Wednesday, May 14, 2008

James Doelman: "The Parodic Epitaph"

James Doelman

“A Libell, for an Epitaph”: The Parodic Epitaph in the Early Stuart Period


1> The epitaph is among the most frequently practised, but also least discussed, Renaissance literary forms. Its directness, brevity and simplicity have led to this widespread critical gap, one that has been only partially filled by Joshua Scodel’s The English Poetic Epitaph, a valuable survey of the function and dynamics of the form over a number of centuries.[1] However, the satiric sub-genre of the parodic epitaph has been even less considered.[2] Its function is markedly different from the parent genre: it offers a counter to the official version that praised the deceased, suggesting implicitly its fictionality, its priorizing of form over reality.[3] Because of their widespread oral and manuscript circulation many of these have survived, ironically triumphing over the seemingly more permanent official epitaphs engraved in stone. Mock epitaphs of political figures in the early Stuart age are of particular significance, as they contributed to sometimes violent political and factional struggles. While scholars such as Alastair Bellany and Pauline Croft have considered individual instances of such poems,[4] hitherto lacking has been a study that considers them within the theory and conventions of the epitaph as a form in the period.

2> Unlike literal epitaphs, these parodic epitaphs never aspired to brazen permanence; instead their immortality was based upon multiplication of copies, encouraged by brevity and memorability. Margaret Rose’s discussion of parody generally assumes that the approach derives its comic effect from some “incongruity between the original and its parody”,[5] and is generally “the comic refunctioning of preformed linguistic or artistic material”.[6] However, most parodic epitaphs did not respond to official original ones, as the public display of the latter was usually delayed by the long period required for the building of the tomb. Instead, they rewrote the conventions and norms that were widely associated with the genre, in this way offering a pre-emptive parody of what might eventually be inscribed upon the tomb. Thus, this sub-genre functioned significantly differently than most parodies, and, in fact, some official epitaphs and elegies respond to the satiric parodies that preceded them, a phenomenon that will be explored in the final section of this paper.

3> The second type of satiric mock epitaph I consider functions differently, in that its target is not the deceased, but those in positions of power, who might control any official inscribed epitaph. This type functions by once again anticipating the official epitaph (rather than responding to its actual content), but goes beyond it in telling the whole truth. The two types of parodic epitaph then share this quality: that they defy the levelling effect of the epitaph genre, which treats all deceased with the same limited terms of conventional praise.[7]


4> Parodic epitaphs use the same rhetorical techniques that were widespread in the parent form, but the content is shifted from eulogistic praise to sharp rebuke and blame. Implicit is that this particular figure does not deserve the usual rhetoric or epitaphic praise. The conventional opening, “Here lies”, the direct addressing of the passer-by, the cataloguing of qualities, the cause or situation of death, the tension between the fate of the body and soul—all these are adopted by the parodic epitaph. Their manipulation can best be considered in a few specific examples written on the death of powerful figures in the early Stuart period.

5> When Robert Cecil died in 1612, after two decades of ever-increasing political power, there was the usual immediate composition and publication of official elegies.[8] However, more remarkable and discussed was the outpouring of mock epitaphs and other forms of libellous abuse.[9] Such was the public expectation of libellous epitaphs that John Donne (playfully I believe) speculated that friends of Cecil had circulated “tasteless and flat” ones to draw attention away from those more polished ones that “would take deep root”: “For when the noise is risen that libels are abroad, men’s curiosity must be served with something, and it is better for the honour of the person traduced that some blunt, downright railings be vented, of which everybody is soon weary, than other pieces which entertain us long with a delight and love to the things themselves.”[10] Regrettably, Donne gives no indication of which libels he had heard.

6> However, from surviving manuscript evidence, it would seem the most popular was that which in mock pastoral form treated Cecil as “Hobbinoll”:

“Heere lies Hobbinoll our Shepheard while ere
Who once a yeere duely our fleeces did sheere,
To please us his curre he chaynde to a clogg
And was himselfe after both Shepheard and dogg
For oblation to Pan his order was thus
Himselfe gave a trifle and sacrifizde us
And so with his wysedome this provident Swayne
Kept himselfe on the mountayne and us on the playne
Where many a fine Hornepipe he tund’e to his Phillis
And swetely sunge walsingham to Amarillis
Till Atropos payde him, a pox on the drabbe
In spight of the tarbox, he died of the scabbe.”

