Light Music – Brief Poems by Derek Mahon

derek-mahonDerek Mahon (born 23 November 1941) is an Irish poet from Belfast in Northern  Ireland, the only child of working-class, Church of Ireland, parents. After Skegoneill Primary School, he attended the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, where he started writing and publishing poems, was involved in amateur dramatics, and participated in debates. He matriculated in Trinity College Dublin to read English, French and Philosophy. In 1965, he won an Eric Gregory Award, and three years later published his first full collection, Night Crossing. During these years, he travelled a great deal: England, France, Belgium, Germany, Canada, and the USA. He worked for Vogue, the New Statesman, and the BBC, but could never really hold down a regular job.  Night Crossing (1968) was followed by numerous collections which include Lives (1972), The Snow Party (1975), Poems 1962–1978 (1979), The Hunt by Night (1982), Antarctica (1985), Selected Poems (1991), The Yaddo Letter (1992), and The Yellow Book (1997). Recent collections include Harbour Lights (2006) winner of the Irish Times Poetry Now Award, Somewhere the Wave (2007) and Life on Earth (2008), which won another Irish Times Poetry Now Award and was shortlisted for the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize. Mahon’s 2010 collection, An Autumn Wind was praised by Paul Batchelor in the Guardian for its sophistication, technical prowess and willingness to address contemporary themes, including environmental degradation.

He lived for many years in London, working variously as a reviewer, television adaptor of literary texts for British television and poetry editor of the New Statesman. More recently he has lived in Dublin and Kinsale,  a seaside town in County Cork.  A member of the Irish institution of artists, Aosdána, he has received numerous awards including the Irish Academy of Letters Award, the Scott Moncrieff Translation Prize, and Lannan and Guggenheim Fellowships. In 2007 he received the David Cohen prize for a lifetime’s achievement in literature. He is regarded as one of the most accomplished and influential of contemporary Irish poets.

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Derek Mahon is best known for his longer poems, in particular the verse letters he has been adept at composing throughout his long and exemplary career. One of these long poems, A Disused Shed in County Wexford, is, in my view, a masterpiece of twentieth century poetry. There are many other wonderful poems. I am particularly fond of the title poem of his best collection, The Snow Party.  He is a master of what has come to be known as the ekphrasis poem. Read his wonderful Courtyards in Delft. He  has always had a superb musical sense. While the light music of his shorter tweet-sized poems may not be as melodious or as mellifluous as his better, longer poems, they do repay re-reading. I hope you also enjoy them.


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Brief Poems by Derek Mahon



Twinkletoes in the ballroom
light music in space.



Gulls in a rain-dark cornfield,
crows on a sunlit sea.



I built my house
in a forest far
from the venal roar.

Somebody please
beat a path
to my door.



The Clarinet Concerto
in A. K.622;
the second movement.

Turn it up
so they can hear
on the other planets.


Come In

The steel regrets the lock,
a word will open the rock,
the wood awaits your knock.



The vast clouds migrate
above turf-stacks
and a dangling gate.

A tiny bike squeaks
into the wind.


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The Picture of Dorian Gray
Is still read today;
While other Victorian novels degenerate in the attic,
Its reputation remains static.


Maud Gonne
Was no fonne;
If her husband came home late she would call out:
“You drunken vainglorious lout.”


John Quinn
Preferred the Algonquin
To any other hotel –
Though he liked the Plaza as well.


“Strange Meeting”

Wilfred Own
And Elizabeth Bowen
Never met;
And yet…


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after Beckett

each day a great desire
one day to be alive
though not without despair
at being forced to live


determined tread
expecting what
he strides ahead
no end in sight


emerging from his hermit cell
he saw the calm after the gale


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Relaxing by the river Exe
Coleridge expelled all thoughts of sex,
Except to dream of Xanadu –
Which, of course has an x too.


Beside the Black Sea’s icy mud
The poet Ovid proudly stood:
Miserae mihi plura supersunt,” quoth he,
“Old sport, cam tibia felici.”

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Drugs, razors, cameras; Lucozade replaces 
lost energy, even in the strangest cases.


A Garden God

A bomber fly flits from the ruined mouth;
from the eye-socket an inquisitive moth.


Where to Hide

(Some derelict beach hut or abandoned wreck
as in that strange novel by Yann Queffélec.)


A Shabby Welcome

As you’d expect, we are too poor for wine
but somewhere I’ve a drop of old moonshine.


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The Poetry Foundation page on Derek Mahon.

Eamonn Grennan interviews Derek Mahon for the Paris Review.

A selection of poems by Derek Mahon.

Some more poems by Derek Mahon.



Maple Leaves – Brief Poems by Amy Lowell


Amy Lowell  ( 1874 – 1925) was an American poet of the Imagist school from Brookline, Massachusetts, who posthumously won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1926. She was the daughter of Augustus Lowell and Katherine Bigelow Lawrence, and a distant relative of the poet, James Russell Lowell, her paternal grandfather’s cousin. Both sides of her family were New England aristocrats, wealthy and prominent members of society. As the daughter of a wealthy family, Lowell was first educated at the family home, “Sevenels” (named by her father as a reference to the seven Lowells living there), by an English governess who left her with a lifelong inability to spell. At school she was, according to one biographer,  the terror of the faculty. and according to another, totally indifferent to classroom decorum. Noisy, opinionated, and spoiled, she terrorized the other students and spoke back to her teachers. She travelled widely, even as a child.

Her first book of poetry was conventional and unsuccessful, but, after involving herself with the Imagist movement in London in 1915 where she edited three volumes of the anthology, Some Imagist Poets,  her work became more experimental and more intriguing, even involving a new innovation called “Polyphonic Prose”,  lush prose poems utilising alliteration, assonance, rhyme and return. She was energetic and prolific in her writing, producing twelve volumes (one of over 360 pages) over thirteen years.  She had a life-long fascination with John Keats and her latter years were  spent on a two-volume biography which she completed before her death from a  cerebral haemorrhage in 1925, at the age of 51.

