Figure 1. Caton monument. Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington, D.C. Photo: author.

Charles Dixon Caton (1863-1893) lived a short life, and among other things was distinguished for being born in a place that was not yet a state (West Virginia, seceding from Virginia, was admitted to the Union on 20 June 1863), and dying in another that was not a state. Yah, yah, he was technically born in Virginia, but get with the spirit of things. The anagraphic inscription:

Charles Dixon Caton
Son of
J.O. and M.E. Caton.
Born at Piedmont
Mineral Co. West Va.
Feb. 2, 1863
Died in Washington D.C.
Sept. 29, 1893.

The Oak Hill monument is an unremarkable 1890s kerbobble-form obelisk bedecked with gew-gaws in rich Victorian taste. The cross atop was evidently affixed with an iron rod, for it has been spun in place a few degrees. The cap over the obelisk-like die has laurel branches and a heraldic crown with crossed swords, the tips of which go through the end-links of the usual Odd-Fellows’ three-link chain. The cross seems to me to sit atop a little mansard roof.

You can bet I’ve not brought you here to see something so nondescript! In fact there is an epigram below the anagraphic data, which is none too easy to read, both for lack of contrast and because it is pretty bad.

Figure 2. Caton monument. Detail: inscription. Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington, D.C. Photo: author.

1 Góne! Góne. So míssed though / présent stíll in lóve;
2 Yet óh, what téars and síghing / ánguish hére.
3 But hárk: sound ángels’ sóngs / from héaven abóve,
4 And ráinbows glów in évery / fálling téar.
5 Here yéstermórn, brave són; / but béckoned ón,
6 Forth róse to crówn and blíss / from wárfare hénce;
7 Though thús from hóme, lodge, / chúrch, friends, kíndred góne,
8 As práyed “we’ll méet mid héaven’s / magníficénce.”

I’ve tried to punctuate as the stone has it, though I’m not sure about the colon following ‘hark’ in verse 3. I would punctuate differently were I trying to create an edition. The poem is in 8 regular iambic pentameters with a few interesting bits. The splitting of the verses came at the convenience of the stonecutter; they are irregular, varying from 5/5 syllables to 7/3 in no discernable pattern.

Verse one clearly has a stress on the first syllable, as shown by the exclamation point. The second ‘gone’ gets a stress, too, though it seems to me unemphatic because its imagined speaker is bummed out. See that ‘heaven’ is a monosyllable both times (‘heav’n’, it might have been written, vv. 3, 8), and ‘every’ a disyllable (‘ev’ry’, v. 4). The ostinato of the list of things from which Dixon has been excluded in verse 7 really doesn’t seem to me to vary in stress, though I’ve marked it above as regular iambs. If you prefer to see a spondaic line, I’d be OK with that.

Even for Victorian grave poetry “yestermorn, brave son” is overwrought, and “rainbows glow in every falling tear” is desperate to put a good face on things. I don’t make fun of the poet, or the grief; I merely note the swooping variations in tone.

One might think that ‘brave’ (v. 5) and ‘warfare’ (v. 6) betoken a death in military service. I find no evidence of this on the interwebs. Rather, ‘brave’ is common enough, especially poetically, as a word of approbation, like bravo in Italian. ‘Warfare’ seems to me a synecdoche for ‘bad things in general’, a way for our poet to signify that Dixon has now gone to a better place. There seems in any event not to have been any significant warfare in which the U.S. was involved in 1893.

I don’t know who the poet was. But the poem is written as though the parents, or a parent, were speaking (fittingly, for a man dead at age 30), or so I interpret ‘brave son.’ And the Odd Fellows chain on the monument is echoed in the ‘lodge’ (v. 7) from which Dixon has been separated. The crown in verse 6, symbolic of victory in living a Christian life, may echo the crown depicted on the monument’s cap.

Lastly, I think this poet has avoided one of my pet peeves, saying ‘from whence.’ For those wondering, ‘whence’ already contains the ‘from’ in it. My reading is that ‘from’ governs ‘warfare’, and ‘hence’ is in apposition to ‘from warfare’. ‘Hence’ here means ‘from the world’, and as I said above, I take ‘warfare’ to be a synecdoche for ‘the world’, or at least the bad parts of it. It’d be easier had the poet placed a comma after ‘warfare’.

Appendix 1.

In his monumental Elegies and Epitaphs (1892, pages 268-9), Charles Box quotes without author’s name an elegy ‘Four Graves’, commemorating a father’s loss of four young children to sickness within one month. The sixth stanza reads (with Box’s punctuation and orthography),

Gone! Gone! All four! The crescent moon,
The earliest of the Spring,
Beheld them in a happy home,
And heard their laughter ring;
Yet ere her rounded orb declined
Into its lingering wane,
Bereft, in desolate retreat,
She saw us listening for the feet
That ne’er return again.

Box also quotes (page 146) the simple inscription on the tomb of Mr. F. Buxton commemorated a dead child thus on the family tomb: Eheu! Eheu!, which is Latin for “Alas! Alas!” It’s not quite as effective as the monosyllables of “Gone! Gone!”, but it does capture the formal pattern of solemnly repeated words of grief.

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Arlington, VA

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