The most impressive, and, in my opinion, the most charming stone in the City Cemetery of Wilkes Barre is the olde schoole slate tombstone of Frances Darken (figure 1).
Though of an inferior grade of stone (that is degrading visibly from rubbings and cleanings as much as the elements, I suspect), the cutter did fine work in low relief, and created a beautiful script. Since I do not think it will survive much longer without emergency conservation, and because it apparently has a negligible web presence, I’ll try to document it here.
The principal decoration (figure 2) is a beautiful romantic willow in low relief, its trunk planted on the left and its branches hanging to the right, filling (and echoing) the arched space at the top of the stone. Under the willow’s branches is a large urn. Both willow and urn are stylized. For example, the tree’s branches have been approximated to large, single-leaf-shaped masses.
The background of this image has been picked with the chisel offering a stippled background of cuneiform shapes. The same is true of floral decoration that appears elsewhere, too. Wondrous spirals decorate knobs on either side of the willow and urn.
Nature and the artist have given the stone a fantastic texture, and elegantly stylized ivy creeps up the sides (figure 3). Elegant imperfections in the cutting abound.
The long, fascinating inscriptions have been mauled by time, though with some help, as we shall see, everything can still be made out or recovered. A central circular panel surrounded by stippling and floral forms bears the anagraphic inscription (figure 4).
beloved wife of
who died Oct. 13th
Aged 50 years.
The midday sun sharply revealed the elegant script with its thin curlicue serifs and spiraling legs on the capital ‘I’ and ‘M’ (figure 5). Even more pleasing to my eye is the script of the eight-verse epigram, which will soon be lost (figure 6).
O! weep not for me, as [the] wreck thou hast seen;
Forget my poor mouldering clay;
Nay, think not of me, as I ever have been.
O! weep not beside me to day,
Thy Frances sleeps not in that perishing dust;
Her spirit has burst from its clod,
And wing’d its bright way, with the thrill of [the just]
And the youth of an angel—to God.
The poem, a sophisticated production in 4 couplets of anapestic tetrameters and trimeters is an abridgment and adaptation of a longer epitaph (or a poem meant to simulate an epitaph) which we see given in full in the contemporary 1833 Monthly Repository and Library of Entertaining Knowledge, v. 3, p. 148 (see figure 7).
In the 8 couplets of the original, a dead father addresses his daughter; on the stone, ‘father’ has been replaced by ‘Frances’ and the pronouns have been appropriately gendered. Frances, therefore, is imagined to address her husband (or a more general wayfarer).
The imagery of the body goes well past the conventional ‘dust’ or ‘earth.’ First it is a ship (‘wreck’), then ‘mouldering clay,’ which invokes olfactory imagination for me, at any rate. The bodily form usually perishes into dust. Here, by a transferred description, the dust itself is perishing. Best of all is a version of the old idea that the body is a prison for the soul: ‘His spirit has burst from its clod.’ Clod is a good Anglo-Saxon word choice, as it brings ‘clot’ to mind, but also a penumbra of ideas around the Latin claudo, to ‘shut in,’ or ‘imprison,’ and claudeo, to ‘limp,’ or ‘be defective.’
The composer of the Darken epitaph and the editor of the Monthly Repository either worked from the same published exemplar or two closely related texts. See how the italicized words in the latter portion of the printed poem are reproduced as underlined in most cases on the stone: ‘ever have been,’ ‘thrill,’ and ‘youth of an angel.’ The missing underline of ‘wreck’ in verse 1 and ‘not’ in verse 4 on the stone might be attributed to carelessness. The form ‘wing’d,’ as opposed to the metrically equivalent ‘winged’ is not required and therefore its presence in both versions may also point to a common exemplar.
If you scan the poem, you’ll find that the poet occasionally begins a verse—on the stone, verses 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, and 7—and once replaces the middle foot of a trimeter (verse 4) with a spondee: instead of unstressed-unstressed-stressed, we get stressed-stressed. So verse 4 goes:
O! weep nót | besíde | me to-dáy
The printed version is the only one that turns up on the internet. Though it falls short of being an original composition for this tombstone, it rises head and shoulders above the innumerable snippets of hymns that deck contemporary markers. More importantly, perhaps, it lets us fill in the damaged portions of the inscription with some confidence. Those are given [in square brackets]. I believe the text I offer is reliable.
The script of the epitaph is even more beautiful to my eye than that of the main anagraphic inscription—it is enchantingly full of irregularities and flaws, the product of skilled human hands and not a computer-guided cutter (figure 8). The irregular scratch of the underlining is exquisite.
But then we learn on find a grave dot com that John Darken swiftly returned to England and within two years had married Frances’ older sister Elizabeth! That darkens the mood of the stone no little.
If you are well to do, please consider contacting the cemetery to donate money to have the Darken stone stabilized and conserved. It would be a rare treasure in any graveyard, and it deserves it.