Throughout her life, and even after her death, she was subject to mockery and derision for,  among other things, her flamboyant wealth, her large figure (due to a glandular problem) which led Ezra Pound to call her a “hippopoetess”, her fondness for cigars which she preferred to cigarettes as they lasted longer, for travelling through London in a mulberry-coloured car with two chauffeurs in matching livery, and for sleeping on sixteen pillows.  Even her lesbian tendencies have been used to condemn her. Put simply, she was bullied. Writing of Keats,  Amy Lowell said that the stigma of oddness is the price a myopic world always exacts of genius. She may not have been a genius but the stigma of oddness should not blind us to her dedication, her application and her craft.






Amy Lowell’s unpopularity extended to her poetry and her promotion of poetry.  When she arrived in London in 1915 with the aim of advancing the Imagist (or Imagiste) movement she wanted to substitute “pure democracy” for what she saw as Ezra Pound’s “despotism”. A rift developed between her and Pound which led him to mockingly deride the movement he had been instrumental in founding as Amy-gism. She certainly took the movement, often through her own poetry, in a new direction. She was instrumental in promoting the poetry of D. H. Lawrence. He repaid the compliment with a snide remark, in everything she did she was a good amateur. Even relatively recently, Michael Schmidt, in his magisterial Lives of the Poets, refers to her, in a disparaging way, as that busybody Amy Lowell.

Harriet Monroe, founder of Poetry magazine, was more sympathetic, The force which Miss Lowell’s New England ancestors put into founding and running cotton mills, or belike into saving souls, she puts into conquering art and making it express and serve her. So how good are the poems? In my opinion, the briefer the better. Very few poets have proved capable of integrating Japanese influences into English poetry. She has. The poems below, more than many of her longer pieces, repay rereading. Enjoy them.




Brief Poems by Amy Lowell


Upon the maple leaves
The dew shines red,
But on the lotus blossom
It has the pale transparence of tears.


Near Kioto

As I crossed over the bridge of Ariwarano Narikira,
I saw that the waters were purple
With the floating leaves of maple.


Yoshiwara Lament

Golden peacocks
Under blossoming cherry-trees,
But on all the wide sea
There is no boat.


A Year Passes

Beyond the porcelain fence of the pleasure garden,
I hear the frogs in the blue-green rice-fields;
But the sword-shaped moon
Has cut my heart in two.



All day I have watched the purple vine leaves
Fall into the water.
And now in the moonlight they still fall,
But each leaf is fringed with silver.



Even the iris bends
When a butterfly lights upon it.


Nuit Blanche

The chirping of crickets in the night
Is intermittent,
Like the twinkling of stars.


Outside a Gate

On the floor of the empty palanquin
The plum petals constantly increase.


Road to the Yoshiwara

Coming to you along the Nihon Embankment
Suddenly the road was darkened
By a flock of wild geese
Crossing the moon.


A Daimyo’s Oiran

When I hear your runners shouting:
“Get down! Get down!”
Then I dress my hair
With the little chrysanthemums.


Autumn Haze

Is it a dragon fly or maple leaf
That settles softly down upon the water?



A wise man,
Watching the stars pass across the sky,
In the upper air the fireflies move more slowly.


 A Lover

If I could catch the green lantern of the firefly
I could see to write you a letter.



In the sky there is a moon and stars,
And in my garden there are yellow moths
Fluttering about a white azalea bush.


The Fisherman’s Wife

When I am alone,
The wind in the pine-trees
Is like the shuffling of waves
Upon the wooden sides of a boat.



Last night, at sunset,
The foxgloves were like tall altar candles.
Could I have lifted you to the roof of the greenhouse,
my Dear,
I should have understood their burning.


Middle Age

Like black ice
Scrolled over with unintelligible patterns
by an ignorant skater
Is the dulled surface of my heart.






Some poems from Lacquer Prints (1913-1919).

The Terebess Asia Online (TAO) page on Amy Lowell.

The Modern American Poetry Page on Amy Lowell.

Critical Flame article on Amy Lowell.




Epitaphs of the War – Brief Poems by Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard_Kipling,_by_Elliott_&_Fry_(cropped)Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was born in Bombay, (now called Mumbai), in India but, according to poet Gavin Ewart, was sent at the age of 6 with his sister to horrible foster-parents in Southsea (England) and to an equally horrible public school. In 1882 he returned to India, where he worked for Anglo-Indian newspapers while exploring his Indian surroundings. Kipling’s experiences during this time formed the backbone for a series of stories he began to write and publish. They were eventually assembled into a collection of 40 short stories called Plain Tales From the Hills, which gained wide popularity in England. In 1889, seven years after he had left England, Kipling returned to acknowledge and exploit the celebrity status his stories had given him. After a brief visit to America, where he found his wife, Carrie Balastier, he returned to a London marriage attended by Henry James.

After his marriage he travelled widely through the United States, Canada and Japan. Following the tragic death of his daughter, Josephine, in New York, he returned to England where his literary success culminated, in 1907,  in his being awarded, at the age of 41, the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first English-language writer to receive the prize, and its youngest recipient to date.

Kipling proved to be an ardent supporter of the British war effort in the First World War. In 1915, he traveled to France to report on the war from the trenches. He also encouraged his son, John, to enlist.  Suffering from the same eyesight problems his father had,  John was repeatedly turned down. Kipling made use of his political connections and managed to get his son enlisted with the Irish Guards as a second lieutenant. Within weeks, Kipling received word that John had gone missing in France. Kipling, perhaps feeling guilty about his push to make his son a soldier, set off for France to find John. But nothing ever came of the search, and John’s body was never recovered. A distraught and drained Kipling returned to England where he wrote, among other pieces, his poem, or sequence of poems, Epitaphs of the War.

