Greek gravestone verse has a life of its own

Guest post by Michael Wolfe

JHU Press author Michael Wolfe joins us at the Baltimore Book Festival on Sunday, September 29, at 1:00 p.m. to sign copies of Cut These Words into My Stone, his engaging collection of Greek epitaphs.  See our full schedule of signings and book talks in the beautiful Peabody Library.

Ancient Greek epitaphs may look brief and delicate, but don’t be fooled. Their impact on 2000 years of Western literature is remarkably far-reaching.

Among Latin poets, Horace, Propertius, and the satirist Martial were especially influenced. Centuries later, we hear the epitaph’s memorable ring among English Cavalier poets like Robert Herrick. Pope, Gray, Cowper, Shelley, and Lord Byron were schooled in the elegiac epigram, knew its chief repository—the Greek Anthology—and translated or echoed its distinctive voice.

The epitaph’s influence didn’t end with the 19th century. A. E. Housman, W. B. Yeats, and D. H. Lawrence felt it too. Yeats’s own gravestone verse, with its equestrian address, might have leaped off a stele in Athens’ Kerameikos Cemetery straight into Ireland’s Drumcliff churchyard:

Cast a cold Eye

On Life, on Death.

Horseman, pass by.

The spry Greek epitaph jumped the gap into American poetry, too. Even the revolutionary centerpiece of modernist verse, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), contains an unmistakable nod to the many drowned-sailor epitaphs collected in the Greek Anthology. Here is Eliot’s “Death by Water” section:

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead, 

Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell

And the profit and loss.

                               A current under sea

Picked his bones in whispers.  As he rose and fell

He passed the stages of his age and youth,

Entering the whirlpool.

                              Gentile or Jew,

O you who turn the wheel and look windward,

Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

And here is Leonidas of Tarentum’s drowned sailor, Callaiskhros, circa 290 BCE:

A headlong savage southeastern squall

And night and the waves Orion whips up

When it sets in dark November

Were my downfall.

I, Callaiskhros, slipped out of life

Sailing the deep-sea shelf off Libya.

Now I am lost, swirled here and there,

A miserable prey to the fishes.


The stone on my grave claims

“Callaiskhros lies here.

What a liar.

A decade before The Wasteland, its editor, Ezra Pound, was translating epigrams by Palladas, a prolific 4th century CE poet in Alexandria, Egypt. Fresh interest had been raised by the recent British publication of a revised version of W. J. Mackail’s Select Epigrams from the Greek Anthology.

Pound, living in London, was not alone in benefiting from the prose translations and powerful introductory essay of the Oxford professor of poetry. 4,000 miles away, in Chicago, the poet Edgar Lee Masters was practicing law with America’s most controversial defender, Clarence Darrow. On the side, Masters had been sending poems to the St. Louis Mirror without success. In Masters’ own words, William Marion Reedy, the Mirror’s iconoclastic editor, “had had a classical training under the Jesuits, and was an acute judge of literature, a book-taster of the surest sense.” Reedy did not like Masters’ conventional, sentimental verse. He preferred Chicagoan Carl Sandburg’s free verse. Perhaps to goad him, Reedy sent Masters a copy of MacKail’s Epigrams as a Christmas gift in 1912, praising its “ironic, sardonic, epigraphic” qualities. The funerary epitaphs especially impressed Masters.  All year he had been planning a novel telling the story of the many small-town American characters he had known when growing up in the Illinois Spoon River region. In MacKail’s pages, he came upon a timeless community of individual voices emanating from headstones, each telling his or her own buried tale. The epitaphs were a revelation to Masters. The Spoon River project would not be a novel: instead, it would be an anthology, a modern American version of the ancient Greek one.

It isn’t hard to see why the Greek Anthology decided Masters. Its epitaphs may be brief, but their special attribute is a capacity to encapsulate in a few words the gist of a life, while trenchantly commenting on mortality. Take this wry, anonymous one:

I, the actor Philistion,

Soothed men’s pain with comedy and laughter.

A man of parts, I often died

But never quite like this.


Or this one, by Etruscus, folding together a fisherman’s boat with his life and death:


The same boat, doing double duty,

Ferried Hieroclides to work

And down to Hades. It brought him fish


And served him as a pyre.

It sailed with him on the chase

And accompanied him to Hades.

Fortunate angler,

He cruised the sea in his own vessel

And then raced off

To the underworld in it.

These two thousand year-old voices felt uncannily familiar. In April 1914, Masters sent a poem in the Greek mold to Theodore Dreiser, praising the Anthology and encouraging him to get a copy. A month later, Masters’ mother visited him in Chicago. All afternoon, they reminisced about his childhood friends on the Spoon River. That night Masters wrote out several poems and sent them off to Reedy. Their sound and style—an amalgamation of the ancient Greek epitaph with American Midwestern speech—startled both men:

Where is Old Fiddler Jones

Who played with life all his ninety years,

Braving the sleet with bared breast,

Drinking, rioting, thinking neither of wife nor kin,

Nor gold, nor love, nor heaven?

Lo! He babbles of the fish-frys of long ago,

Of the horse-races of long ago at Clary’s Grove,

Of what Abe Lincoln said

One time at Springfield.

Reedy called these colloquial voices from the grave “the most typically American work in untrammeled poetry” since Walt Whitman. That summer, Masters produced a first burst of the epitaphs that would become the Spoon River Anthology. He sent them to the Mirror in groupings he called “Garlands,” from the Greek stephanos, a word the poet-editor Meleager (fl. 100 BCE) had applied to the strings of epigrams in his early version of the Greek Anthology.

That year Pound (who had been born in Idaho) wrote of Masters, “At last the American West has produced a poet strong enough to weather the climate, capable of dealing with life directly, without circumlocution, without resonant meaningless phrases. At last America has discovered a poet.” Readers agreed. Masters’ 244 post-mortem first-person epitaphs became the early twentieth century’s best-selling book of verse. They also continued a long, fruitful relationship between ancient Greek epitaphs and contemporary poetry over the centuries.

wolfe comp.inddMichael Wolfe is a poet, author, documentary film producer, and president of Unity Productions Foundation, a nonprofit media organization. Wolfe is the author of many books of verse and prose, including Cut These Words into My Stone: Ancient Greek Epitaphs, now available from JHU Press.