“Poet, Soldier, Philosopher” declares the monument of John A. Joyce in Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C. I figured that this promise, plus the bronze portrait of the man, made his monument worth a second or even a third look.

Figure 1. John A. Joyce monument, Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington, D.C. Photo: author.

There’s a lot going on here. Let’s start with the life-sized, freestanding portrait bust in bronze by Jerome Connor (figure 2).

Figure 2. John A. Joyce monument, Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington, D.C. Detail: portrait. Photo: author.

A shrewd gaze marks Joyce’s features. Through the patina and bits of bronze disease one sees a rectangular face with deep set eyes. The nose is straight but for a bulb at the tip. The face is prominently marked by signs of age: laugh lines on a broad forehead, crows’ feet, pouches under the eyes, prominent naso-labial folds, sagging cheeks, heavy jowls, a double chin. The hair recedes at the temples, though it rises in great shocks above the forehead. The signs of age are exacerbated by the markers of corpulence. The ears do not protrude. The chin boss is rounded and prominent. The mouth is mostly hidden by a bushy mustache.

The bust terminates at the breastbone, and the upper torso wears a shirt with a bow tie in the nineteenth-century fashion and a coat with heavy cloth with a prominent roll at the lapels. I do not detect sculpted signs of a vest. The peak lapels suggest a double-breasted coat (which would be well suited to a fat man), and in the buttonhole of the lapel is a boutonniere. Compare it to this photograph taken in about 1910 from the District of Columbia Public Library Commons:

Figure 3. John Alexander Joyce, Photograph c. 1910. Collection of the DC Public Library Commons. No known copyright restrictions.

The overall effect of the bust portrait is of a man scrutinizing something up with which he will not put. The bottom of the portrait is molded into a sort of little plinth which has an inscription—more on that in a moment.

Someone attempted to frame the head of the bust against a dark granite slab behind it (figures 1, 2). It showed foresight to see that the dark stone would set off the patinated bronze well, since the bust was probably a very dark color when installed. Unfortunately, the bust stands on a molded plinth of pink granite, a reverse cavetto over a torus followed by a rectilinear taenia. Somehow, the measures are such that under normal viewing conditions the top of the portrait breaks the frame and gets lost in the background shrubbery. The upper arms of the bust also break the frame.

Speaking of the frame, it somewhat cryptically features four incised words: on the left, truth and nature, on the right , justice and science.

Under the pink granite plinth and the black granite slab of the frame sits a large dado in darkish-gray granite which bears long inscriptions and served as a base for the portrait. below that is a rough-hewn foundation stone. The slightly souped-up anagraphic inscription:

BORN JULY 4, 1842
DIED JAN. 18, 1915

Very basic research turns up that he was born in Ireland, and after arriving in the USA grew up in West Virginia and Kentucky. He had a storied career in the Union Army in the Civil War, rising to the rank of Colonel. I say “storied” because he wrote a book (one of several) about it, Jewels of Memory (1896, figure 4). He moved to Washington after the war and earned a law degree. He worked for the IRS, which may not be a commendation in everyone’s book. His house was at 3238 R St. NW, in Georgetown, a stone’s throw from the Cemetery. The DC Writers’ Homes website, which I am shamelessly cribbing, says the house was also inhabited at one point by U.S. Grant.

Figure 4. Frontispiece and title page of Jewels of Memory, second edition, by John A. Joyce (1896). Internet archive, open library.

In figures 3 and 4 it becomes plain that we probably ought to envision Joyce in a vest under his coat; the artist’s choice to have the coat buttoned higher even that in figure 4 explains why it can’t be made out in the bust. In any event, the claim to soldier can be accepted on the basis of his record. As for philosopher, who can say? Might the term be loosely used for an observer of life? Certainly he was a good raconteur, or at least I am persuaded so by downloading his book and reading the first chapter. But poet? Only if we take “poet” to have been asserted as loosely as “philosopher.”

The plinth which holds the anagraphic inscription also has a quotation of his poetry:

Laugh and the world laughs with you;
Weep and you weep alone.

Joyce monument, Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington, D.C.
Figure 5. Ella Wheeler Wilcox, date unknown. Public domain. Wikimedia Commons.

As anyone who has driven the back roads north of Madison Wisconsin knows, this, despite the confidence of putting it on a funerary monument, is not Joyce’s work. It is in fact from the poem Solitude, by the Wisconsin poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox.

This is not auspicious for Joyce. The motto is repeated at the foot of the bronze portrait bust, too. He must have repeated it a lot. But did he pass it off as his own? Or did some well wisher who erected this monument hear it from him so often that he or she made the inference that it was his? In any event, Wheeler was actually kind of a kook, if you think expecting to be contacted by your dead husband, embracing positive thinking, and adopting theosophical views is kooky. If not, then not. The Pedia of Wiki asserts that she is a type of the bad poet, citing Sinclair Lewis’s judgment in Babbitt. I love the poppies embroidered onto her dress in figure 5.

Well, what about the other sides of the monument? Well, on the back, there is the verse, “There is no pocket in a shroud.” I didn’t photograph that. But on the left side (as you look at Joyce’s face), there is a specimen of his product (figure 6).

Figure 6. John A. Joyce monument, Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington, D.C. Detail: poem on left face of base. Photo: author.

My flag, my country and my God
I loved while living on this sod
And through the rolling rushing hours
I cherished truth and fragrant flowers.

No one claims credit for this on the interwebs, and that God-sod couplet would scare me away, even of I could get money from it. What of the right side?

Figure 7. John A. Joyce monument, Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington, D.C. Detail: poem on left face of base. Photo: author.

The Prince and the Peasant
The Preacher and Slave
Are equal at last
In the dust of the grave.

Well, the interwebs doesn’t return anything for this poem other than this monument. Still, it is pretty hoary, if re-dressed for a Christian age, going back at least as far as the Roman poet Horace:

Pallida mors aequo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas
regumque turris

Death’s foot knocks without prejudice at the poor man’s shanty and the king’s tower.

Horace, Odes 1.4.13-14

An anonymous contributor to Find-a-Grave dot com gives the following poem which pretends to be Joyce’s last will and testament:

To my daughters, Libby and Florence
In equal proportions to share
I give all cash and property
When my spirit is soaring in the air.
And appoint Mr. James J. Lampton
To execute this my last will
When I rest ‘neath the bloomy flowers
In lot 444 in Oak Hill.

I cannot find a source for this testamentary poetry on the interwebs, but it is certainly of a piece with the work on his monument. Se non è vero, è ben trovato, as they say.

So, certainly a lively picture of this man emerges from even this brief look at his monument. I get the impression of a man intensely alive, a “character,” half filled with blarney, and uncontrollably observing the world around him in doggerel verse. Somehow I also envision a squirting boutonniere, if they had those things in the Gilded Age.

There once was a man named Joyce,
Whose poem was no Rolls Royce.
When he’d lived through the war
He became quite a bore
And gave vent on his tomb to his vice.

Hmmm. Maybe I’d best not look in the mirror too closely.

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Scranton, PA

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  1. Given the plagiarism and the quality of his poetry, it is unfortunate that he listed “poet” first among his identities.


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