Although Kipling continued to write for the next two decades, he never again returned to the bright, cheerful children’s stories that had made him so popular. His collected poems appeared in 1933. Over his last few years, Kipling suffered from a painful ulcer that eventually led to his death on January 18, 1936. Kipling’s ashes were buried in Westminster Abbey in Poets’ Corner next to the graves of Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens.


Kipling: poetry or verse?

In his intriguing, astute and wide-ranging introduction to his selection, A Choice of Kipling’s Verse, T. S. Eliot addresses himself repeatedly to the question of whether Kipling  wrote poetry or verse. While he uses the word poet – He is so different from other poets that the lazy critic is tempted merely to assert that he is not a poet at all, and leave it at that – he continues to treat the work as verse. The distinction between poetry and verse is not for Eliot, as it is for many, a question of value. And, despite highlighting the amazing verbal and poetic accomplishments, he argues Kipling is not  trying to write poetry at all. He concludes with this tribute, I can think of a number of poets who have written great poetry, only a very few whom I call great verse writers. And unless I am mistaken, Kipling’s position in this class is not only high, but unique.

Whether poetry or verse, the reputation of Kipling is also, still, one of great popularity.  If—” is probably Kipling’s most famous poem. A relatively recent BBC poll named it Britain’s favourite poem. In a celebrated essay on Kipling from 1942, George Orwell dismissed the poem as the sort of thing (about the only sort of thing) Colonel Blimp would like. On this issue, as on many others relating to Kipling, I tend to be more on Orwell’s side than on that of Eliot. Yet his popularity persists. I have met many people with no literary leanings – a lorry driver, a religious Brother, an ex-soldier – who could recite a Kipling poem (usually Gunga Din) at will. There is no doubting his continuing relevance to many readers. But Orwell may have put his finger on the reason for this: Kipling is almost a shameful pleasure, like the taste for cheap sweets that some people secretly carry into middle life. But even with his best passages one has the same sense of being seduced by something spurious, and yet unquestionably seduced.  There are, of course, best passages, and there is, as Eliot recognised, immense skill and accomplishment. The English poet, Alison Brackenbury,  claims that Kipling is poetry’s Dickens, an outsider and journalist with an unrivalled ear for sound and speech.  That may not excuse the faults that Orwell, among others, finds in the poetry (or verse) but it does explain its popularity.


Kipling: Epitaphs of the War.

There is one issue on which I agree with T. S. Eliot, Good epigrams in English are very few. He says this while asking the reader of Kipling to look attentively at his Epitaphs of the War. These poems, first published in 1919, were modelled on the epitaphs in The Greek Anthology which Kipling read in translation. Although some critics have found personal  issues, particularly those dealing with the death of his son, John, in the war, Kipling maintained, All the epitaphs … are altogether imaginary. They deal with forms of death which may very possibly have overtaken men and women in the course of the War, but have neither personal nor geographical basis. That, I believe, is what gives them their power and their resonance. These brief epitaphs, the shorter and tweet-sized of which I include below,  deal with civilians as well as soldiers, grieving parents, dead sons, the brave and the cowardly, the guiltless and the guilty. While some are in the third person, others have the dead commenting on their own death. Their brevity and compression save these poems from the bluster and sentimentality that infects many of the Barrack-Room Ballads which are better known. They deserve a wider readership.




Brief Poems by Rudyard Kipling

from EPITAPHS OF THE WAR (1914-1918)


A. “I was a Have.”   B. “I was a ‘have-not.’”
(Together). “What hast thou given which I gave not?”



We were together since the War began.
He was my servant—and the better man.



My son was killed while laughing at some jest.    I would I knew
What it was, and it might serve me in a time when jests are few.



I have slain none except my Mother.    She
(Blessing her slayer) died of grief for me.



This man in his own country prayed we know not to what Powers.
We pray Them to reward him for his bravery in ours.



I could not look on Death, which being known,
Men led me to him, blindfold and alone.



Gods of the Nile, should this stout fellow here
Get out—get out!    He knows not shame nor fear.




We giving all gained all.
Neither lament us nor praise.
Only in all things recall,
It is Fear, not Death that slays.


From little towns in a far land we came,
To save our honour and a world aflame.
By little towns in a far land we sleep;
And trust that world we won for you to keep!



On the first hour of my first day
In the front trench I fell.
(Children in boxes at a play
Stand up to watch it well.)



Laughing through clouds, his milk-teeth still unshed,
Cities and men he smote from overhead.
His deaths delivered, he returned to play
Childlike, with childish things now put away.



Prometheus brought down fire to men,
This brought up water.
The Gods are jealous—now, as then,
Giving no quarter.



On land and sea I strove with anxious care
To escape conscription.    It was in the air!



If any mourn us in the workshop, say
We died because the shift kept holiday.



If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.



For Fog and Fate no charm is found
To lighten or amend.
I, hurrying to my bride, was drowned—
Cut down by my best friend.



I was a shepherd to fools
Causelessly bold or afraid.
They would not abide by my rules.
Yet they escaped.    For I stayed.



Headless, lacking foot and hand,
Horrible I come to land.
I beseech all women’s sons
Know I was a mother once.





The complete text of Epitaphs of the War.

A Choice of Kipling’s Verse, edited by T. S. Eliot

George Orwell’s essay on the poetry of Rudyard Kipling.

Some notes on Epitaphs of the War.

The Poetry Foundation Page on Rudyard Kipling.

