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THOUGH criticism has been cultivated in every age of learning, by men of great abilities and extensive knowledge, till the rules of writing are become rather burthensome than instructive to the mind; though almost every species of composition has been the subject of particular treatises, and given birth to definitions, distinctions, precepts, and illustrations; yet no critick of note, that has fallen within my observation, has hitherto thought sepulchral inscriptions worthy of a minute examination, or pointed out with proper accuracy their beauties and defects.
The reasons of this neglect it is useless to enquire, and perhaps impossible to discover; it might be justly expected that this kind of writing would have been the favourite topick of criticism, and that self-love might have produced some regard for it, in those authors that have crowded libraries with elaborate dissertations upon Homer; since to afford a subject for heroick poems is the privilege of very few, but every man may expect to be recorded in an epitaph, and therefore finds some in:
terest in providing that his memory may not suffer by an unskilful panegyrick.
If our prejudices in favour of antiquity deserve to have any part in the regulation of our studies, EPITAPHS seem intitled to more than common regard, as they are probably of the same age with the art of writing. The most ancient structures in the world, the Pyramids, are supposed to be sepulchral monuments, which either pride or gratitude erected; and the same passions which incited men to such laborious and expensive methods of preserving their own memory, or that of their benefactors, would doubtless incline them not to neglect any easier means by which the same ends might be obtained. Nature and reason have dic. tated to every nation, that to preserve good actions from oblivion, is both the interest and duty of mankind: and therefore 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.
To examine, therefore, in what the perfection of EPITAPHS consists, and what rules are to be observed in composing them, will be at least of as much use as other critical enquiries; and for assigning a few hours to such disquisitions, great examples at least, if not strong reasons, may be pleaded.
An EPITAPH, as the word itself implies, is an inscription on the tomb, and in its most extensive im. port may admit indiscriminately satire or praise. But as malice has seldom produced monuments of defamation, and the tombs hitherto raised have been the work of friendship and benevolence, custom has contracted the original latitude of the word, so that it signifies in the general acceptation an inscription engraven on a tomb in honour of the person deceased.
As honours are paid to the dead in order to incite others to the imitation of their excellencies, the principal intention of EPITAPHS is to perpetuate the examples of virtue, that the tomb of a good man may supply the want of his presence, and veneration for his memory produce the same effect as the observation of his life. Those Epla TAPHS are, therefore, the most perfect, which set virtue in the strongest light, and are best adapted to exalt the reader's ideas and rouse his emulation.
To this end it is not always necessary to recount the actions of a hero, or enumerate the writings of a philosopher; to imagine such informations necessary, is to detract from their characters, or to suppose
their works mortal, or their atchieve. ments in danger of being forgotten. The bare name of such men answers every purpose of a long inscription.
Had only the name of Sir Isaac Newton been subjoined to the design upon his monument, instead of a long detail of his discoveries, which no philosopher can want, and which none but a philosopher can understand, those, by whose direction it was raised, had done more honour both to him and to themselves.
This indeed is a commendation which it requires no genius to bestow, but which can never become vulgar or contemptible, if bestowed with judgement; because no single age produces many men of merit superior to panegyrick. None bat the
first names can stand unassisted against the attacks of time; and if men raised to reputation by accident or caprice, have nothing but their names engraven on their tombs, there is danger lest in a few years the inscription require an interpreter. Thus have their expectations been disappointed who hon oured Picusof Mirandola with this pompousepitaph:
Hic situs est Picus MIRANDOLA, cætera nount
Et Tagus et Ganges, forsan et Antipodes.
His name, then celebrated in the remotest corners of the earth, is now almost forgotten; and his works, then studied, admired, and applauded, are now mouldering in obscurity.
Next in dignity to the bare name is a short character simple and unadorned, without exaggeration, superlatives, or rhetorick. Such were the inscriptions in use among the Romans, in which the victories gained by their emperors were commemorated by a single epithet; as Cæsar Germanicus, Cæsar Dacicus, Germanicus, Illyricus. Such would be this epitaph, ISAACUS NEWTONUS, nature legibus investigatis, hic quiescit.
But to far the greatest part of mankind a longer encomium is necessary for the publication of their virtues, and the preservation of their memories; and in the composition of these it is that art is principally required, and precepts therefore may be useful.
In writing EPITAPHS, one circumstance is to be considered, which affects no other composi. tion; the place in which they are now commonly found restrains them to a particular air of solem
nity, and debars them from the admission of all lighter or gayer ornaments. In this it is that the style of an Epitaph necessarily differs from that of an EleGY.
The custom of burying our dead either in or near our churches, perhaps originally founded on a rational design of fitting the mind for religious exercises, by laying before it the most affecting proof of the uncertainty of life, makes it proper to exclude from our EPITAPHS all such allusions as are contrary to the doctrines for the propagation of which the churches are erected, and to the end for which those who peruse the monuments must be supposed to come thither. Nothing is, therefore, more ridiculous than to copy the Roman inscriptions, which were engraven on stones by the high-way, and composed by those who generally reflected on mortality only to excite in themselves and others a quicker relish of pleasure, and a more luxurious enjoyment of life, and whose regard for the dead extended no farther than a wish that the earth might be light upon them.
All allusions to the heathen mythology are therefore absurd, and all regard for the senseless remains of a dead man impertinent and superstitious. One of the first distinctions of the primitive Christians, was their neglect of bestowing garlands on the dead, in which they are very rationally defended by their apologist in Minutius Felix. “We lavish no “ flowers nor odours on the dead,” says he, “ be“ cause they have no sense of fragrance or of beau
We profess to reverence the dead, not for their sake, but for our own. It is therefore always with indignation or contempt that I read the epi