An interesting headstone is caught by the evening sun. Beedon Manor behind. © Copyright Graham Horn and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

An interesting headstone is caught by the evening sun. Beedon Manor behind.
© Copyright Graham Horn and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

It’s almost a year since I handed in my PhD thesis, even though it’s only 6 months since it was all done and dusted. Since then, I’ve written some local history and investigated my family history; sent off an article and a book proposal; attended a couple of brilliant conferences; given some advice about ballads to the BBC; had a short article accepted by Notes and Queries; and I’ve been commissioned to write an article on epitaph ballads for Literature Compass. It’s this last item that I’m working on at the moment, and I’ve spent the last few days updating the secondary reading that I did a couple of years ago when I was working on William Elderton’s ballad about the dead Lady Marques. I’ve by no means finished the reading – I’ve still got a shelf-full to be getting on with – but I wanted to share some initial thoughts, not so much about what I’ve read as about the way it was expressed.

I have spent a couple of days with Scott Newstok’s Quoting Death in Early Modern England (Basingstoke, 2009). It was, in many ways, a really interesting read. Newstok is particularly concerned with place: that is, locating the dead through an epitaph and especially the epitaphic phrase ‘Here lies’. Quite rightly, his book has been praised for its ‘sharp analysis’ and ‘insight’ into the way early modern playwrights and poets used epitaphs to ensure that the dead were placed by a text in the minds of the living. It was well worth reading, perhaps especially for the unexpectedly touching content of the epilogue, which described how the need to commemorate the dead continues into the twenty-first century, even when crisis undermines the social norms. As he comments, the writing of an epitaph ‘fulfils something deeply human within us, noted throughout this study as the desire to locate the body, to put it to rest beneath a text. The text itself – that core epitaphic phrase, in particular – goes beyond merely covering the corpse…; it recovers the corpse as having been a human body’. But although the content of the book opened new ways of looking at epitaphs, I had a big problem with the way in which it was written. As you can see from the quotation above, Newstok’s prose is littered with dashes, italics and (though there aren’t any in that short extract) quotation marks that made it incredibly difficult  for me to read. It’s not all that unusual for me to have to read things more than once in order to make sure that I’ve understood what the author was trying to say, though I much prefer texts where the author is able to write clearly enough for me to ‘get it’ first time. It’s very unusual for me to have to read a single sentence over and over again to work out what the significance of the italics or the quotation marks was, and how it might change what I thought I’d read. Nevertheless, I’d like to reiterate that I thought what he had to say was not only useful and insightful (as I hope you’ll see when I finish the piece for Literature Compass), but also that it might change the way we think about the early modern epitaph, and that would be no bad thing.

William Elderton, A proper new balad in praise of my Ladie Marques,whose Death is bewailed to the Tune of New lusty gallant (London, 1568).
Reviews of Scott Newstok, Quoting Death in Early Modern England: The Poetics of Epitaphs Beyond the Tomb (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) by Philip Major, pp. 838-839, in The Modern Language Review, Vol. 105, No. 3 (July 2010), p.838 and by Sarah Covington, pp. 338-339, in Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 63, No. 1 (Spring 2010), p.339.
Newstok, Quoting Death, p.190.