A Reader’s Guide to the Works of Rudyard Kipling.



Tombstone Tropes 2 – Odd Rhyming Epitaphs

9064994dcb9b1fa9ef6674386da8bd9e“Oh No.” A brief rhyme for a brief epitaph.  Levity, brevity, but not longevity. “Oh no.” Not that these words adorn any grave that I can unearth. The shortest rhyming epitaph I have come across is that which appears on the Vancouver City Cemetery (Washington USA) grave of an atheist, Arthur J. Haine: Haine Hain’t. In preparing for his death and funeral, this Belgian born atheist wrote : Know everybody by these presents that I, Arthur Haine, knowing what I am about, make this my last will and testament…My funeral is to be of the cheapest kind and I don’t want my body to be transported but buried in the vicinity where I may die. As I have lived an infidel, I must be buried as such without any monkey business. When he died in 1907,  his body, to the accompaniment of popular tunes played by a band, was carried to the cemetery in a beer truck along with several beer kegs for the refreshment of his friends and spectators. His epitaph was equally non-traditional. He designed his own tombstone and his own epitaph:  Haine Hain’t. Sadly, I cannot post a picture of his original tombstone. Some of his “friends” were shocked at his grim levity and ordered the stone mason to erase the word Haint and carve a leaf design in its place. The present tombstone is available for viewing below.

Suggested epitaphs that never were actually chiseled into stone include that of the poet, Ogden Nash, who, being straight to the point, suggested this pertinent gem for his tombstone: Nash’s Ashes.  He died on May 19th, 1971. However his tombstone, as it now stands in the  East Side Cemetery in North Hampton, Rockingham County, New Hampshire, merely contains his name and dates and, also, those of his wife, Frances.

In an earlier post  – Tombstone Tropes 1 – I discussed and displayed a variety of literary epitaphs from the ancient Greeks to the modern day, and the modern dead. In this post I offer a broader sampling of the more humorous and the more demotic epitaphs to be found on tombstones worldwide. The emphasis is on brevity, wit and rhyme. I include a few photographs, some of them obviously staged and photoshopped, to illuminate and illustrate this universal genre. Should you wish me to include your own discoveries, or your own rhyming epitaph, please fill in the comment box below the post.


Brief Rhyming Epitaphs

Here lies Will Smith – and what’s something rarish,
He was born, bred, and hanged, all in the same parish.


Here lays Butch,
We planted him raw.
He was quick on the trigger,
But slow on the draw.

A tombstone in a Silver City, Nevada, cemetery


Reader if cash thou art
In want of any
Dig 4 feet deep
And thou wilt find a Penny.

John Penny’s epitaph in the Wimborne, England, cemetery


On the 22nd of June
Jonathan Fiddle
Went out of tune.

Read on a tombstone in a cemetery in Hartscombe, England


Owen Moore
Gone away
Owin’ more
Than he could pay.

The tombstone of Owen Moore in Battersea, London



Here lies the body
of Jonathan Blake
Stepped on the gas
Instead of the brake.


The tombstone of an accident victim in a Uniontown, Pennsylvania cemetery



Under the sod and under the trees
Lies the body of Jonathan Pease.
He is not here, there’s only the pod:
Pease shelled out and went to God.

On a grave from the 1880’s in Nantucket, Massachusetts


Mr. Partridge

died 1861

What! Kill a partridge in the month of May!
Was that done like a sportsman? eh, death, eh?


Here lies Martin Elginbrod,
Hae mercy on my soul Lord God,
as I would do were I Lord God,
and ye were Martin Elginbrod!

From a Scottish graveyard


The children of Israel wanted bread
And the Lord sent them manna.
Old clerk Wallace wanted a wife,
And the Devil sent him Anna.

The tombstone of Anna Wallace in a Ribbesford, England, cemetery


Underneath this pile of stones
Lies all that’s left of Sally Jones.
Her name was Lord, it was not Jones,
But Jones was used to rhyme with stones.

Found on a tombstone in Skaneateles, New York


On an infant eight months old

Since I have been so quickly done for,
I wonder what I was begun for.


Here I at length repose,
My spirit now at aise is ;
With the tips of my toes
And the point of my nose
Turned up to the roots of the daisies.

In Ballyporeen (Ireland) churchyard, on Teague O’Brian,
written by himself


Here lies John Auricular,
Who in the ways of the Lord walked perpendicular.


This corpse
Is Phoebe Thorp’s.


Two Irish epitaphs:-

Here lies the body of Jonathan Ground,
Who was lost at sea and never found.

He lived and died
By suicide.

On a coroner who hanged himself



Here lies the body of Thomas Proctor
Who lived and died without a doctor.


Lord Coningsby

Here lies Lord Coningsby, be civil,
The rest God knows — so does the devil.


On an architect

Lie heavy on him, earth, for he
Laid many a heavy load on thee.


Here lies poor stingy Timmy Wyatt,
Who died at noon and saved a dinner by it.


Death willed that Thomas Willing here should lie
Although unwilling he to die.


Here lies the body of Mary Ann Bent,
She kicked up her heels, and away she went.



Here lies a man that was Knott born,
His father was Knott before him,
He lived Knott, and did Knott die,
Yet underneath this stone doth lie.

The tombstone of John Knott in a Sheffield, England, cemetery


Sacred to the memory of Miss Martha Gwynn,
Who was so very pure within.
She burst the outer shell of sin.
And hatched herself a cherubim.

The tombstone of Martha Gwynn at St. Alban’s cemetery


Here lies old Caleb Ham,
By trade a bum.
When Caleb dyed the Devil cryed :
” Come, Caleb, come.”

The tombstone of Caleb Ham in a  New Hampshire cemetery


Here, reader, turn your weeping eyes,
My fate a useful moral teaches ;
The hole in which my body lies
Would not contain one half my speeches.

