Quoting Death in Early Modern England

Peter J. Smith deciphers how commemorative texts reflect historical and religious influences

June 25, 2009

For William Wordsworth, the epitaph was a "truth hallowed by love - the joint offspring of the worth of the dead and the affections of the living". In Quoting Death in Early Modern England, Scott L. Newstok asks about epitaphs, "what function do they serve? How, and why, do they get used?" He comes up with a number of fascinating answers. Clearly, in the light of Wordsworth's definition, the epitaph both commemorates the dead and comforts those remaining, but the textual encapsulation of spent life also confers a bizarre immortality in the manner of a Shakespearean sonnet: "So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee."

The epitaph demarcates the site of the dead in a particular and unique location - "Here lies ..." - and Newstok underlines what he calls the inscription's "'here'-ness", talking of "an anxious insistence on the place beneath the stone". The reassurance of a specific and specified place, he argues, addressed six cultural concerns to do with identity, corporeality, religion, memory, the possession of assets and "the representative properties of language itself". But the early modern proclivity to collect and anthologise such funerary texts also made them paradoxically and enduringly portable. Newstok's subtitle, The Poetics of Epitaphs Beyond the Tomb, spells out their mobile peculiarity; the "beyond" works here both temporally and spatially.

Newstok argues that the Tudor period was one of "epitaphic saturation" and that this came about because of the dismantling of Catholic memorial practices following the Reformation.

One effect of this epistemic shift was to promote an early modern emphasis on self-fashioning: "Purgatory, annual masses, and prayers for the dead ensured the perpetuation of memory; the dissolution of these institutional practices encouraged an individualistic turn." But the Reformation was "fitful and convulsive rather than smooth and linear" and so we should not expect to find a homogeneous attitude towards the epitaph. This is borne out by the fact that while much of the destruction of Catholic rituals and accoutrements occurred under the rule of her father, Queen Elizabeth I "had a particular interest in the preservation of tombstone memorials". Indeed, she formulated her own epitaph in a speech to Parliament: "a marble stone shall declare that a Queene, having raigned such a tyme, lived and dyed a virgin".

The commonplace Renaissance analogy between life and the theatre leads Newstok to examine the place of the epitaph in the plays of the period. He suggests that the relationship between theatre and the Church was a fraught one: "stage plays were treading on ecclesiastical territory in their representation of bodies not precisely present". Theatrical personification too closely resembled incarnation and so evoked "a troublingly similar embodiment with no reference whatsoever to the divine element". These uncertainties of impersonation undermined the epitaph's association with historical veracity (its apparently accurate presentation of the deceased's name as well as the dates of birth and death) while, outside the theatre, its elegiac function made it biographically unreliable; as Dr Johnson put it, "In lapidary inscriptions a man is not upon oath".

There is an intriguing discussion of the conclusive function of the epitaph. Again the contrast is a religious one: whereas the Catholic Church remained "devoted to cyclical conceptions of time", the apocalyptic spirit of the Reformation uneasily emphasised ultimate termination: "closural anxiety in the reader and writer grew during the English Renaissance as confidence waned in more liturgical modes of conclusion". This is a stimulating exploration of a neglected genre and Newstok is an adroit commentator on the emergence and circulation of the early modern epitaph.

Quoting Death in Early Modern England: The Poetics of Epitaphs Beyond the Tomb

By Scott L. Newstok

Palgrave Macmillan, 244pp, £50.00

ISBN 9780230203259

Published 17 December 2008

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