As always, Dr. Johnson’s advice, if not uncritically acceded to, ought to be at least thoughtfully weighed. In recent decades I’ve seen stones in cemeteries inscribed with motorcycles, liquor bottles and a quotation from The Simpsons. If the rest of the world is going to hell, you might ask, why not the resting place of our mortal remains? That Victorian headstones were often formulaically sentimental and perhaps hypocritical is no doubt true, given human nature and our unchanging compulsion to edit reality, but does tackiness represent an ethical advance? We might diagnose such thinking as the fallacy of vulgar sincerity. My own taste, in epitaphs as in poetry generally, is for something plainer and pithier.
Guy Davenport died on this date, Jan. 4, in 2005, at the age of seventy-seven. He concluded his essay on Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Christ’s Cunning Rimesmith” (The Geography of the Imagination, 1981), with the poet’s final words: “I am so happy.” In his final letter to her, Davenport wrote to his sister, Gloria Williamson: “I hope you're as happy as I am.”