The tombstone of Lord Brougham, an orator




I laid my wife beneath this stone
For her repose and for my own.

On a tombstone in Middlebury, Vermont



Don’t weep for me, Eliza dear,
I am not dead, but sleeping here.
As I am now so you must be,
Prepare for death and follow me.

The tombstone of one Eliza in Truro, Nova Scotia


Bill Blake
Was hanged by mistake.

The tombstone of Bill Blake in a Colorado cemetery


Here lies a man names Zeke.
Second fastest draw in Cripple Creek.


Here lies the body of  Arkansas Jim.
We made the mistake, But the joke’s on him.

In the Boot Hill Museum, Dodge City, Kansas


Rab McBeth
Who died for the want
of another breath.

On a hanged man Rab McBeth (1791-1823)



Here lies Lester Moore.
Four slugs
From a forty-four.
No Les
No More.

The tombstone of gun-slinger, Lester Moore, a Wells Fargo station agent for Naco, Arizona in the cowboy days of the 1880’s.  He is buried in the Boot Hill Cemetery in Tombstone, Arizona. 




Here lies the body of
Thomas Kemp.
Who lived by wool
and died by hemp.

The tombstone of a hanged sheep stealer from Larne, Ireland


Here lies the body
Of Margaret Bent
She kicked up her heels
And away she went.

The tombstone of Margaret Bent in Winterborn Steepleton Cemetery, Dorsetshire


Here lies old Rastus Sominy
Died a-eating hominy
In 1859 anno domini

The tombstone of Rastus Sominy in Savannah, Georgia


She was not smart, she was not fair,
But hearts with grief for her are swellin’;
All empty stands her little chair:
She died of eatin’ water-mellon.

A tombstone in a New Jersey cemetery


Beneath this stone, a lump of clay,
Lies stingy Jimmy Wyatt.
Who died one morning just at ten
And saved a dinner by it.

A tombstone in Falkirk, England


Here lies the body of  William Jay
Who died maintaining his right of way;
He was right, dead right, as he sped along,
But he’s just as dead as if he’d been wrong.


Here lies the body of our Anna
Done to death by a banana
It wasn’t the fruit that laid her low
But the skin of the thing that made her go.

The tombstone of Anna Hopewell in Enosburg Falls, Vermont


Hooray my brave boys
Lets rejoice at his fall.
For if he had lived
He would have buried us all.

The tombstone of a gravedigger


Beneath this stone, in hopes of Zion,
Doth lie the landlord of the Lion;
His son keeps on the business still,
Resigned unto the heavenly will.

On the tombstone of an innkeeper, 1875


Tom Smith is dead, and here he lies,
Nobody laughs and nobody cries;
Where his soul’s gone, or how it fares,
Nobody knows and nobody cares.

On a tombstone dated 1742 in Newbury, England


Stranger tread
This ground with gravity.
Dentist Brown
Is filling his last cavity.

The tombstone of a dentist in Edinburgh, Scotland


Captain Thomas Coffin

Died 1842, age 50 years.

He’s done a-catching cod
And gone to meet his God.

The tombstone of a fisherman in New Shoreham, Rhode Island


Here lies Ann Mann,
Who lived an old maid
But died an old Mann.

December 8, 1767

The tombstone of Ann Mann in London, England


Here beneath this stone we lie
Back to back my wife and I
And when the angels trump shall trill
If she gets up then I’ll lie still!

On a tombstone in Barlinine Cemetery, Glasgow


They abounded in riches
But she wore the britches …

On a tombstone in Essex, England


This stone was raised by Sara’s Lord
Not Sara’s virtues to record
For they are known to all the town.
This stone was raised to keep her down.

On a tombstone in Kilmurry Churchyard, Ireland









Here lies the body of poor Aunt Charlotte.
Born a virgin, died a harlot.
For 16 years she kept her virginity
A damn’d long time for this vicinity.

On a tombstone in Death Valley, California


Cold is my bed, but oh, I love it,
For colder are my friends above it.

On a tombstone in Calvary Cemetery, Chicago


Beneath this stone a lump of clay
Lies Uncle Peter Dan’els
Who early in the month of May
Took off his winter flannels.

On a tombstone in Edinburgh, Scotland


Here lieth Mary, the wife of John Ford
We hope her soul has gone to the Lord
Bur if for Hell she has changed this life
She had better be there than John Ford’s wife.

On a grave dated 1790 in Potterne, Wiltshire, England


All who come my grave to see
Avoid damp beds and think of me.

On the tombstone of Lydia Eason, St Michael’s, Stoke-on-Trent, England


Here lie I by the chancel door:
They put me here because I was poor.
The further in, the more you pay,
But here I lie as snug as they.

On the tombstone of Robert Phillip, a gravedigger, in the church of St. Edmund the Martyr, Kingsbridge, Devon






On the tombstone of an atheist,
Arthur Haine,
in Vancouver, Washington

(See the introduction to this post above)


Here lies the body of
Jane Gordon
With mouth almighty
and teeth accordin!

On a tombstone in Marblehead, Massachusetts


Reader, I’ve left this world, in which
I had a world to do;
Sweating and fretting to get rich:
Just such a fool as you.

On a tombstone in Charleston, South Carolina


Here lies the body of Mary Ann Lowder
She burst while drinking a Seidlitz powder.
Called from this world to her heavenly rest,
She should have waited till it effervesced.

On a tombstone in Burlington, Vermont


Here lies, praise God, a woman who
Scolded and stormed her whole life through:
Tread gently o’er her rotting form
Or else you’ll raise another storm.

On a tombstone in Cookstown, Co. Tyrone


Death appeared in lovely form,
To bring the calm and end the storm.


