On Sepulchres Summary
On Sepulchres, written in 1806, is also known as Of Tombs, On Tombs, or The Sepulchres. The poem is addressed to Ugo Foscolo’s friend Ippolito Pindemonte, a wealthy, prominent traveler who had translated Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.). Pindemonte wrote a poem on tombs before Foscolo, but abandoned it to write an epistle responding to his friend’s superior verse. Pindemonte inspired On Sepulchres by complaining about a Napoleonic government decree regarding interments, which stated that cemeteries should be set some distance away from inhabited areas, that tombstones should follow a uniform design, and that the living should be banned from visiting graves. Like Pindemonte, Foscolo found the decree unreasonable.
Foscolo explored many of the subjects in On Sepulchres in previous, shorter sonnets and odes, forms Foscolo found too limiting. Foscolo wrote that his “hymn” was composed in the style of the Greeks, using the rhetorical device of question and response to give the poem structure. His purpose is political, and he attempts to reach the heart rather than the mind to awaken Italian reverence for its fallen heroes. He treats his subject with a lofty, epic, heroic, and lyrical tone and a civil, moral, and educational spirit.
Throughout the poem, his theme is that the living and the dead are united in immortal love, and that tombs communicate the past to the living. Some critics claim the poem says that death is but another country after life, but Foscolo chooses the word “sepulchre” carefully, as the term “cemetery” had Christian connotations he wishes to avoid. In Catholic Italy, cemeteries are places for bodies to rest before resurrection. For Foscolo, immortality is in the memory of the living, not heaven or hell, and tombs are simply monuments to the dead.
The poem begins with a desolate tone, the dead reflecting on what they lost under the shade of cypress trees, a symbol of immortality. They remember life as having love, hope, and music now replaced by the oblivion of “melancholy harmony.” The poet asks why one living should want to visit the dead and answers by saying they deserve reverence because the living, the dead, and nature are interconnected, nature inspiring serene reflection on the past.
The poet addresses the new law that would deny solace for the living and “the dead their names.” He calls on Calliope, the Muse of poetry, to give grieving poets the same spirit she gave previous singers such as Homer, asking her to give him inspiration to justly memorialize past heroes. The poet describes how people mourned in the past: how graves, altars, and tombs are designed, and how the greatness of past leaders inspires him.
The second part of the poem emphasizes the importance of memory. Speaking to Pindemonte, the poet recalls the glory of Troy, Italian cities including Florence and Tuscany, and famous Italians. He praises fictional and real ancient Romans and Greeks including Plutarch, Plato, Ajax, and Hector. He describes Electra’s death, and how she asked for her fame to be immortalized in song. These names, some critics claim, underline Foscolo’s antiplebeian, antiegalitarian, and aristocratic point of view. This is possible, but Foscolo is primarily celebrating a pantheon of brave Italian immortals who conquered death in their fame, monuments, and literature.
The poem then prophesies the ruins of contemporary life, warning of dangers to people separated from their past glories. The dead carry secrets and glory the living must embrace and carry on. Part of the popular graveyard school of eighteenth century poetry, On Sepulchres is but one of Foscolo’s explorations of Italian heroes, myth, and death. On the poem’s publication, Foscolo’s reputation was elevated into prominence, prompting quick translations into European languages. His detractors, primarily the clergy, objected to his anti-Christian stance and the womanizing in his personal life.
On Sepulchres is now generally regarded as Foscolo’s...
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