Friday, May 4, 2018

A Poet's Epitaph - John Black

When comes the last long silence to this lute,
And by its plea no more the calm is broken,
In charity, O world, let it be spoken:
No human sorrow found this player mute!

I came across this small poem by accident.  I had been reading a James Joyce poem, "She Weeps Over Rahoon" which was published in the November 1917 issue of Poetry Magazine.  Since I was reading a scan of that page, I saw the poem that accompanied it, a short ABBA quatrain epitaph by John Black.  It caught my eye, and its straightforward earnestness caught me off guard.  I have been unable to find any biographical info on the poet John Black, and would welcome any readers who know anything more.

What stands out most to me about this short poem is its interpretation of what poetry is.  The narrator, presumably Black himself, as this is "A Poet's Epitaph," wishes to be remembered for a refusal to be silent in the face of human sorrow.  It's a brave role, and aspirational.  Black isn't dead yet, but "When comes the last long silence to this lute" he wishes to be remembered for never being "mute."  The publishing date also stands out to me.  In 1917, the western world was in the midst of World War I, then known as The Great War.  There were countless poet-soldiers, many of whose work I've looked at here.  Is this a war poem?  I'm having difficulty finding concrete info on this poem apart from the actual page on which it was published.  Still, I feel like this epitaph is a reminder of what a poet can be.  Poetry can be an enduring testament to the human spirit and righteousness in the face of evil, and indeed, oftentimes it is.  While Black's lute may be silent, as I can find almost no info about him, his epitaph endures as a reminder of our highest hopes, aspirations, and anxieties about how the world will remember us (if indeed it does) after we're gone.


  1. Chris, I have borrowed the above poem and put it on my Twitter site devoted to short tweet sized poems @poemtoday. I hope you don't mind. I have provided a link back to your blog and hope that some of those who follow me will visit your blog and appreciate the poems you bring to life.
    I enjoy your eclectic taste and admire your advocacy of the poetry of James Joyce. Ecce Puer is my favourite of his short poems but Gas from a Burner is a hoot.

  2. Thank you very much, Conor! I do not mind at all, and welcome you to help yourself to as many short poems as you like. I know I've put several short poems by Ezra Pound up over the years that I quite enjoy.

    James Joyce is my favorite author, and I think it a real shame that his poetry is so often overlooked in critical study of his work. I have a particular fondness for the whole of his Chamber Music collection, which I set to music as my thesis when I was a student.

    I will be sure to check out your Twitter and if you don't mind, may borrow some poems you post as well, with a link back to your feed!

  3. Chris, Don't mind at all. Sauce for the goose and all that. I, too, have Joyce as a favourite author having read (and listened to) Ulysses numerous times.

    I also like the short poems of Ezra Pound and have used them in the @poemtoday twitter account and in the blog that anthologises some of these short poems:

    I have put a link on the @poemtoday site to the poetry-from the hart blog. Keep up the good work.

  4. John Black was born 1849 in West Calder and in his lifetime was known as "The Breich Water Poet", his maternal Grandfather was known as "The Wishaw Poet" - he published 3 books of his poems and sketches, the first Melodies and Memories, then Gloamin' Glint, and finally in 1925 his last book Airtin' Hame - he belongs the clan known as the "Breich Water Blacks who came from Call in Carnwath to the Whitburn/West Calder district of the then Linlithgowshire/Midlothian districts, he wrote of many things, and places and folk, many of his poems were published in the Hamilton Advertiser and the Mid Lothian Advertiser. One of his brothers and his sisters also wrote poetry.