Within this grave do lie
Back to back, my wife and I;
When the last trumpet the air shall fill,
If she gets up, I’ll just lie still.

Sacred to the memory of Elisha Philbrook and his wife Sarah


He sped himself to an early grave
Never to enjoy the time he saved.

On the tombstone of a young Irish man in Canada with a fondness for motorbikes


Ma loves Pa – Pa loves women
Ma caught Pa,  with 2 in swimmin.
Here lies Pa.





First a Cough
Carried Me Off
Then a Coffin
They Carried Me Off In

On a tombstone in Boston, Massachusetts


His foot is slipt
and he did fall.
“Help; Help” he cried
and that was all.

On the tombstone of Joseph Crapp in Mylor Churchyard, Cornwall, England


Poorly lived,
And poorly died,
Poorly buried,
and no one cried.

Found by Nathaniel Hawthorne on a tombstone in Lillington churchyard, near Lemington Spa


Here lies the father of 29
He would have had more
But he didn’t have time.


Here lies one Thomas Foote
Whose bones may hundreds save
For death now has one foot
Entombed within the grave.






Tombstone Tropes 1 – Brief Literary Epitaphs.

Funny Epitaphs

Some Funny Epitaphs from Real Tombstones.

Clever Epitaphs on Pinterest.

The HubPages collection of funny and bizarre epitaphs.

Irish Grave Humour by Raymond Lamont-Brown.



Tombstone Tropes 1 – Brief Literary Epitaphs

450full-william-butler-yeatsHere lies… Those two words introduce a classic epitaph just as Once Upon a Time introduces a classic story. In this post I include a variety of literary epitaphs; a later post will deal with some more humorous and off-beat epitaphs culled from graveyards worldwide. It is to the ancient Greeks I turn first in a brief selection of translated epitaphs. According to TheodoraAmong the gems of the Greek anthology familiar to English readers through translations are the epitaphs upon those who had fallen in battle. … In Sparta epitaphs were inscribed only upon the graves of those who had been especially distinguished in war; in Athens they were applied more indiscriminately. They generally contained the name, the descent, the demise, and some account of the life of the person commemorated. It must be remembered, however, that many of the so-called Greek epitaphs are merely literary memorials not intended for monumental inscription, and that in these freer scope is naturally given to general reflections, while less attention is paid to biographical details.

Roman epitaphs, in contrast to those of the Greeks, contained, as a rule, nothing beyond a record of facts.  A remarkable feature of many of the Roman epitaphs was the terrible denunciation they often pronounced upon those who violated the sepulchre. Such denunciations were not uncommon in later times. A well-known instance is furnished in the lines on Shakespeare’s tomb at Stratford-on-Avon, (see below) said to have been written by the poet himself.  Good frend, for Jesus’ sake forbeare To digg the dust enclosed heare; Bleste be y e man y t spares thes stones, And curst be he y t moves my bones.

The epitaphs of Pope (see below) are interesting. He wrote a well-known epitaph for Sir Isaac Newton, but it was not allowed to be included on the tomb in Westminster Abbey. He also wrote about two lovers he knew in Stanton Harcourt:  

I have just passed part of this summer at an old romantic seat of my Lord Harcourt’s, which he has lent me;  it overlooks a common field, where, under the shadow of a haycock, sat two lovers, as constant as ever were found in romance, beneath a spreading beech….  Their love was the talk, but not the scandal of the neighbourhood, for all they aimed at was the blameless possession of each other in marriage.  
It was but this very morning that he obtained her parents’ consent, and it was but till the next week that they were to wait to be happy.  Perhaps this very day, in the intervals of their work, they were talking of their wedding clothes, and John was now matching several kinds of poppies and field flowers to her complexion, to make her a present of knots for the day. 
While they were thus employed (it was on the last day of July), a terrible storm of thunder and lightning arose, and drove the labourers to what shelter the trees or hedges afforded. Sarah, frightened and out of breath, sunk on a haycock, and John (who never separated from her) sat by her side, having raked two or three heaps together to secure her.
Immediately there was heard so loud a crack as if heaven had burst asunder.  The labourers, all solicitous for each other’s safety, called to one another; those who were nearest our lovers, hearing no answer, stepped to the place where they lay.  
They first saw a little smoke, and after, this faithful pair – John with one arm about Sarah’s neck, and the other held over her face, as if to screen her from the lightning.  They were dead.  There was no mark or discolouring on their bodies, only that Sarah’s eyebrow was a little singed, and a small spot between her breasts.  
They were buried next day in one grave, in the parish of Stanton Harcourt, where my Lord Harcourt, at my request, has erected a monument over them.

Pope attempted various epitaphs for the monument but the best known one is that below with its unfortunate pun.

The continuity of the literary tradition which surrounds the epitaph can be seen in the Dryden and the J. V. Cunningham epitaphs below, centuries apart. I have also included some of Kipling’s brief epitaphs. More are available on the “Epitaphs of the War” post. Should you like me to include an epitaph I may have omitted, please fill in the comment box below.


Brief Epitaphs from the Ancient Greek

Rest lightly, earth, on Willie the devout.
The dogs will take less time to drag him out.

translated by Raymond Oliver


Epitaph: Justice

The poet Hipponax lies here.
In justice, this is only fair.
His lines were never dark or deep.
Now he enjoys (like his readers) sleep.

translated by Fred Chappell


Remember Eubolus, who lived and died sober?
This is his grave. We might as well drink then:
We’ll all drop anchor in the same final harbour.

