The best epitaphs of famous writers
Writers love to have the final word, and many great poets have composed their final lines, the lines that will crown their lifetime’s achievement and adorn the stones marking their final resting place. Some of the most memorable literary epitaphs are also the briefest, and remain witty, moving, or memorable – or all three – thanks to this brevity. Here, then, are ten of the finest short literary epitaphs that commemorate the lives, and deaths, of ten great writers.
William Shakespeare. We may as well begin with the greatest poet in the English language. Surely Shakespeare penned one of the greatest literary epitaphs that the world can boast? Well, it’s certainly memorable, threatening to bring down a curse upon anyone who disturbs his tomb.
Good friend for Jesus’ sake forbear,
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.
John Donne. Donne (1572-1631) wrote beautifully about both the soul and the body – penning highly spiritual love poems and, conversely, extremely sensual holy sonnets, as our pick of Donne’s best poems makes clear. In death, though, soul and body are destined to be separated, and this is the theme of John Donne’s great epitaph.
Reader, I am to let thee know,
Donne’s body only lies below;
For could the grave his soul comprise,
Earth would be richer than the skies.
Here lies the body of Jonathan Swift, Professor of Holy Theology,
Dean of this cathedral church,
where fierce indignation can lacerate his heart no longer.
and, if you can, imitate one who with his utmost strength protected liberty.
Alexander Pope. Pope (1688-1744) was the pre-eminent poet of the rhyming couplet in eighteenth-century English literature, and his epitaph adopts this familiar form, entreating even heroes and kings to let the poet have a well-earned rest.
Heroes and Kings your distance keep;
In peace let one poor poet sleep,
Who never flattered folks like you;
Let Horace blush and Virgil too.
Percy Shelley. Shelley, the Romantic poet who drowned in 1822, has, aptly, a quotation from Shakespeare’s The Tempest as his epitaph (a quotation that introduced the phrase ‘sea-change’ into the language):
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
John Keats. The epitaph of John Keats (1795-1821), composed by the poet himself, reflects his anxieties over his posthumous reputation and his doubts about whether his poetry will last. It reads simply: ‘Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water.’
Emily Dickinson. The hermit of Amherst, Emily Dickinson (1830-86) composed a two-word epitaph for her tomb which reflects the brisk, telegrammatic force of her idiosyncratic poetry: ‘Called Back.’
Joseph Conrad. Conrad (1857-1924), who served in the British navy before he became a ground-breaking modernist novelist, took his epitaph from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene:
Sleep after toyle, port after stormie seas,
Ease after warre, death after life, does greatly please.
W. B. Yeats. Yeats (1865-1939) was memorably memorialised in verse by W. H. Auden, who wrote ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’ in 1939, shortly after the Irish poet’s death. Yeats himself adopted this three-line epigram as epitaph:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death
Horseman, pass by!
F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald’s tomb adopts the closing sentence of The Great Gatsby as his epitaph, which is apt given that Gatsby was to become his most famous novel (though This Side of Paradise, his first novel, was a far greater success while he was alive). The profound final words of The Great Gatsby, which form Fitzgerald’s epitaph, read: ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’
Of course, these are just ten epitaphs, out of hundreds we could have chosen. These are our favourites, but what classic literary epitaphs have we missed off the list? What would make your top ten?
Image (top): ‘Here Lies One Whose Name Was Writ in Water’ (picture: Yannick Carer via Flickr). Image (bottom): Grave of William Butler Yeats; Drumcliff, Co. Sligo, Ireland (picture: Andrew Balet, 2003), via Wikimedia Commons.