7> Like panegyric epitaphs, this sums up the life, but here a life of greed and misuse of power, and its concluding on the cause of death is also a common feature. Serious epitaphs frequently focussed upon the corpse that the grave contained, offering some variant on the concept that “the bones lie here, the soul is in heaven.” In the mock epitaphs on Cecil this focus is maintained on the body, but not as a mere empty shell which has been surpassed. Instead the body’s corruption is presented as a marker of the corruption of Cecil’s body during his life, it being widely bruited that he had died of the pox. Such is the case in both “Heere lyes Hobbinol”, and “heere lyes enterred lyttle robyn ye woorthie”[12], a much rarer parodic epitaph on Cecil. This latter poem also includes a facetious portrayal of his soul’s arrival not in heaven, but hell.

8> Francis Osborne noted that it was “the fashion of the Poets all my days, to sum up great mens Vertues or Vices upon their Graves” :[13] often this took the form of a listing of the attributes of the deceased. Many of the mock epitaphs on the death of Buckingham in 1628 suggest that the grave holds not the Duke, but his attributes, places or manifold oppressions of the nation. Like the panegyric epitaph, this could be concluded with the conceit that this small tomb held all these things: “All this lies underneath this stone/And yet (alas) heere lyes but one.”[14] The basic structure of these mock epitaphs was maintained in circulation, but the listed attributes varied, and it is quite possible that such poems slowly accumulated their catalogues of vices.

9> Often, the circumstances of death provided the point of the poem. Typical was the epigram on the earl of Dorset, who in 1608 died in the midst of a case at Whitehall:

“Discourteous Death that wouldst not once confer,
Or daign to parly with our Treasurer:
Had he been Thee, or of thy fatal Tribe,
He would have spar’d a life to gain a bribe.”

10> The exceptional situation of his death allowed for a witty comment that summed up the whole of his public life. This particular example is also very nicely polished, all leading to the balanced phrases of the last line, and the final sharp point on the rhyme word “bribe”.

11> A satiric epitaph did not always wait for the actual death of its subject: composing such epitaphs on one’s friends seems to have been a common exercise of wit in the literary circles at the Inns of Court. It might also be put to more public purpose, as in these widely circulating lines on Lady Anne Lake in 1619:

“Heere lyes the breife of badnes vices nurse
The badge of Usurie the Clergies curse.
The shame of weomen kind, tradsmens decay
The patronesse of pride, Extortions high way
The forge of slaunder, and each wild action
ffrend to romes whore, Spy to the Spanish faction
A bitch of court, a common slincking snake
Worse then all these, Heere lyes the Ladie Lake.”

12> Written about a living figure, a parodic epitaph may be a reminder of the legacy that the subject might face on her actual death. Like the epitaphs on Buckingham, this is a catalogue of the vices of its subject, only finally named in the concluding couplet, which also suggests that her name and reputation already surpass all the listed vicious roles.


13> The most widely circulating parodic epitaphs were pejorative, and only a short list of exceptional figures enjoyed widespread celebratory epitaphs: Sir Philip Sidney, Essex, Prince Henry and Ralegh. Many of these criticize those who survive, either for their neglect of the dead, or their failure to match his accomplishments. All these are parodic in that they are not inscribed on the tomb, and often proudly see themselves as uninscribable because of their outspokenness (or the lack of any proper tomb to mark). Thus, a prose epitaph on the Earl of Essex addresses the reader: “Here lyes Robert Earle of Essex, who being naturally good was by the iniquity of the Times compeld to die Justly, Yow expected an Epitaph and instead hereof you have a Ridle.”[17] The death, the tomb, and the very absence of a traditional epitaph of praise stand as an indictment of the age. The contrasting of the funerary responses to the death of a number of important figures was also widespread. The lavish tomb of Sir Christopher Hatton (d. 1591) thus became the focal point of mocking epitaphs (and anti-epitaphs), of which Thomas Bastard’s was the best-known:

“Sir Francis and sir Philip, have no Toombe,
Worthy of all the honour that may be.
And yet they lye not so for want of roome,
Or want of love in their posteritie.
Who would from living hearts vntombe such ones,
To bury under a fewe marble stones?
Vertue dyes not, her tombe we neede not raise,
Let them trust tombs which have outliv'd their praise.”

14> These lines adopt a rhetorical strategy that Scodel associates with the humanist tradition: the virtuous deceased need no lavish tomb, as their honour and fame have already been achieved through their deeds.[19] In this way Hatton’s tomb manifests an attempt to make up for deficiencies in the life, while Sidney and Walsingham are appropriately entombed in surviving loyal hearts. However, the poetic lines that find no tomb to mark are still necessary to explain the absence. While this was a rare case where authorship was claimed in print, these lines, like many parodic epitaphs, enjoyed wide circulation, including changes, additions and even translations. A contemporary reference suggests that the lines had actually been placed upon this “most sumptuous Monument” by “a merry poet”.[20] This practice of actually placing the lines on the tomb, however temporarily, was frequent: it happened with those on Archbishop Whitgift,[21] and with the tomb of the epigrammatist John Owen in 1623.

