The Ecphorizer

Epigrams and Epitaphs
John Cumming

Issue #13 (September 1982)

Epigrams and Epitaphs
by Aubrey Stewart is a small book, arranged in no particular order, except that the two major divisions indicated in the title are treated in separate chapters. For the serious student of epigrams, there are other works that were current when this book was published in 1897 which would supply a vaster and more orderly selection. The same applies to the epitaphs. Neverless, this little book is one of those joyous finds that serves to reinforce the dedication of those among us who prefer used book stores to the other kind.

[quoteright]The work begins with a brief discussion of the nature of the epigram and of the epitaph. Not surprisingly, the author stresses wit and brevity as the essence of the epigram. The author feels that the literary epitaph should have "brevity, point, and truth..." as well as "pathos." It is the literary epitaph, as opposed to the tomb inscription, which is primarily presented in this book.

The very first entry is the famous epigram:

When Adam delved, and Eve span,
Where was then the gentleman?

In a later example, the problems of rebels and challenges to the establishment are nicely summed up in an epigram attributed to Sir John Harrington:

TREASON doth never prosper. What's the reason?
If it doth prosper: none dare call it treason.

The established church, that so conveniently forgot the message put in the first example given above, was skewered thus, by John Owen:

If Peter ever was at Rome by many has been mooted:
That Simon there was quite at home has never been disputed.

There are a number of anonymous epigrams to be found in this book offering homey advice and simple wisdom. Here's a sampling:


Reader, beware immoderate love of pelf;
Here lies the worst of thieves - who robb'd himself.


Two ears and but a single tongue
By nature's laws to man belong.
The lesson she would teach is clear,
Repeat but half of what you hear.


First in the grape then in the glass
The vine's rich nectar glows;
But last, and most, and longest too,
O Argus, in thy nose.

Of the epitaphs, many are just that, filled with pathos and not the least amusing, but there are a few wits who dared one last barb:


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

Matthew Prior wrote his own epitaph, 340 years after "Adam Delved", in 1721:

Nobles and heralds, by your leave
Here lies the bones of Matthew Prior,
The son of Man and Eve;
Can Bourbon or Nassau go higher?

The Encyclopedia Brittanica (11th Edition) says that English epitaphs seem to offer a wider range of "intellectual and emotional states" than any other nation, excelling even in their coarseness and scurrility. In fact, the sharpest seen indistinguishable from epigrams.


Here lies John Hill, a man of skill,
His age was five times ten,
He never did good, nor never would,
Had he lived as long again.


Here lies a Peck, which some men say
Was first of all a Peck of clay;
This, wrought with skill divine, while fresh,
Became a curious peck of flesh:
Through various forms its Maker ran,
Then adding breath, made Peck a man.
Full sixty years Peck felt life's bubbles,
Till death relieved a Peck of troubles.
Thus fell poor Peck, as all things must,
And here he lies - a Peck of dust.


Underneath this pile of stones
Lie the remains of Mary Jones;
Her name was Lloyd, it was not Jones,
But Jones was put to rhyme with stones.

And finally, for the Latin scholars among us, the kind of pun that was greatly appreciated by the men of Aubrey Stewart's time, and earlier:


Hic Tacet. 

Contributor Profile

John Cumming

john served as a medic in the Vietnam War then returned to Silicon Valley where he has worked as a tchnical writer and programmer at a number of Valley firms. In the 70s - 90s, John held many appointed and elected positions in local and national Mensa - notably as editor of the SFRM newletter Intelligencer and Local Secretary of SFRM, as well as serving as Regional Vice Chair for a number of years. John enjoys a good game of chess and likes nothing better than to curl up and read ancient or niche dictionaries, many of which are reviewed in these pages.