Kevin’s Favorite Poems, “Requiem,” Four More Gravestone Poems, “Gravy”
This is part of a series of columns that feature a much-loved poem, and other poems that speaks to, or resonate with, the first poem. This week’s poem is “Requiem,” written by Robert Louis Stevenson.
This poem was carved into Stevenson’s gravestone. The line that attracted me was “Glad did I live and gladly die.” Some critics consider this a bold lie, but I prefer to think of it as a remarkably existential statement, an appreciation of life without religion. Without, as it were, benefit of clergy. Here it is in his own hand:
Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me;
Here he lies where he longed to be,
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
As can be seen from the longhand verse written by Stevenson fourteen years before his death, there is no second “the” in the seventh line—this was mistakenly inserted on his grave marker and many printed versions of the poem. Most printings and the gravestone omit the second stanza, as I have.
Stevenson developed a desire to write early in life, having no interest in the family business of lighthouse engineering. He was often abroad, usually for health reasons, and his journeys led to some of his early literary works. Publishing his first volume at the age of 28, Stevenson became a literary celebrity during his life when Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were released to eager audiences. Stevenson’s peripatetic movements across continents and the South Seas prevent me from detailing his life. Instead I’ll refer readers to a short YouTube biography https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xMjDMe4mnmU or Encyclopedia Britannica http://www.britannica.com/biography/Robert-Louis-Stevenson.
Because this poem was on his gravestone, I will recount a bit about the very end of his biography. Married to an American woman eleven years his senior, Stevenson took Fanny, her son Lloyd, and Stevenson’s widowed mother on a tour of the South Pacific in 1889. Eventually, the clan settled on the island of Upolu in Samoa in 1890. At the foot of Mount Vaea, Stevenson had a house built, “Vailima.” Continuing to write, he also became an advocate for the Samoans who named him “Tusitala,” teller of tales. On December 3, 1894, at forty-four years of age, Stevenson died, quite suddenly, of a cerebral hemorrhage. A path was cleared by nearly sixty Samoan men to the summit of Mount Vaea, where Stevenson was buried under a stone inscribed with this poem.
Poetry Foundation says this of his literary reputation. “Outside of academia, Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde continue to be widely read over a century after they were first published, and show promise of remaining popular for centuries to come.”
* * *
Before including a second poem, I’d like to note the inscriptions on four of other poet’s gravestones.
The first is the curse on Shakespeare’s (see KMLP5) final resting place:
GOOD FREND FOR IESVS SAKE FORBEARE
TO DIGG THE DVST ENCLOASED HEARE
BLESTe BE Ye MAN Yt SPARES THES STONES
AND CVRST BE HE Yt MOVES MY BONES
If you’d like to read more, The Hudson Review offers an extensive article regarding this, “Shakespeare’s Epitaph,” by Alfred Corn: http://hudsonreview.com/2013/03/shakespeares-epitaph/#.VqCMaVMrLsE
* * *
Another favorite gravestone inscription was from poet Elizabeth Bishop, whose poem, “One Art,” is the subject of an earlier column
“All the untidy activity continues
Awful but cheerful.”
* * *
Scott’s Fitzgerald’s gravestone inscription was selected by his daughter, Scottie. It is the last sentence of The Great Gatsby.
“So we beat on, boats against the current,
borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
* * *
Certainly the most modest of grave inscriptions, that doesn’t even mention his name, was chosen by John Keats. He died in Rome on 23 February 1821 and was buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. His last request was to be placed under a tombstone bearing no name or date, only the words,
“Here lies One
Whose Name was writ in Water.”
* * *
For a life-affirming poem that best resonates with “Requiem,” I chose Raymond Carver’s “Gravy.” It was published in The New Yorker shortly after Carver’s death in 1988. It’s hard not to note how the phrase “He quit drinking!” appears almost perfectly centered in the poem.
No other word will do. For that’s what it was. Gravy.
Gravy these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. “Don’t weep for me,”
he said to his friends. “Im a lucky man.
I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure gravy. And don’t you forget it.”