15> Similar to the Hatton epitaphs are those prompted by the death of Thomas Washington, a page to Prince Charles on the much-maligned 1623 voyage to Spain; he was apparently denied a tomb there, which provided an opportunity for comment on the politics of the Spanish Match in the form of a widely-circulated elegy, which in many manuscripts concludes with an imagined epitaph, beginning “Knew’st thou whose these ashes were”.[22] It opens with a familiar trope from elegies on those who die young: they were ripe in maturity or virtue, but not in years. However, the poem takes an abrupt political turn in the fourth couplet as it turns to the conventional consideration of the cause of death: “Inquire not his disease, or payne:/He dyed of nothing but of Spayne.”[23] The death is supernatural in that it is caused by political circumstances rather than any illness. The lines following offer another role for this epitaph: it circulates and acknowledges Washington’s death in a way that no literal epitaph is allowed to do:

“Where hee is not allow’d to have
(Unlesse by stealth) a quiet grave
Hee needs no Epitaph, nor stone
But this: Here lyes lord Washington.”

16> Here the content of a potential epitaph is less important than there be at least some epitaph, however brief. The political circumstances of Prince Charles and Buckingham’s situation in Spain had brought about a situation where an Englishman of good birth was not even provided the bare essentials of a tomb and simple epitaph marker. The poem then offers an imagined one in its place, written with tears upon the dust of Washington’s own body, which will be reinscribed by tears of subsequent mourners. Those readers would be mourning the general folly of the Spanish Match as well as the death of the young Washington.

17> John Felton, the killer of Buckingham in 1628, is another whose unburied body was commemorated by many, most successfully in these widely circulating epitaphic lines:

“heere uninterr’d suspends (though not to save
Surviving frends th’expenses of A grave)
Feltons dead earth wch to the world must bee
Its owne sadd monument, his Elegie
As large as Fame, but whether badd or good
I say not; by him selfe ‘twas writt in blood:
ffor wth his bodie is intomb’d in ayre
Arch’t ore with Heaven, sett with A thousand faire
And glorious Diamond starres. A Sepulchre
that Tyme cann never Ruinate, and where
Th’impartiall worme (wch is not brib’d to spare
Princes corrupt in Marble) cannot share
his Flesh, wch oft the Charitable skyes
Embalme with teares: doeing those obsequies
Belonge to men shall rest, till pittying fowle
Contend to beare his Bodie to his Soule.”

18> This is among the more clever of parodic epitaphs, playing with the reality that here there is no tomb for the lines to mark.[25] They themselves float in the air, passed by word of mouth and manuscript, a fitting marker of the unburied Felton, who was left to hang in chains.[26]

19> The poet holds back from affirming this as either a “good or bad” elegy, but he directs the reader to the “elegy” that Felton wrote himself: the slaying of Buckingham. This pointing to an act or accomplishment on the part of the deceased as the ultimate epitaph is itself a conventional rhetorical step in the epitaph tradition.[27] (It is of course an extension of the inability trope.) Here the gesture enables the poet to evade ultimate responsibility for his affirmation of the act: it speaks for itself. The lines that follow recreate a funerary scene, but here the usual marble and candles are replaced by the natural elements, becoming in this way a divine affirmation of Felton’s act. This “sepulchre” unlike marble and “gilded monuments” will be eternal, achieving that which many epitaphs strove to establish for their subjects. The final reality of vermiculation, suffered even by “Princes in marble” (a warning to King Charles?) is also avoided by this “heavenly burial”.


20> As might be expected, straightforward satiric epitaphs prompted a backlash, particularly from the friends of the deceased. Richard Johnson’s commemoration of Cecil’s death responds to the specific outpouring of satiric epitaphs; rather than memorials; he sees that poetry “carelessly gives way to envy (that canker-worme to greatnesse) to eate out all remembrance of mortallitie[.]”[28] However, in some cases the response to satiric epitaphs took the form of counter-epitaphs. In Cecil’s defence, William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, wrote an epitaph that survives in a number of manuscripts. It draws on standard features of the epitaph tradition, beginning with its direct (if awkward) addressing of those who pass by the tomb: “You that reade passing by/Robert, Earle of Salisburye:”, and concludes with the common consolation that while the tomb holds his corpse, heaven has his soul. Here, however, Pembroke adds a detail to the usual rhetoric: “Heaven and friends preserve the rest.” [my italics]. This points to the role of Pembroke in defending Cecil against the “dogs” that had “snarled” after his death.[29] In such exchanges we see survivors struggling to control the legacy of the deceased. None might triumph by being physically inscribed on the tomb, but they vied to be pre-eminent in circulation and memory: to be become known as the epitaph.

