Crafting the lines to be carved on a tombstone, distilling the essence of a life into a brief final statement is an innately poetic task, one that has often fallen to the poets among us. Browsing through our library of classic poems, you will discover quite a few “epitaph poems.” They may be elegies or memoirs brief enough to be etched on someone’s grave, like Ben Jonson’s “On My First Son,” a farewell to his eldest son who died of the plague at the age of seven, or Aphra Behn’s “Epitaph on the Tombstone of a Child, the Last of Seven that Died Before.” Or the epitaph may be spun out far beyond the confines of an actual tombstone into a meditation on the nature of poetry and life, like William Wordsworth’s “A Poet’s Epitaph.” And of course many poets have chosen to write their own epitaphs, like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Louis Stevenson and William Butler Yeats.
Being the first month of a new year, January may not seem the right time to you, dear readers, to be thinking on life’s endings. But it’s also the dead of winter—and do you know how many poets’s lives ended in the month of January? At least four, according to our friend Ed Moran—Joseph Brodsky, T.S. Eliot, Hyam Plutzik, and William Butler Yeats. Moran explored the interconnections between the poems and epitaphs of these four in an article we first posted in January 2012 for your midwinter reading pleasure: “Nothing Can Be Done, But Something Can Be Said.”
More on Poets’ Burials and Epitaphs
“Has Lorca's Final Resting Place Been Found at Last?” (2011)
“Shrines to Ted and Sylvia” (2010)
“Poe Properly Buried, 160 Years Later” (2009)