Tender Graces and Famous Last Words

Past the cemetery gates and amongst the writers’ graves
By Elizabeth Cutright
© 2012 The Daily Creative Writer

What would your final words be? What wisdom would you like to leave behind once you escape this mortal coil? What will you mumble or gasp with your last breath?

What will they write on your gravestone?

I just stumbled upon a great piece over at Flavorwire – Famous Last Words: 15 Authors’ Epitaphs – and while I initially clicked the link out of morbid curiosity (and a suspicion that the material will help the editorial department win this year’s office decoration contest, since we all know literary gravestones are a killer idea), I was surprised to get so much out of the final phrases some of my favorite writers chose to leave as a marker for their time on planet earth.

For example, Charles Bukowski’s epitaph, “Don’t try.” It sounds so cynical. So depressed.  But the explanation is sublime – and perfect advice for aspiring writers!

In a letter to John William Corrington, Bukowski explained, “Somebody at one of these places…asked me: ‘What do you do? How do you write, create?’ You don’t, I told them.  You don’t try. That’s very important: ‘not’ to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more. It’s like a bug high on a wall. You wait for it to come to you. When it gets close enough you reach out, slap out and kill it. Or if you like its looks you make a pet out of it.”

John Keats devastates with the last bit on his gravestone: “Here lies One/Whose Name was writ in water.”

Apparently (as Flavorwire reports), Keats actually wanted a blank gravestone, but after his death, his friends intervened – partly in response to the poet’s “generally negative critical reception during his life.” And so rather than remaining “unloved, unwanted and unsung,” Keats ended up memorialized in a way that prompts all of us – writers, creatives and nonconformists – to pause and think of the marks we are (or are not) leaving in our wake.

Yeats – forever paired with Keats in my mind thanks to the “Cemetary Gates” – has an epitaph quite in line with the poets often gloomy perspective.

Cast a cold Eye
On life, on Death.
Horseman, pass by!

I wish I could steal Robert Frost’s goodbye.

“I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.”

Emily Dickinson’s is a perfect fit. “Called Back,” it says, in reference to a letter (her last) Dickinson sent to her cousins prior to her death. “Little Cousins, Called Back, Emily,” she wrote in her final missive.

Oscar Wilde, whose gravestone is eternally covered in lipstick kisses left by adoring fans, settles for an excerpt from the author’s own poem, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.”

“And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.”

Fitzgerald’s fell like the final tome not just of a famed author, but the era – the 1920s – he so famously chronicled. Laid out in front of the gravestone he shares with Zelda, a stone lies carved with the final words from The Great Gatsby.

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Reading these epitaphs put in mind of some of my favorite poems that – it turns out – seem to be primarily focused on the legacies we leave behind. William Butler Yates, in “When You Are Old And Gray,”  suggests –

When you are old and gray and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep

In “Break, Break, Break,” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, I’ve always found the line “But O for the touch of a vanish’d hand, and the sound of a voice that is still!”

Who amongst us has not longed to reach out once more to a lost loved one, someone who’s vanished from your life through death or circumstance? I can keenly remember moments where just a tiny whisper or hearty laugh would have meant the world. One last hug from grandma, one last crinkly smile from your favorite uncle…even one last cuddle with your childhood pet. It’s all encapsulated in that one verse.

And the stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanish’d hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!

As for me, I’m not sure I’m ready to leave any final words ( a bit macabre to think about after all…though we are closing in on Halloween), but for starters the last part of the symphony written by Eva Rose Fitch York  (“I Shall Not Pass This Way Again“) seems like a good place to start…

I love the beauty of the scene,
Would roam again o’er fields so green;
But since I may not, let me spend
My strength for others to the end,-
For those who tread on rock and stone,
And bear their burdens all alone,
Who loiter not in leafy bowers,
Nor hear the birds nor pluck the flowers.
A larger kindness give to me,
A deeper love and sympathy;
Then, O, one day
May someone say-
Remembering a lessened pain-
“Would she could pass this way again.”


All original content is the sole property of Elizabeth Cutright and The Daily Creative Writer. If you are reading this blog on another website, it has been reposted without the author’s permission in violation of the DMCA. © 2012 The Daily Creative Writer


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