Leonidas of Tarentum
translated by Fleur Adcock


Someone is glad that I, Theodorus, am dead
Another will be glad when that someone is dead
We are all in arrears to death.

translated by Peter Jay


Be ashamed, O mountains and seas: these were men of valorous breath.
Assume, like pale chattels, an ashen silence at death.

translated by Michael R. Burch


You were the morning star among the living.
In death, O Evening Star, you light the dead.

translated by Willis Barnstone


Mariner, do not ask whose tomb this may be,
but go with good fortune: I wish you a kinder sea.

translated by Michael R. Burch


Does my soul abide in heaven, or hell?
Only the sea gulls in their high, lonely circuits may tell.

translated by Michael R. Burch


Here, the tomb of Timokritos, a hero in the wars.
It is the coward whom Ares spares – not the brave.

translated by Willis Barnstone


At Anakreon’s Tomb

I often sang this, and even from the grave I shout:
Drink, for soon you must put on this garment of dust.

Julianus (Julian the Prefect of Egypt)
translated by Willis Barnstone


Stripped of her stripling, if asked, she’d confess:
“I am now less than nothingness.”


translated by Michael R. Burch


epitaphI, the actor, Philistion
Soothed men’s pain with comedy and laughter,
A man of parts, I often died–
But never quite like this.

translated by Michael Wolfe

image of the tombstone
of the actor Philistion

Brief Literary Epitaphs



[Gravestone in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon]

William Shakespeare


On the snuff of a candle the night before he died

Cowards fear to die; but courage stout,
Rather than live in snuff, will be put out.

Sir Walter Raleigh


For the Tomb of the Little Dog Zabot

Your house was small, your body but a puplet;
A shoebox was your grave, your epitaph this couplet.

Petrarch (Translated by Fred Chappell)


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.

John Donne


Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be
Defence enough against Mortality.

Mrs. Aphra Behn


My Epitaph

Here lies Piron, a complete nullibiety,
Not even a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Alexis Piron


Epitaph Intended for  His Wife

Here lies my wife: here let her lie!
Now she’s at rest, and so am I.

John Dryden


Epitaph on Sir Isaac Newton

Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night:
God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light.

Alexander Pope


Epitaph on the Stanton-Harcourt Lovers

Here lie two poor lovers, who had the mishap
Tho’ very chaste people, to die of a clap.

Alexander Pope


Here lies David Garrick, describe me who can.
An abridgement of all that was pleasant in man.

Oliver Goldsmith


On David Hume  (1711-1776)

Within this circular idea
Called vulgarly a tomb,
The ideas and impressions lie
That constituted Hume.

Anonymous addition to his tomb in the Old Calton Burial Ground in Edinburgh


Epitaph on an Infant

Ere sin could blight or sorrow fade,
Death came with friendly care;
The opening bud to Heaven conveyed,
And bade it blossom there.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge


Here lies the preacher, judge, and poet, Peter
Who broke the laws of God, and man, and metre.

Peter Robinson (19th century)



Here lies with death auld Grizzel Grim
Rineluden’s ugly witch.
O death how horrid is thy taste,
To lie with such a bitch!

Robert Burns



Posterity will ne’er survey
A nobler grave than this.
Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:
Stop, traveler, and piss.

George Gordon, Lord Byron



If Paris that brief flight allow,
My humble tomb explore!
It bears: “Eternity, be thou
My refuge!” and no more.

Matthew Arnold



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

Image: The grave of W. B. Yeats
in St. Columba’s Church of Ireland Churchyard
in Drumcliff, County Sligo.

William Butler Yeats


from Epitaphs of the War

The Coward

I could not look on Death, which being known,
Men led me to him, blindfold and alone.

Common Form

If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.

Rudyard Kipling


More brief poems by Rudyard Kipling are available on the Epitaphs of the War post.



Ye say we sleep;
But nay,we wake;
Life was that strange and chequered dream
Only for waking’s sake.

Walter de la Mare


When I am dead, I hope it may be said:
“His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.”

Hilaire Belloc


220px-Cecil_Day_Lewis_headstone,_geographShall I be gone long?
For ever and a day.
To whom there belong?
Ask the stone to say.
Ask my song.

C. Day Lewis

Image: the grave of Cecil Day Lewis
at St. Michael’s Church
in Stinsford, Dorset


Epitaph for a Columnist

Believing that his hate for queers
Proclaimed his love for God
He now (of all queer things, my dears)
Lies under his first sod.

Paul Dehn


From City Churchyard


I who once dealt in words and set great store
On words have, in a word or two, no more.


Too late. The Hell I threatened you cannot hurt you.
The wordless worm best knows how to convert you.


I who could once erect a throbbing bone
Salute you now with rigid, skinned-back stone.


And here you stand and stare while minutes fly.
Time lessens you. But less, still less am I.

X. J. Kennedy


Epitaph for a Postal Clerk

Here lies, neatly wrapped in sod,
Henry Hankins c/o God.
On the day of Resurrection,
May be opened for inspection.

X. J. Kennedy


More brief poems by X. J. Kennedy are available on the Beetles post.


Epitaph: The Playboy

It was wine and women
That did me in.
If I get a chance
They’ll do it again.

Fred Chappell


Epitaph: Lydia

She enjoyed making love
In any exotic location.
Now Lydia lies here.
It’s not the first occasion.

Fred Chappell


More brief poems by Fred Chappell are available on the Toadstools post.



Here lies Sir Tact, a diplomatic fellow,
whose silence was not golden, but just yellow.

Timothy Steele


Here lies my wife. Eternal peace
Be to us both with her decease.

J. V. Cunningham


The Curse on Shakespeare’s grave.


Athenian Epitaphs translated by Michael R. Burch.

The Theodora page on epitaphs.

The Wikipedia page on epitaphs.

Famous Literary Epitaphs.


Mourning Doves – Brief Poems by Lorine Niedecker

lorine-niedeckerLorine Niedecker (1903-1970) was an American poet often identified with the Objectivists.

