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Just A Minute, 3

April 20, 2018

Just a minute to wonder about time that eventually ends for all mortals and the final words they leave to mark their lives. Some might find reading epitaphs grim, but they are revealing. College classes in pre-Shakespearean literature wet my appetite for poetry and antiquity, while it made a terrible speller of me. Kyd, Marlowe, Spencer. and Lyly are not familiar names to the modern unacquainted reader, but Shakespeare borrowed from their works,. If one would honor someone, he borrows, but returns with interest.

Edmund Spencer (1522- 1596), author of The Faerie Queene is buried at Westminster Abbey in the Poets’ Corner. When Goode Queene Bess failed to pay the 100 pounds she had promised to him, Spencer wrote, “I was promised on a time— To have a reason for my rhyme… From that time unto this season… I received nor rhyme nor reason.” She paid. Spencer’s epitaph says, “Here lies the body of a poet. The prince of poets in this time, Whose divine spirit needs no other witness Than the works he left behind.” Self-congratulatory certainly, but contemporary poets and the public threw pens and pieces of poetry in his grave with their copious tears.

Ben Johnson’s (1573-1637) grave is simply marked, “O rare.” Nearby is the grave of his son. seven years of age. Johnson wrote, “lent to me, but escaped the world’s and flesh’s rage, and if no other misery than Age. My best piece of poetry, for what I love can never live too much.” A romantic  Ben wrote, “Drink to me only with thine eyes, and I will drink with mine: or leave a kiss within the cup, and I’ll not look for wine.”

John Donne (1572-1631) is remembered for his poetry and philosophy. We know him for “No man is an island entire of itself…” His epitaph expresses his religious beliefs, “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.”

Not an Elizabethan, but the writer of many rhymed couplets, Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744) wrote, “Good Nature and Good Sense must ever combine. To err is human, to forgive divine.” His grave suggests his grand ideas. ” Heroes and Kings! Your distance keep. In peace let this poor poet sleep. Who never flattered folks like you. Let Horace blush and Virgil too.”

Robert Southey (1813 – 1843) wrote the first version of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,”  in which a witch discovers and eats the porridge, and then jumps out a window when encountered by angry bears. He sleeps under the words, “Beneath these poppies buried deep, the bones of Bob the bard lie hid. Peace to his manes (spirit) and may he sleep — as soundly as his readers did.”    Dead poets leave their words behind them!

 

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