Sunday Pages: "For One Who Would Not Be Buried in Westminster Abbey"
An epitaph by Alexander Pope.
There was a point in college—this was in the early 90s—when it felt like we Gen Xers were living through the lamest and most insignificant period of American history. The Greatest Generation beat Hitler. The Baby Boomers had The Sixties—an entire decade of momentous activity that changed the world forever (and which they refused to shut up about). And us? We had grunge, clunky home computers, and The Simpsons. The Soviet Union broke up my senior year of high school, our president was young and reasonably liberal, there were no endless wars we had to go fight in. Life was cushy. Our greatest generational worry was that our computer programs weren’t smart enough to grasp that 1999 should be followed by 2000 and not 1900. History, it seemed, had passed us by.
How stupid we were! How naïve!
What seemed like the end of history proved to be the calm before the storm. Hurricane Clio was merely gathering strength, preparing for the Category 5 onslaught. My fiftieth year on this vale of tears feels like the most significant inflection point since D-Day. I am reminded of the famous opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
The superlative degree of comparison only, meaning, as Billy Joel once sang, we go to extremes: the best! the worst! Or, in our case: the dumbest! the most criminal! the pettiest! the cruelest! the most frustrating! And, when we consider climate change: the direst!
Paradoxes abound. We can crash a garbage can into an asteroid a zillion miles away, but I can’t talk to LB when she’s driving through a canyon without her cellphone crapping out. We survived the worst plague in a century because of the brilliance of our scientists, who banged out a vaccine in record time—but a significant percentage of the country is convinced this is an evil globalist plot and refuses to get the jab. Half the world is fighting to overthrow strongmen, while the other half may as well be right-swiping a despot dating app (called Dictatr, obviously). It may be that Orwell’s grim prophesy will come true—“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.”—or it may be that Putin, Khamenei, and Trump will all go down within a month or two of the seemingly-eternal queen passing.
Perhaps this is what compelled me to spend a few hours yesterday reading famous epitaphs. Last week, while researching the various early-nineteenth-century Brits Shelley calls out in “The Masque of Anarchy,” I came across an epitaph that Lord Byron wrote on the death of Castlereagh, the much-loathed Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs:
Posterity will ne’er survey
A nobler grave than this:
Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:
Stop, traveller, and piss.
Byron’s lines can be easily modified to suit our own purposes, on that happy day when the remains of FPOTUS are deposited somewhere along Bedminster’s back nine:
You won’t see, as long as you live,
A nobler grave than this:
Here lie the bones of Forty Five:
Stop here, golfer, and piss.
The most famous epitaph writer is probably Alexander Pope (1688-1744), the sort of naughty wit who, if he were alive today, would be in consideration to replace Trevor Noah at The Daily Show, but is now known solely for writing the way-too-long poem from which is taken the title of a zany Charlie Kaufman film. The death of an earlier and less consequential queen—Caroline of Ansbach, wife of George II—inspired Pope to compose one of his more searing epitaphs. Stricken by what was probably colon cancer, the unfortunate Caroline died when the royal surgeon, attended by a ninety-year-old doctor who accidentally set his wig on fire during the procedure(!), decided to slice away part of her protruding intestine rather than repair it. It was, shall we say, a shitty was to go. Of his former friend, with whom he had a falling out, Pope wrote:
Here lies, wrapt up in forty thousand towels,
The only proof that Caroline had bowels.
That one, needless to say, was not immortalized at Westminster Abbey—although quite a few of his other epitaphs were. Pope himself was interred not at Westminster but at St. Mary’s Church in someplace called Twickenham, which I’m pretty sure is made up. This is the epitaph he wrote for himself:
For One Who Would Not Be Buried in Westminster Abbey
HEROES and KINGS! your distance keep;
In peace let one poor Poet sleep,
Who never flatter’d folks like you:
Let Horace blush, and Virgil too.
Telling the Romans to fuck off, I must say, is excellent form.
Inspired by Pope, I tried my own hand at the epitaph, with mixed results. (Two of these figures are, alas, still alive, but newspapers don’t wait until the last minute to write obituaries.)
An Epitaph on Putin
Vast was his treasure, and great was his fall.
Everything else about Putin was small.
An Epitaph on Trump
The moment that he died is when
He made America great again.
An Even Shorter Epitaph on Trump
An Epitaph on Queen Elizabeth II
The wonder of her long reign is
The lack of public rows and quarrels.
The worst that we can say of Liz:
She tried, but couldn’t outlive Charles.
On Friday night, LB and I welcomed Alessandra “Alias Vaughn” to The Five 8, to give us the skinny on “Fascist Barbie,” the new Italian prime minister:
Photo credit: Ky Olsen.
Your epitaphs are the best!
Brilliant! I needed a laugh out loud this morning. Cheers Greg ❤