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"EPITAPH, AN" Matthew Prior (1718) When Matthew Prior wrote his satire "An Epitaph," he had in mind a chorus from Seneca's Thyestes, "All I seek is to lie still," and its theme of the danger of living a life unfulfilled. In the 62 lines of rhyming couplets, Prior's speaker examines a "marble stone" that marks the grave of "sauntering Jack and idle Joan." He notes that whether "human things went ill or well," or "changing empires rose or fell," Jack and Joan remained exactly the same. They "walked and ate," did it again, then "soundly slept the night away," and after burying four children did not try for more. They lived with both economic and ethical boundaries, which served to separate them from one another, so neither "trespassed on the other's ground." They did not punish or reward their footmen or maids, allowing each servant to "take his course," causing all to become undesirables. Eventually, "slothful disorder filled his stable, / And sluttish plenty decked her table," as they enjoyed beer and wine with meals prefaced by a "short" grace. The speaker does not admire the pair's treatment of the poor, for they gave away the remnants of their "meat / Just when it grew not fit to eat." Prior employs many single-syllable terms, emphasizing the elementary aspects of a life devoid of challenge and change. Because Jack and Joan never grew to know anyone well, they "never made themselves a foe." They also never commended a "man's good deeds," so they had no friends; avoided knowing their relations, as those relations might require aid; and did not keep their house or barn in good repair, as it might "oblige their future heir." The litany of all the pair did not do continues:
They neither added, nor confounded; They neither wanted, nor abounded. Each Christmas they accompts did clear; And wound their bottom round the year.
Here Prior refers to the personal accounts the couple took care of on an annual basis, using the holiday for practical, rather than spiritual reasons. The term bottom refers to a skein of thread, as Prior adopts the figurative language of metaphor to describe the way the couple put things right.
The couple were "Nor good, nor bad, nor fools, not wise; / They would not learn, nor could advise." Prior finishes the tale of vacant lives with the final four lines:
Without love, hatred, joy, or fear,
Nor wished, nor cared, nor laughed, nor cried;
Prior warns against the balanced, seemingly perfect life, in which risk plays no part. It results in boredom and vacuity, a deadly-dull procedure that kills one's spirit.
Samuel Johnson wrote in his Lives of the English Poets that Prior's "epigrams and lighter pieces are, like those of others sometimes elegant, sometimes trifling, and sometimes dull; among the best are the Camelion and the epitaph on John and Joan." According to Johnson, Prior made little effort at originality, having borrowed most of his ideas. However, his execution remains often admirable, because of his diligence and measured judgment on what he chose to imitate.
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