Forced to a Smile

         An epitaph — the short inscription on a tombstone — normally names and praises admirable qualities of the person buried there, and then hopes for a benevolent future after death. The gravestone may speak to the viewer in the dead person’s voice (as Coleridge imitates the Latin Siste, viator: “Stop, Christian passer-by, stop, child of God! / O, lift one thought in prayer for S. T. C.”) or it may speak as a mourner addressing the buried person (as in the Latin, Sit terra tibi levis, “May the earth lie light upon you”). In his Essay on Epitaphs, written a few years after William Cowper’s birth, Dr. Johnson restricts epitaphs to “heroes and wise men” deserving of praise: “We find no people acquainted with the use of letters that omitted to grace the tombs of their heroes and wise men with panegyrical inscriptions.” The readers of “Epitaph on a Hare” by William Cowper (pronounced “Cooper”) would have expected just those qualities in any epitaph: it would celebrate a male either wise or heroic, and its praise would be public and formal. (The Greek roots of “panegyric” mean “an assembly of all the people”.)          Against such prescriptive forms, the only obligation for an ambitious poet writing an epitaph is to be original. The form becomes memorable by dispensing with or altering conventional moves: Yeats brusquely repudiates Coleridge’s Christian “Stop, passer-by,” in his own succinct self-epitaph: “Cast a cold eye / On life, on death. / Horseman, pass by!” Keats, dying in his twenties, refused the first, indispensable element of an epitaph, a name, and wanted only “Here lies one whose name is writ in water.”           As soon as animals became domestic pets, they could become the subject of an epitaph; Byron wrote a long epitaph

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