A whole supplement in The Guardian last weekend, about how to write a novel in 30 days. And nothing in there, I bet, about the tricky business of Epigraphs. Many years ago, I wanted one for my second novel, The Alchemist, so I started by thinking about poetry I knew by heart. That didn’t get me very far.
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then, I contradict myself,
I am large, I contain multitudes.
I think I remember that because I like the direct address, the acceptance that real life doesn’t slip into neat files, it’s more complicated than that, more messy and various. If you know it ‘by heart’ then perhaps it’s because it speaks in some way to your heart, hits you on an emotional level.
At the round earth’s imagined corners, blow
Your trumpets angels and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities of souls,
And to your scattered bodies go,
All whom flood did and fire shall overthrow.
Or maybe it’s just because it’s stirring stuff, with a fantastic rhythm. You feel like you want to shout that ‘blow’ at the end of the first line.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain edges will grow light,
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day closer now
Making all thought impossible but when
And where and how I myself shall die.
I’m not sure that’s right, but it’s something like that. I can remember more of it too, there seems to be quite a lot of it in my head. Death and miserableness have always drawn me towards them. But what’s my memory doing? At school we were given large chunks of Shakespeare (the seven ages of man, Hamlet’s speech involving ‘a quintessence of dust’), and the whole of the Donne sonnet beginning ‘Death be not proud ...’ to learn, but I don’t remember more than the odd word or phrase of those. They’re presumably floating around my brain somewhere, in some dusty backroom, perhaps along with everything I’ve ever read which, as mentioned below, has just fizzled away like steam.
In the end, many years ago, I looked in a dictionary of quotations for my Epigraph, and came up with something that seemed appropriate.
A cheat, a thief, a swearer and
blasphemer, who smelt of the rope from
a hundred yards away, but for the rest
the best lad in the world.
It’s from Clement Marot’s Epitres, as you probably know, (that's a joke), and it does have some aptness, since duality is at the heart of the novel, and my young hero does some very unheroic things, but it felt like cheating to have to look it up. I’ve never used an Epigraph since, or wanted to, but I do sometimes wish I could remember a bit more poetry ...