If someone were to ask of me some of my most favourite places in the world, Scotland’s capital Edinburgh would most definitely feature on that list.
Last weekend, enjoying another delightful day in Edinburgh, I ventured to explore one of the legendary (and allegedly haunted) graveyards: Greyfriars Kirkyard.
What convinced me, however, was the opportunity to pay tribute to one of my most favourite Scottish poets (de gustibus and such…), the multifariously (though perhaps not always – or even ever? – deliberately) outrageous William Topaz McGonagall (d. 1902), who was buried there in an unmarked grave, and more recently was honoured with a commemorative plaque:
The plaque displays a few lines from McGonagall’s poem A Requisition to the Queen:
I am your Gracious Majesty
ever faithful to Thee,
William McGonagall, The Poor Poet,
That lives in Dundee.
There is something fantastically grating about McGonagall’s poetry – an aesthetic that is at odds with mainstream poetry to a degree that many have decided to regard it among the worst poetry ever written in the English language.
I cannot agree with that – yes, it does not conform to expectations and standards: but is that what art is (and in fact: has ever been or should be) about?
The true power of McGonagall’s poetry unfolds in recital, blending highly emotive, overblown story-telling with a unique desire consistently to vary the lengths of lines, while maintaining its (often painfully strained, monotonous) rhymes – all of which unfold their power when delivered in a somewhat histrionic fashion:
Certainly, no competition for Britain’s finest poets – but a gem nonetheless, especially when considering McGonagall’s lowly background and poor education.
One of the reasons why McGonagall has impressed me so much recently is that, unlike other poets who, during his lifetime and (to an even higher extent) afterwards, have deliberately shifted away from classical aesthetic models – McGonagall has, in fact, done the exact opposite.
McGonagall has turned the grating, (arguably) imperfect nature of folk poetry – the imperfect, amateurish rhymes of the common people, the rhymes of the type that invariably and predictably will ruin the solemn spirit of birthdays, weddings, and funerals – into an art form, and he drove it to unprecedented extremes.
In other words, the literary critic’s disrespect for McGonagall’s poetry is nothing else but the (self-?)loathing for the (imperfect, yet heartfelt) aesthetics of the everyman, of the common people – of those who, as complete amateurs, mean well and harbour sincere feelings, but reach the limits of their artistic craftsmanship and imagination sooner than they fully and wittily expressed what they desired: the poetry, that, in the shape of the Latin verse inscriptions of the Roman world, has kept me busy and highly entertained not only over the last year, but for a significant part of my professional career.
Which brings me back to Greyfriars Kirkyard.
Greyfriars Kirkyard, too, is home to a number of funerary monuments inscribed in Latin verse – and there were two that stood out to me in particular: the monument for George Heriot (1610) and the monument for John Laing (1614).
Both monuments are similar in size, shape, and design – representing altar tables with modest, sculpted reredoses – and they both date to roughly the same time period, namely the 1610s, during the reign of King James VI and I. In addition to their similar overall appearances, the two monuments, affixed to the kirkyard’s eastern wall (by Candlemaker Row), also have in common that they exhibit – in a comparable arrangement – short Latin epigrams.
- George Heriot‘s Memorial (1610) [note the deceased’s initials, G. H., inscribed in the central panel]
Viator | qui sapis | unde sis, quod | sis, quidque futu|rus sis, hinc nosce.
Subsequently, inscribed on the main panel of the altar tomb, there are four hexameters, two on the left, two on the right.
Vita mihi mortis, | mors vitae, | janua fa|cta est; |
Solaque | mors m|ortis v|ivere p|osse d|edit.
Ergo quisquis ad|huc mortali | vesceris a|ura,
dum | licet, ut | possis | vivere, | disce| mori. |
In the translation of Robert Monteith (An Theatre of Mortality, or, the illustrious inscriptions extant upon the several monuments, erected over the dead bodies, … buried within the Gray-friars church-yard; and other churches and burial-places within the city of Edinburgh and suburbs: collected and Englished, Edinburgh 1704):
Passenger, who art wise, hence know whence you are,
what you are, and what you are to be,
Life, gate of death; death, gate of life, to me;
Sole death of death gives life eternallie.
