Having the Last Word

When my sister and I toured Italy some years ago, we made a point, during our stay in Florence, of visiting the English Cemetery.  It seemed only right to pay our respects to Elizabeth Barrett Browning while we were there.

Elizabeth Barrett-Browning 2

Number 43 from ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight

For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.

I love thee to the level of every day’s

Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.

I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;

I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.

I love thee with the passion put to use

In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.

I love thee with a love I seemed to lose

With my lost saints,—I love thee with the breath,

Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,

I shall but love thee better after death.

Her tomb surprised me.  I found it beautiful in design, but surprisingly devoid of words for a monument of remembrance to a poet who had been married to another famous poet (Robert Browning).  She died in 1861 and he died in 1889, so it wasn’t that he predeceased her and could have no say in the inscription on her monument.  Mind you, I think now that the words would have interfered with the design, and were probably superfluous anyway.

Elizabeth_Barrett_Browning, tomb in the English Cemetery, Florence

I wonder what the Scorpioni thought of it.  They were, as you may know, a small group of genteel, expatriate English ladies who lived in Florence in the 1930s and 1940s, and who were in the habit of visiting the English Cemetery.  Supposedly they were called Scorpioni (scorpions, in English translation) because of their arch humour and stinging wit.

I cannot tell you how much I love that.  I picture–rightly or wrongly–a 1930s/40s Italian world wherein the choices of ideal womanhood would be divided between the voluptuous young woman (à la Sophia Loren/Gina Lollobrigida), or the plump, kitchen-loving mama.  In that world, I imagine elderly women subsided into black-shawled nonentities scuttling back and forth between home and market–on those rare occasions when they could be seen at all.

What would Italians of the time possibly have made of these English ladies?  OF COURSE those women would have packed a sting like a scorpion for the dominant sex in Italy.  They operated outside the cultural boundaries for that time and in that place.  There must have been occasions when the Scorpioni and the local Italian authorities locked horns over one issue or another, with neither side willing to give an inch, because it would be unthinkable for either that they should need to.  Franco Zeffirelli’s movie, Tea with Mussolini (1999), gives us a small window on that worldI wish I could discover what happened to the Scorpioni after they were sent to an internment camp at the start of WWII.

Back to my topic, which, incidentally, is the character of inscriptions on grave markers for famous writers, poets, philosophers, and suchlike–people who worked with, and lived for, words and ideas.  I was curious about what words might have accompanied them (or their family members, in some cases) to their last resting places.  It’s a large topic with plenty of scope, and I can only skim the surface.

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (16 October 1854 – 30 November 1900) was an Irish playwright, novelist, essayist, and poet, who died at the ‘dingy’ Hôtel d’Alsace in Paris of meningoencephalitis secondary to chronic right middle-ear disease.  It is believed that Wilde had a cholesteatoma, a destructive form of chronic suppurative otitis media (for you medical types).  The ear infection first occurred in 1896 during his imprisonment for sodomy, four years before his death on November 30, 1900.  (Ashley H. Robins, Sean L. Sellars, The Lancet, Vol 356, November 25, 2000)

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery, where he was re-interred in 1909 after his first burial at Bagneux at the time of his death in 1900.

The inscription on his tomb consists of these lines from The Ballad of Reading Gaol, written by Wilde in 1897…

And alien tears will fill for him

Pity’s long-broken urn,

For his mourners will be outcast men,

And outcasts always mourn.

Wilde was bankrupt at the time of his death, and so his friends could provide only un enterrement de sixième classe (a sixth-class burial) at Bagneux, outside the city.  Robert Ross, Wilde’s friend and literary executor, eventually succeeded in annulling Wilde’s bankruptcy with the sale of some of Wilde’s works, and subsequently purchased a burial plot “in perpetuity” at Père Lachaise.  Helen Carew, a friend of Ross’s who had known Wilde in his heyday, anonymously offered £2,000 to commission a monument for Wilde by sculptor Jacob Epstein. This was unveiled in 1914.  (This information was taken from The Guardian, Nov 27, 2011; they were quoting Merlin Holland, Wilde’s grandson.)


I can’t discover who chose the words from The Ballad of Reading Gaol for the inscription on Wilde’s tomb, but it was likely Robert Ross.  Another possibility might be Helen Carew. In any case I think that those lines are very suitable, reflecting, as they appear to do, not only his broken life and career but his self-imposed exile.  Wilde’s wife even had to change her surname and that of their children to ‘Holland’ to escape notoriety.  It was tantamount to a total erasure of his former life.  How tragic that someone with such sparkling wit and humour–who gave us so much enjoyment and entertainment–should have been ostracized, reduced to poverty, and tormented with terrible suffering before his too-early death.

Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens) had more than his share of family grief, with the loss of an infant son to diphtheria in 1872, the loss of his daughter, Susy, from spinal meningitis at age 24 in 1896, the loss of his wife at age 58 in 1904, and the loss of his 29-year-old daughter, Jean, from an epileptic seizure which resulted in her drowning in the bath at Christmastime, 1909.  Of his four children only his daughter Clara outlived him; she died in 1962 at age 88.

Mark Twain

Susy, it seems, was a particular favourite of Twain’s.  In a 64-page unpublished document he wrote after her death, he said: “She was a magazine of feelings, & they were of all kinds & of all shades of force; & she was so volatile, as a little child, that sometimes the whole battery came into play in the short compass of a day. She was full of life, full of activity, full of fire, her waking hours were a crowding & hurrying procession of enthusiasms … Joy, sorrow, anger, remorse, storm, sunshine, rain, darkness – they were all there: They came in a moment, & they were gone as quickly.”

