that I found Dundee anywhere near as depressing as I had been led to believe – in fact, I was rather struck by the place.

On occasion of this visit, I managed to explore Dundee’s historic graveyard called ‘the Howff‘. Originally, the Howff was the orchard of a Franciscan monastery; subsequently, following Maria Stuart’s grant of the land to the burgh, it was converted into a graveyard.

What struck me was the number of stones that displayed little poems for the deceased – poems written in English (no Latin ones, sadly – or at least not in the area that I covered on this occasion!), but not altogether different in content, tone, and world of thought from those Latin inscriptions that are at the heart of my own research. My business is graveyard science, after all.

Here are three of the little gems that I encountered:

1. The _____ Wife


She was, but words are wanting
to say what;

Think what a wife should be,
she was that.

2. A Safe Harbour

sailorThrough Stormy Seas of trouble past,
I’ve found a peaceful Shore:
From tempests Safe I’m moor’d at last,
And leave my port no more.

3. No Escape for Anyone – Especially Not for You, M’Dear…

weep notWeep not for me, my HUSBAND dear,
I am not dead but sleeping here.
My end you know, my grave you see,
Prepare yourself to Follow ME.

In many ways these poems raise the same questions and pose the same difficulties as their ancient Latin counterparts: who wrote them? and for whom to read? What is the story behind the first poem, which is attested more than once, and bears striking similarities to poems that have appeared in print? Would one fill in the blanks of the first poem in the same way that the (ostensibly) grieving husband did? What did the writer of the second poem allude to with the off-hand mention of ‘trouble past’?

Who seems to be talking through these poems (or, in the case of the third poem: who is pretending to be talking through a poem) – and to whom? What do these poems tell us about the intellectual world of the individuals that they represent?

Are these poems designed to be read in silence? Or will one, almost automatically, start reading them out loud, to indulge in their words and in their rhymes? Inscribed headstones seem to provide us with an interface to the past – they allow us to read of the thoughts, and – especially when read out aloud – to hear voices of times long gone. The art historian Peter Sager wrote that ‘on its graveyard ‘The Howff’ the old city on the river Tay is more alive than anywhere else’ – yet another snide remark to malign Dundee, to be sure, yet so deceptively convincing.

Why deceptively?

Deceptively, because – at least to the Classicist’s mind – the same rules do not seem to apply to epigrams that are written on stone as opposed to those that are of a literary nature.

But how can a change of medium and a change of environment possibly suspend the artifice of poetry? And why would it? The poems on these Dundonian headstones, like all other poems, are imaginations of the world, of life and afterlife – they are fantastic coping mechanisms and expressions of desires, first of all.

Whether it is the beautiful device of letting a reader fill in the blanks as regarding the nature of the ideal wife (as if there were significantly fewer responses than people who ever lived!), or the image of the grave as a tranquil harbour, or the imagination that a pre-deceased wife addresses her husband with a veritable threat (‘you, too, will die!’) – all of these are the imaginations of those left behind, pieces that invite us to join a perspective on this world (and the next), and bring this perspective of a by-gone era back to life with our very own voice.

This perhaps rather unsettling thought has been expressed strikingly at the opening of a Latin verse inscription that I recently had the pleasure to re-read (CLE 513.1–4):

Carpis si qui [uia]s, paulum huc depone la[borem].
Cur tantum proper(as)? non est mora dum leg(is), audi
lingua tua uiuum mitique tua uoce loquentem.
Oro libens libe[n]s releg(as), ne taedio duc(as), amice

If you there seize these ways, let go of the stress for a short while: why such a rush? There is no time wasted while you read: listen to a living person who talks in your tongue and with your gentle voice. I ask you to read this favourably, favourably, so that you will not derive dislike, my friend.

Monuments thus do not only preserve memories, good or bad.

Monuments allow future generations to re-enact the past and to bring it back to life – by means of breathing our own life-breath into it, by means of lending it our own voice, as a service and as a favour to generations past.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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