Stop, Christian passer-by!—Stop, child of God,
And read with gentle breast. Beneath this sod
A poet lies, or that which once seemed he.
O, lift one thought in prayer for S. T. C.;
That he who many a year with toil of breath
Found death in life, may here find life in death!
Mercy for praise—to be forgiven for fame
He asked, and hoped, through Christ. Do thou the same!
Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote his own epitaph. Years of addiction to opium, debt, illness and divorce had not dulled his instincts as a poet. He summed up his life with a beautiful chiasmus “That he who many a year with toll of breath/Found death in life, may here find life in death!”
He adopts a humble tone “A poet lies, or that which once seemed he.” (One is tempted to wonder how sincere his humility was, given that this epitaph is carved in stone for posterity.)
The line that jumps out at me today is “mercy for praise- to be forgiven for fame.”
(There was a time when poets were famous.)
It is a strange request, as praise and fame are not something you do, but something others bestow upon you. He is being asked to be forgiven for how he was received by other people.
To be forgiven for fame is not something modern western people often ask. Leo Braudy writing in The Frenzy of Renown observed, “John Lennon of The Beatles caused a scandal by saying that his band was more famous than Jesus. As far as immediate fame goes, he was right. But the outcry over Lennon’s remark is instructive because it implies that fame is by definition a positive category: if Jesus is the greatest man, he must also be the most famous.”
Few of us hope that when we die our stories will not be told.
The book The Artist’s Quest for Inspiration by Peggy Hadden suggests artists use a quest for immortality as a driver.
“Thus, the desire to break out of the limits of our life span prompts us to create, to leave something behind us… None of us thinks of retiring from making art. It seems too much like living itself. Visiting a museum is not like going to see dead people. Rather, it is like going to a place where we can instantly revive the artists, hear their views, see what they have to say. To be included in their midsts would be a way to live forever.”
The book then goes on to some other source of inspiration without having the candor to note that very few artists will actually achieve this or to give any thought as to what aspect of the artist really can live on or whether the artist would recognize or approve of the story future people tell about her.
Reaching the end of his life, Coleridge came to believe that this type of immortality was a chimera. That kind of renown does nothing to extend the life of the artist’s soul. If posthumous reputation exists at all it only preserves the public persona, the false self, its posing and vanity. The only real “life in death,” he says is through Christ, and so he asks or mercy and asks, with some urgency, that his readers do the same.