Susy Clemens, ca 1885

“In all things she was intense: in her this characteristic was not a mere glow, dispensing warmth, but a consuming fire.”  (Ed Pilkington quoting Twain in The Guardian, April 21, 2010)

For her gravestone, Twain borrowed from the poem “Annette” by poet Robert Richardson published in a book titled Willow and Wattle (1893).

These are the actual lines borrowed from Richardson’s poem…

Warm summer sun, shine friendly here/Warm western wind, blow kindly here;/Green sod above, rest light, rest light,/Good-night, Annette!/Sweetheart, good-night!

Susy Clemens tombstone

As we can see, Twain altered the poem a little for Susy.  Interestingly, when the poem is viewed in its entirety, there is a line shortly before the ones chosen by Twain that says, “Broke a foolish heart in twain.”  By her early death, Susy did indeed break a heart in Twain.

As for Twain’s own tombstone, it has no verse.  I should imagine that this would have been according to his wishes, since his daughter Clara would have been there in 1910 to carry out his burial arrangements.

Mark Twain headstone

Here’s an interesting anecdote…In 1909, Twain said:

“I came in with Halley’s comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’ Oh! I am looking forward to that.” (Mark Twain: A Biography, The Personal and Literary Life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens by Albert Bigelow Paine.)  [The perihelion (point at which it comes closest to the sun) of Halley’s Comet for 1835 was November 16th; for 1910 it was April 20th.  Twain was born on November 30 of 1835, and died on April 21 of 1910.]

I tried to find George Bernard Shaw’s tombstone inscription, since various internet sources report it to be:  “I Knew If I Stayed Around Long Enough Something Like This Would Happen!”  It looked a bit unlikely to me, and in fact that does not appear to be correct–at least, not that I can find.  I’ve read that he was cremated after his death on November 2, 1950, his ashes mixed with those of his wife who predeceased him in 1943, and then scattered in the garden of his home, Shaw’s Corner, in Ayot St. Lawrence, Hertfordshire, England.

George Bernard Shaw

Internet sources for tombstone epitaphs can be very unreliable—I believe it only when I see the photographic evidence.  To borrow a quote from David Hume, “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.”  Also wise women, I think—or at least women making an effort to be wise.

For example, the following was advertised on some internet sites as the inscription on David Hume’s own monument in Edinburgh:

David Hume (1711-1776)

“Within this circular idea/Called vulgarly a tomb/The ideas and impressions lie/That constituted Hume”

…but I couldn’t find it. I read all sorts of articles about the tomb, but this inscription was in nothing that I read. Just as well, since I find that inscription pretty feeble. The ideas and impressions that constituted Hume lie in his tomb? Hmmm…don’t think so, actually.

Hume was a “Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist known especially for his philosophical empiricism and skepticism.” (Encyclopedia Britannica’s description) He also shocked the ordinary folk of his time with his atheism. It was apparently expected by them that he would do a volte-face and embrace religion as he lay dying of what is thought to have been an abdominal cancer of some kind. After Hume’s burial, his friends reportedly had to stand armed guard in case his grave was interfered with–so many people lurked nearby to see if the devil would come to claim him.

David Hume

“The populace of the day took a certain interest in his interment, but it was not of a flattering kind. They visited the cemetery afterwards, expecting to find a rifled sepulchre. Satan, it was confidently believed, would come, or had come, in person to remove the body of his very own. Not without a certain horror the citizens for years watched the figure of an elderly gentleman with broad face and benevolent smile and a somewhat corpulent habit of body though his life was simplicity itself. Day by day he trod their streets, as familiar as the Tron Kirk or the Crown of St Giles. As the years went by the step became less active and the corpulency more accentuated, but there was always the same placid smile, with a depth of humour and irony which none probed.” (Edinburgh and The Lothians (1912), by Francis Watt, Chapter XV – The Graveyards of Edinburgh, from electricscotland.com)

These are the instructions Hume left in his will, concerning his memorial:

“I also ordain that, if I shall dye any where in Scotland, I shall be bury’d in a private manner in the Gallon Church Yard [also known as the Calton graveyard], the South Side of it, and a Monument be built over my Body at an Expence not exceeding a hundred Pounds, with an Inscription containing only my Name with the Year of my Birth and Death, leaving it to Posterity to add the Rest.”

The Ancient-Roman-style cylindrical mausoleum was designed by Hume’s friend, the famous architect Robert Adam, and construction was completed in 1778.

Old_Calton_David_Hume tomb

Interestingly, the mausoleum became something of a family vault, and subsequently adulterated with religious symbols and a decidedly Christian-inspired verse above the doorway:

“Behold I come quickly Thanks be to GOD which giveth us the victory, through our LORD JESUS CHRIST.”

This was added much later, when Hume’s nephew memorialized his wife by inscribing her name on a funerary urn in a niche above the door, with the religious verse shown between it and David Hume’s name. It was intended for her and not him, but it would be difficult to determine that from looking at it.

David Hume monument inscriptions

It does rather give the impression that the great man’s atheism was little more than a rumour.

So, be ye hereby warned: if you wish for something in particular to be engraved on your memorial stone after your passing, you might want to get busy now, while you’re still around to see that things happen as they should.

Otherwise, chances are that somebody else will be having the last word.




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