Therefore, whoever breath draws from the air,
While live though mayst, thyself for death prepare.
- Master John Laing’s Memorial (1614) [Note the deceased’s initials as well as the date, inscribed in the top panel]
Two elegiac couplets are incised on the main panel:
Quam natu|ra dedit, | mortali | corpore | clauso, |
dum spes | exilii sus|tinet una | moras,
Vita fuit; nec | vita fuit: | mors, | nescia | mortis,
posse de|dit vita | jam meli|ore frui.
Again in the translation of Robert Monteith (see above):
The life, me nature gave, while pent in clay,
Hopes of escape supporting the delay,
It was not life: death, ignorant of death,
To me a life far better did bequeath.
It is obvious that the memorials for George Heriot, goldsmith and benefactor of the city of Edinburgh, and for John Laing, Keeper of the Signet and owner of Redhouse Castle, communicate with one another.
This communication is not only achieved through a similarity of stylistic and iconographic features of the two tombs.
It is also the result of a direct communication between the two poems, both presumably written by the same (unknown) poet; this communication of two of Edinburgh’s grandees from beyond their graves deserves some further attention.
Both poems – Heriot’s hexametrical one and Laing’s elegiac one – essentially dwell on the same subject, the relationship between life and death as well as the evanescence of life.
Both poems derive their points from combinations and recombinations of the two key terms, vita (life) and mors (death) – narrowly (if at all) avoiding the tediousness of expression that comes with a play of words that is more an expression of ars gratia artis than evidence for any particularly deep and metaphysical insights. (Missing McGonagall’s honest, if awkward, rhymes yet?)
Heriot’s poem – the older one of the two – suggests that life had become a gate to death for him just as much as death turned out to be a gate to (eternal) life: only the death of death itself allowed for (true) life.
His advice, therefore, for the living (conveniently addressed as viatores, wayfarers, in the prescript to his poem): prepare for death as best you can, while still alive. (No mention is made of what preparations in particular the poet had in mind.)
Laing’s epitaph does not reach any radically different conclusions.
Instead of imagining an interface between life and death that redefines ‘actual’ life and ‘true’ life, ‘actual’ death and ‘true death’, however, Laing’s poem begins with what nature provided: life, the life of a person locked into a mortal body, sojourning in the hope one has in the soul’s exile that is human life (a neoplatonic concept).
Yet, this must not be mistaken for (true) life! A death that knows no (actual) death, or so the poem claims, is what grants a life far better to enjoy.
One might at first be inclined to read these as rather dark poems, negating the value of life in the face of death.
In between the two poems, however, a very different spirit emerges: the top panel of Heriot’s tomb instructs the reader who has understanding to consider one’s origin, one’s current state, and one’s fate: unde sis, quod sis, quidque futurus sis.
In keeping with the ancient idea that, for the better part of one’s life, one is, in fact dead (cf. the famous Epicurean idea of non fui, fui, non sum, non curo, ‘I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care’) the two poems actually propose something positive, both individually and in between themselves.
Heriot’s poem puts it bluntly: disce mori, learn how to die, while you are still alive – grasp the opportunity to mortify death itself (solaque mors mortis vivere posse dedit, ‘sole death of death gives life eternallie’).
Laing’s poem does not go quite as far – it does not propose to kill death itself, but envisions a death that is ignorant of its own nature, thus opening up the opportunity for a life better than everything that nature itself can bestow upon mortals: the afterlife, which will release one’s soul from the prison that is the human body (mortali corpore clauso) and end the deceptively appealing exile of the soul in this world.
Or, as William McGonagall put it, in a poem commemorating The Burial of Mr Gladstone, The Great Political Hero:
But I hope his soul has gone to that Heavenly shore,
Where all trials and troubles cease for evermore.
I hope his soul has fled to heaven above,
Where there is everlasting joy and love.