21> In the letter regarding the Cecil epitaphs, John Donne goes on to challenge the function of such verses:

“there may be cases where one may do his country good service by libelling against a live man; for where a man is either too great, or his vices too general to be brought under a judiciary accusation, there is no way but this extraordinary accusing, which we call libelling, and I have heard that nothing hath soupled and allayed the Duke of Lerma in his violent greatness so much as the often libels made upon him. But after death it is in all cases unexcusable.”

22> Donne finds such parodic epitaphs empty of satiric purpose, but overlooks how they (like the displayed corpse of Felton) might function as a warning to the living to change their ways to avoid a similar legacy.[30] Francis Osborne, in recording the “Hobbinol” epitaph on Cecil, noted that they “came from so smart a Pen in the Kings sense, that he said, he hoped the Author would die before him: who it was God knows.”[31]

23> Such a purpose is recognized by Richard Brathwaite, whose Remains after Death (1619) offers an extensive discussion of the epitaph genre. He too attacks those who engage in satiric epitaphs:

Epitaphs of this sort we have too frequent, being forged out of the braine of unseasoned Satyrists, that without distinction bend their wits to asperse imputation upon the deserved memorie of the dead: men of basest nature, defaming such [E4v] whose silence gives them freer scope and priviledge of detraction[.]”[32]

24> Brathwaite suggests their cowardly nature, in that they are attacking the silently defenceless. However, he then acknowledges his earlier suggestion that epitaphs could depict vices as well as virtues; however,

“these Descriptions are to bee shadowed and suited with modest allusions, equally disposed Allegories as their vices, though in part discovered, yet that discovery so intangled as may minister matter of observation to the judicious, and leave the ignorant in a continuall suspense.” [sig. E5r]

25> This is a fascinating argument for a sophisticated approach to parodic epitaphs, suggesting a possible double audience. Ultimately, Brathwaite does include a selection of such “prophane epitaphs” in his collection, those he suggests “modestly discover vice in her nativest colors”.[33] Seemingly, his objection was to those crude libellous epitaphs that lack subtlety in their method, and discernment in their targets. However, any writer of epitaphs ought to proceed carefully, as he could never to expect to have the last word: Robert Gomersall warned that they should experience:

“The same Rigor, that they shew
That 'tis not generous, nor scarcely safe
To make a Libell, for an Epitaph.”


[1] (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991).

[2] “Parodic epitaph” is my own term for this subgenre; I have found the following contemporary terms used: Richard Brathwaite, in his great collection Remains after Death (1619) calls them “prophane epitaphs” (sig. E4r.), and John Taylor the water-poet playfully refers to them as “epi-knaves” (I Marry Sir, heere is newes indeed, [1623?], (1642), p. 5.

[3] Most literary epitaphs (as distinct from inscribed ones) might be construed as parodies; however, the majority of these lack only inscription: they fully adopt the tone, style and matter of those on tombs.

[4] Bellany, “A Poem on the Archbishop’s Hearse: Puritanism, Libel and Sedition after the Hampton Court Conference,” Journal of British Studies, 34 (1995), pp. 137-64; Croft, ‘The reputation of Robert Cecil: libels, political opinion and popular awareness in the early seventeenth century’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th ser., 1 (1991), pp. 43–69.

[5] Margaret A. Rose, Parody: Ancient, Modern and Post-Modern, (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993), p. 45.

[6] Rose, p. 52.

[7] I omit from this abbreviated study another variety of mock epitaph: that which jestingly plays on the name or occupation of a not necessarily significant figure. That on the bellows-maker was particularly famous.

[8] Cecil was buried relatively quietly in St. Etheldreda’s Church, Hatfield; the fine tomb by Maximilien Colt still survives, but I have not yet been able to learn what epitaph (if any) is upon it. See Erna Auerbach and C. Kingsley Adams, Paintings and Sculpture at Hatfield House, (London: Constable, 1971), pp. 111-12.

[9] John Donne wrote “Nothing in my Lord Salisbury’s death exercised my poor consideration so much as the multitude of libels.” (Life and Letters, ed. Edmund Gosse, 2 vols., (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1959), vol. 1, p. 312.) Similarly, the Earl of Dorset wrote, “More ill-spoken of and in more several kinds, than I think ever anyone was”. (Stowe MS, 172/319, 22 June 1612, qtd. in Algernon Cecil, A Life of Robert Cecil, First Earl of Salisbury, (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1915), p. 343.

