This 1888 granite stone (figure 1) marks the grave of Sarah Jones, who died at the age of eleven years. Her mother raised the stone, and like many stones here in Petersburg’s Little Church Street Cemetery and the adjacent People’s Memorial Cemetery, this stone exhibits some interesting irregularities in the carving which are complemented by even greater poetic irregularities.
The anagraphical data:
IN MEMORY OF
SARAH E. JONES,
BORN MAY 30, 1876,
DIED FEB 1, 1888.
There follows Anne Steele‘s mid-eighteenth-century hymn, “When blooming youth is snatched away,” or rather salient bits of it assembled and ordered to express Sarah’s mother’s sentiments:
When blooming youth / is snatched away
By death’s resistless / hand,
While pity prompts the / rising sigh
With awful power I too / must die.
You can instantly see, even before looking the hymn up, that there’s something irregular here: the verses have 8-6-8-8 beats, and the rhythm we feel in the first two verses, of rising in the first and sinking in the second, is not continued in verses three and four. Then there is the rhyming scheme which is hard to fathom. So, let’s have a look at a text of the hymn, the verses taken highlighted:
* When blooming youth is snatch’d away
* By death’s resistless hand,
Our hearts the mournful tribute pay
Which pity must demand.
* While pity prompts the rising sigh,
O may this truth, impress’d
* With awful power,–“I too must die:”
Sink deep in every breast.
Let this vain world engage no more;
Behold the gaping tomb!
It bids us seize the present hour,
To-morrow death may come.
The voice of this alarming scene,
May every heart obey;
Nor be the heavenly warning vain,
Which calls to watch and pray.
Oh, let us fly–to Jesus fly,
Whose powerful arm can save;
Then shall our hopes ascend on high,
And triumph o’er the grave.
Great God! thy sovereign grace impart,
With cleansing, healing power;
This only can prepare the heart
For death’s surprising hour.
Fair enough: Sarah’s mother abstracted the most important bits from the hymn, and she’s made the quotation “I too must die” apposite to “sigh.” In the hymn, the phrase is in apposition to “truth.” We’re left with a sigh that rises “with awful power.” This is not impossible, but would be more easily parsed if the stone were punctuated:
When blooming youth is snatched away
By death’s resistless hand,
While pity prompts the rising sigh
With awful power: “I too must die.”
The alert reader will see that the greatest problem with this set of abstracted verses is that there is no independent clause (except the quotation, which doesn’t count). We have a temporal clause, a prepositional phrase, another temporal clause, and another prepositional phrase that governs the quotation.
The point, I think, is that Sarah’s mother knew the hymn well, and took it for granted that her audience would also know the hymn, and could supply the logic her cut-n-paste job had rendered opaque.
About the stone: nice drafted margin; odd bent line with the name JONES. Insistence upon lining up the dates of birth and death. “IS” abortively cut after “YOUTH” but transposed down and indented to show it’s a continuation of the same verse. Lack of indentation in the remaining three verses.