Thursday, February 27, 2014


Earlier this month I posted the following poem from The Greek Anthology:

This stone, beloved Sabinus, on thy grave
     Memorial small of our great love shall be.
I still shall seek thee lost; from Lethe's wave
     Oh! drink not thou forgetfulness -- of me.

Anonymous (translated by Goldwin Smith), in Henry Wellesley (editor), Anthologia Polyglotta: A Selection of Versions in Various Languages, Chiefly from The Greek Anthology (1849).

I realize that some may find the poem to be slight:  four lines by a nameless ancient poet translated by a Victorian historian who dabbled in poetry. And I suspect that those who have knowledge of the original Greek text may find the translation wanting (and/or florid).  Yes, I understand.  But it keeps haunting me, and I cannot let it go.

But I will not destroy it by dissecting it.  I will only say that this is marvelous:  "I still shall seek thee lost."  As is this:  "Memorial small of our great love shall be."  Translation or not, the poem bridges the millennia and reminds us that we are all one and the same.  From an unknown Greek poet in an antique land to a translator in Victorian England to readers in the 21st century:  nothing has changed.

John Piper
"Tombstones, Holy Trinity Churchyard, Hinton-in-the-Hedges" (1940)

William Johnson Cory, whose wonderful translation of a poem by Callimachus appeared here recently, wrote a poem in Greek which he then translated into English.  It is an appropriate companion to the first poem. From the other side of the grave.


You come not, as aforetime, to the headstone every day,
And I, who died, I do not chide because, my friend, you play;
Only, in playing, think of him who once was kind and dear,
And, if you see a beauteous thing, just say, he is not here.

William Johnson Cory, Ionica (1891).

Cory has captured the spirit and tone of the poems in The Greek Anthology very well:  that characteristic mixture of emotion and stoicism (lower case) -- restrained passion, with an underlying foundation of dignity and decency.  Ancient, not modern.

John Piper, "Exterior of the Church of St. Denis, Faxton" (1940)

In his essay "The Charm of the Greek Anthology" (in More Literary Recreations), Edward Cook perceptively pairs Cory's "Remember" with a poem of the same title by Christina Rossetti (which has previously been posted here, but is always worth revisiting).


Remember me when I am gone away,
     Gone far away into the silent land;
     When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
     You tell me of our future that you planned:
     Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
     And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
     For if the darkness and corruption leave
     A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
     Than that you should remember and be sad.

Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862).

John Piper, "Tithe Barn, Great Coxwell, Berkshire" (1940)


Bob said...

This is wonderful on many levels. I am actually doing some research on the literary origins of early New England gravestone verses. Many of these could appear on a stone 2000 years ago, or 200, or today. Some of the ones appearing in New England in the 1700s are minor gems, like these tiny Greek inscriptions. One of my poetic favorites is:

Peace to thy dusty bed
Thou lovely sleeping clay;
Here rest thy weary head
Till the great Rising Day.

And you probably know that Borges wrote a fine poem addressed "To a minor poet of the Greek Anthology," perhaps even the author of Sabinus' epitaph. One online version is here:

Stephen Pentz said...

Bob: thank you very much for the kind words, and for the epitaph and the poem by Borges, both of which are new to me. The Borges poem is a perfect accompaniment to my visits to The Greek Anthology. I appreciate your calling it to my attention.

One of my favorite epitaphs is recorded by Charlotte Mew in an essay titled "The Country Sunday." It appears on the gravestone of a child: "Eternity is not length of life but depth of life." I posted about it on February 16, 2012, if you wish to have a look.

Thank you again. And good luck on your research on gravestone verses.