Ian Hamilton’s ‘Epitaph’

The scent of old roses and tobacco
Takes me back.
It’s almost twenty years
Since I last saw you
And our half-hearted love affair goes on.

You left me this:
A hand, half-open, motionless
On a green counterpane.
Enough to build
A few melancholy poems on.

If I had touched you then
One of us might have survived.

I have, for some time now, been posting some of Ian Hamilton’s poems; Epitaph is the fourth in this series. It deals with, I believe, the death of his father from cancer when Hamilton was a young man.

Having read the entire collection of his poems, which are few in number, but each powerfully written, I am personally convinced he is the finest poet of the second half of the 20th century. This is obviously a very audacious assessment; but whether you agree with this or not, I am certain that you will enjoy exploring his oeuvre.

Click here for a list of the other Ian Hamilton poems on the Book of Pain.

For more on Ian Hamilton, I refer you to: his Wikipedia page.

Thank you for reading Ian Hamilton’s ‘Epitaph’. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it and I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain. As always, I look forward to your comments.


Comments © 2013 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved.


Filed under Poetry

6 responses to “Ian Hamilton’s ‘Epitaph’

  1. Touching and seems there is a sense of remorse in this poem.


    • Hamilton had a thing for maximizing the sense of suffering in his work. He wrings a poem down to the barest amount that holds the most emotion. I think he is a stunning author.

  2. This is very powerful. Thanks for the explanation, I was trying to understand to whom he was referring in the poem.

    I now know — given that it’s about his deceased father who died of cancer — what the ‘scent of tobacco’ is doing there. It also may explain the old roses (for a funeral?).

    It also clarifies that ‘survival’ in the poem’s conclusion is not a mere emotional survival (as I had originally thought, given that I assumed this to be a poem about a romantic relationship); but rather, it is the literal survival of a family member.

    Great poem. “Best of the latter half of the 20th century” may be slightly bold, but now that I think about it, the best poets of the 20th century (at least in my opinion: Eliot, Auden, Larkin, and the war poets) were all basically from the first half of the century.

    Again, thanks for posting. The poems of Hamilton’s have been very stirring, have paid big dividends for how short and simple they are. I’ve got to pick up a copy of Hamilton’s collection.

    • You mention the war poets, and I cannot agree more, although I’d also agree with Auden and Eliot (although give me ‘Old Possum’s Books of Practical Cats’ over Prufrock or ‘The Waste Land’ any day.) In fact I am working on a poem called ‘knowledge’ which makes an explicit reference to Owen’s ‘Dulce Est Decorum Est’, one of the first poems that slapped me in the face and said, ‘Read me! Again.’ Sassoon, Gibson…they transcended their times and made poetry out of their suffering. Brooke’s “The Soldier” is perhaps very patriotic and from the early part of the war…yet it is still achingly beautiful.

  3. I love the way a scent will suddenly leave you on a headlong plunge into nostalgia – its especially succulent, when it comes all a sudden without any expectation.

    • The more I read Hamilton’s work, the more I admire it. It is so quick and in ways, so simple, but the subtlety and precision of it are breathtaking. I have a few more in the series I want to. I hope you enjoy them too.