“Sleepe after Toyle”

Elizabeth Knowles

Lexicographers are never quite off duty. Even when pursuing some completely different avocation, you may be struck by a word, phrase, or (especially in my case) quotation, whose usage provokes enquiry. My most recent experience of this came when I was walking in South Oxfordshire, exploring the footpaths between the town of Wallingford and the village of Cholsey—my particular object being to visit the church of St Mary’s, Cholsey.

Both Wallingford and Cholsey were originally in the county of Berkshire, and Nikolaus Pevsner’s Berkshire volume (1966) in his ‘Buildings of England’ series describes St Mary’s Cholsey as “Quite a major church. Cruciform, of flint and stone, and essentially Norman, with a chancel lengthened in the C13 [thirteenth century].” As well as its many intrinsic interests as a building, the churchyard surrounding it is also where the crime writer Agatha Christie is buried (she and her second husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, lived at Winterbrook House on the outskirts of Wallingford). I went over to look at the very handsome headstone that commemorates them both, and unexpectedly encountered the quotation which is the subject of this piece. The inscription to her reads in full:

In Memoriam
Agatha Mary Clarissa Mallowan DBE
Agatha Christie Author & Playwright
Born 15th Septr 1890 Died 12th Jany 1976

Below there are two lines of verse:

Sleepe after toyle, port after stormie seas
Ease after war death after life does greatly please

Most people, I think would find the sentiment expressed in this epitaph a sympathetic one, and presumably appropriate to someone who in a long life encountered some share of “stormie seas,” as well as working hard and consistently over many years. However, what interested me was the way in the lines have shed what was their original context.

They were unattributed, but fortunately I recognized them as coming from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene—specifically, as I discovered when I got home and looked them up, from Book I, Canto 9, line 40. More to the point, however, is the context in which they are originally voiced. They are taken from the longer address in which Despair attempts to persuade the Red Cross Knight to commit suicide, a fate from which he is only rescued by the intervention of Una, recalling him to himself (“Fie, fie, faint harted knight” is only the beginning of an energetic address). What interests me now is the pursuit of the couplet as quotation, looking for evidence of the degree to which they can be found used in a neutral context, with no associated meaning other than what the words suggest. An obvious starting point has been to check what dictionaries of quotations can offer. The lines appear in most of the major collections, although without information as to their original force—something which would in turn be likely to contribute to neutral use. However, two collections, Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (18/e 2012), and the New Penguin Dictionary of Quotations (2006), provide the salient information that the couplet appears on the tombstone of the writer Joseph Conrad, in Canterbury. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography provides details. Conrad’s gravestone, the entry tells us carries as an inscription “the words which he had chosen as the epigraph for The Rover [his last novel, 1923]:

Sleepe after toyle, port after stormie seas
Ease after war death after life does greatly please

ODNB adds the comment, “These are the words uttered in Spenser’s Faerie Queene by ‘a man of hell, that cals himself Despaire’.” Though Conrad was buried with Catholic obsequies, the inscription is a reminder of the radical scepticism which gives so much power to his writings.”

The next stage, obviously, is to look for examples of usage evidence in past and present, and see to what degree awareness of the original context has been carried forward. Meanwhile, however, given that it seems likely that today direct experience of Spenser’s poem will be substantially limited to those working in the field of sixteenth-century literature, it also seems probable that these two epitaphs to well-known writers can only increase the likelihood of the lines being quoted in their literal sense, fully detached from any awareness of the dangerous appeal of Despair.