She was born in a remote part of Wisconsin on  the Black Hawk Island of the turbulent Rock River near Fort Atkinson,  where she lived most of her life in rural isolation. Her father was a commercial fisherman who rented hunting and fishing cabins. She grew up surrounded by the sights and sounds of the river until she moved to Fort Atkinson to attend school. The environment of birds, trees, water and marsh would inform her later poetry. On graduating from high school in 1922, she went to Beloit College to study literature but left after two years because her father was no longer able to pay her tuition and because her mother, who was deeply depressed by her husband’s flagrant affair with a neighbour,  had become totally deaf  and needed her daughter to return home to help take care of her. A brief marriage to a local man, Frank Hartwig, ended in divorce. She worked, first at the public library, then at a radio station, and from 1944 to 1950 as a proofreader for Hoard’s Dairyman, a job made difficult by her extremely poor eyesight. In 1951 her mother died, both deaf and blind; her father died three years later, leaving her with two houses that had to be foreclosed and very little money. From 1957 to 1962 she was employed by the Fort Atkinson Memorial Hospital as a cleaning woman, sterilizing the dishes and utensils in the kitchen and scrubbing the cafeteria floors. Every day she walked the five miles or so to the hospital and back again to her one-and-a-half room cabin without plumbing on the riverbank. Her isolation from other writers and the austere beauty of her natural surroundings had a notable impact on her work. She chose to write in seclusion, and many of her closest relatives and neighbours were unaware that she was a poet.

In 1931 she read the Objectivist issue of Poetry. She sent her poems to Louis Zukofsky, who had edited the issue. This was the beginning of what proved to be an important relationship for her development as a poet. Zukofsky suggested sending them to Poetry, where they were accepted for publication. Niedecker then found herself in direct contact with the American poetic avant-garde. Near the end of 1933, Niedecker visited Zukofsky in New York City for the first time and became pregnant with his child. He insisted that she have an abortion, which she did, although they remained friends and continued to carry on a mutually beneficial correspondence following Niedecker’s return to Fort Atkinson.

In 1963 at the age of fifty-nine, she married Albert Millen, an industrial painter at Ladish Drop Forge on Milwaukee’s south side, a man who had no idea she wrote poetry and who spent a good deal of time at the local tavern. But he also took her on trips to South Dakota and around Lake Superior and seems to have been the companion she needed at this stage of her life.When Millen retired in 1968, the couple moved back to Blackhawk Island, taking up residence in a small cottage Lorine had built on property she inherited from her father.  She was looking forward to a period of less housework and more time to write when in 1970 she had a stroke and died.





Concerned with the distillation of images and thoughts into concise expression, Niedecker described her work as a “condensery,” and several critics have compared her poetry to the delicate yet concrete verse of Chinese and Japanese writers.

Her early work was influenced by Imagist and Objectivist poets, including Ezra Pound and, especially,  Louis Zukofsky.  The influence of the Objectivist and Imagist schools gradually became less pronounced in her poems as she developed her own idiosyncratic voice and style. Niedecker wrote most often about the world around her on Blackhawk Island—her neighbors and family, history, and the local flora and fauna.

In 1967, she wrote “Much taken up with how to define a way of writing poetry which is not Imagist nor Objectivist fundamentally nor Surrealism alone. ..ZI loosely call it ‘reflections’… reflective. .. The basis is direct and clear – what has been seen or heard – but something gets in, overlays all that to make a state of consciousness… The visual form is there in the background and the words convey what the visual form gives off after it’s felt in the mind… And (there is) awareness of everything influencing everything…”

Although Niedecker’s long correspondence with Louis Zukofsky, who frequently submitted her poems to the journal, Origin, and contact with such respected writers as Cid Corman and Basil Bunting, brought her some critical notice, her work was generally overlooked until late in her life. When she died in 1970, the British poet and critic Basil Bunting eulogized her warmly. “In England,” he wrote, “she was, in the estimation of many, the most interesting woman poet America has yet produced.”




Brief Poems by Lorine Niedecker

For sun and moon and radio
farmers pay dearly;
their natural resource: turn
the world off early.


Remember my little granite pail?
The handle of it was blue.
Think what’s got away in my life—
Was enough to carry me thru.


There’s a better shine
on the pendulum
than is on my hair
and many times
      .. ..
I’ve seen it there.


where her snow-grave is
the You
        ah you
of mourning doves


clean-smelling house
sweet cedar pink
       flesh tint
I love you


My friend tree
I sawed you down
but I must attend
an older friend
the sun


You see here
the influence
of inference

Moon on rippled

‘Except as
and unless’


I hear the weather
      through the house
or is it breathing



A robin stood by my porch
     and side-eyed
          raised up
               a worm



Along the river
     wild sunflowers
over my head
     the dead
who gave me life
     give me this
our relative the air
our rich friend


Poet’s work

      advised me:
            Learn a trade

I learned
      to sit at desk
            and condense

No layoff
      from this


Now in one year
      a book published
            and plumbing—
took a lifetime
      to weep
            a deep


Popcorn-can cover
screwed to the wall
over a hole
      so the cold
can’t mouse in


We are what the seas
have made us

longingly immense

the very veery
on the fence


          on their heads

Thoughts on things
     fold unfold
          above the river beds



We must pull
the curtains—
we haven’t any


A monster owl

A monster owl
out on the fence
flew away. What
is it the sign
of? The sign of
an owl.






The Lorine Niedecker website.

The Poetry Foundation Page on Lorine Niedecker.

The Poets Org site on Lorine Niedecker.

The Electronic Poetry Center Site on Lorine Niedecker.

The Modern American Poetry site on Lorine Niedecker.