[10] Life and Letters, vol. 1, p. 313.

[11] “Early Stuart Libels” reproduces BL MS Egerton 2230, fol. 34r, and offers a list of many of the places where this poem is found.

[12] Camb. MS Add. 57, fol. 95r.

[13] Traditional Memorials of King James, in The Works of Francis Osborne, 8th ed. (1682), 537.

[14] Bodl. MS Malone 23, p. 143.

[15] Osborne, 536-7; Osborne wryly notes that he was “called to answer at a higher Tribunal”. Variant copies are found in Bodl. Don.d.58, fol. 18r; Hunt. 116, p. 25; BL.Add.10309, fol. 153r; Rosenbach 187, p. 114; Bodl.Ashmole 781, fol. 136r; Folger V.a.345, p. 33; Folger V.a.262, p. 154.

[16] Bodl. Malone 23, pp. 5-6. It also appears in Folger V.a.345, p. 260; Rosenbach 187, p. 99; Huntington 116, p. 174 (in both Rosenbach and Huntington the figure is identified as “Lady Wake”); Camb. Add. 9221, fol. 109v; Camb. Add. MS 4138, fol. 47v. Lake did not die until 1630; on the public mockery of her ca. 1619, see Bellany in Oxford DNB.

[17] Camb. Add. MS 9221, fol. 109v.

[18] Chrestoleros, (1598), 4:31.

[19] pp. 17-49.

[20] John Stow, A Survey of London: Reprinted from the Text of 1603, ed. Charles Lethbridge Kingsford, 2 vols., (Oxford: Clarendon, 1908), p. 338. the herald Augustine Vincent records both a two and eight-line version, and then a Latin translation. (College of Arms, MS 218, p. 249.) In this manuscript someone has very carefully completely x-ed out the lemma. A similar suppression is found in a copy in Camb. MS. Add. 9221, fol. 99r, where the second line reads: “for great xxair [sic] hath all the roome”.

[21] See Bellany.

[22] See, for example, Bodl. MS Rawl.Poet. 26, fol. 76v.

[23] Folger V.a.262. It also appears in Huntington 198, vol. 1, p. 22; BL.Add. 25303, fol. 136r; Rosenbach 188, p. 192; Folger V.a.345, p. 102; BL Add. 15227, fol. 10v; Bodl. Rawl. 26, fol. 76v.

[24] Malone MS 23, fol. 210v. Manifold manuscript copies of the poem survive; see the version and accompanying discussion in “Early Stuart Libels”. The final couplet is problematic; I have chosen the Malone version as it shows the work of the copyist in attempting to make sense of the lines. In that manuscript, they are originally written, “Belonge to men shall last, and pittying fowle/Contend to beare his Bodie to his Soule”, which is commonly found in other manuscripts, but has then been amended as it reads above. For discussion of the potential authorship of the poem, see Holstun, Ehud's dagger: class struggle in the English Revolution, (London; New York: Verso, 2000), p. 184.

[25] A thorough and perceptive reading of the poem is offered in Holstun, pp. 184-6, but treated more as an elegy than a parodic epitaph on a non-existent tomb.

[26] Oxford DNB.

[27] Famous examples would include that on Christopher Wren in St. Paul’s, “Lector, Si Monumentum Requiris Circumspice”. The conceit goes back at Cato, who would have no shrine or monument “supposing his vertues to be sufficient annals and records to eternise his name” (Brathwaite, Remains after Death, (1619), sig. D1r).

[28] A remembrance of the honors due to the life and death of Robert Earle of Salisbury, (1612), sig. A2r.

[29] Dr. Farmer Chetham Manuscript, ed. Alexander B. Grosart, (Manchester, 1873), p. 188.

[30] This is an argument widespread in the satiric tradition: that a satiric attack on an individual was not likely to change that figure’s behaviour, but might correct others out of fear of a similar public ridiculing.

[31] Works, (1673), p. 514.

[32] sig. E4r-v.

[33] sig. E5v.

[34] Robert Gomersall, “To his [Mr. John Deane of New College] Detractors.” Poems, (1633), p. 9.

James Doelman is an Associate Professor of English at Brescia University College, University of Western Ontario. He is engaged in a study of epigrams and epitaphs in the period 1590-1640, from which recent articles have appeared in The Huntington Library Quarterly, and Christianity and Literature.

APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture,, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume One (2008): Genres & Cultures

No comments: