The true origins of an 18th century tomb inscription at Zennor, Penwith, Cornwall

“‘Tis glorious misery to be born a man,” generally taken to refer to a hen-pecked husband, is in fact a misquotation of verse by the 17th century Romford and London poet, Francis Quarles, dealing with human mortality.

Cloudy day, so midday beers at the Tinner’s Arms at Zennor were agreed, and I strolled over inland from St Just, in order to take in megaliths at Carn Kenidjack above Tregeseal, Chûn Castle and Quoit, Mên-an-Tol, the Ding Dong mines, and the Bodrifty Iron Age village, as well as the views over to Mount’s Bay. The choice of pub was down to a 1995 report from drunken itinerant artists:

It had ancient beer engines, good cider, no food, and the old landlady was merciless. When an American woman misunderstood the sign “Ladies use the Gents” and proceeded anyway, all hell broke loose.

D.H. Lawrence to the equally miserable Ottoline Morrell:

When we came over the shoulder of the wild hill, above the sea, to Zennor, I felt we were coming into the Promised Land. I know there will be a new heaven and a new earth take place now: we have triumphed. I feel like a Columbus who can see a shadowy America before him: only this isn’t merely territory, it is a new continent of the soul.

When I came over the shoulder of the wild hill, pursued by heifers, my main feeling was of thirst. There may be a polypin of the excellent Skreach under the bar, but first impressions of the 21st century Tinner’s are of a twee and impersonal gastropub, with some Poldark branding, but appearing to cater mainly to wealthy and well-behaved Nordics (with baggage taxi) on the South West Coast Path.

The church, on the other hand, despite a bodged Victorian (?) restoration, retains some marvels, including the inscription pictured above:

Hope,fear,false joy and trouble,(this bubble,
Are those four winds which daily toss-
His breath’s a vapor and his life’s a span,
Tis glorious misrey to be born a man.

The mason’s illiteracy is compounded by breakage of the stone and the loss of part:

But the dedication is clearly to William Champen (1701-1790) and his wife Phillis (1705-1791). John Hobson Mathews’ 1892 History of the parishes of St. Ives, Lelant, Towednack and Zennor: in the county of Cornwall says that there is also a memorial to “Agnes Champen, died 15 May 1731 aged 56. Erected by William her son. [The oldest in the yard; against the church-yard wall, south-east of the chancel.]” We are as far in time from Mathews as he was from Champen, so maybe Agnes’ stone has gone by now.

There’s a good post about Zennor Ewan and Fiona Lincoln, with photos of a couple of things I missed. Ewan writes:

For some reason, a number of sources describe this as the gravestone of a ‘hen-pecked husband’, but there’s absolutely nothing in the inscription to suggest any such thing. Perhaps people are misinterpreting the line about ‘glorious misrey [misery] to be born a man’, which is clearly meant to be about the short and troubled life of human beings rather than any sort of message about the difficulties of being male.

Indeed, for, despite the mason and his editor clearly not pertaining to the metropolitan elite, the image and the verse are actually borrowed from the early 17th century, Romford-born poet Francis Quarles, as far removed in time from Champen as Champen from Mathews and Mathews from us. Here is the frontispiece to the 1777 edition[1]Beware of “modernized” (which is to say, rewritten and ruined) mid-18th-century editions, attributed to Revd. Dr. Watts, i.e. Isaac Watts, which use a different graphic and verse for the frontispiece:


What thou beholdest here’s a Bubble:
But Man, the Thing that’s blown;
The Winds are Hope, Fear, Joy, and Trouble,
That toss him up and down.

Watts’ PC intent is clear from the preface, in which he compares fables unfavourably with these new moralising emblems:

The Story of a Cock and a Bull, which the little Scholar sees pictured on one Side and reads on the other, may perhaps please his childish Fancy; yet, I will venture to affirm, does more Prejudice to the Mind than it conveys Instruction.

of his 1638 Hieroglyphikess of the Life of Man, presumably based on the 1639 publication of the Hieroglyphics as Book 6 of his five-Book Emblemes (1635), which Höltgen and Horden call “the best emblem book in English, and one of the most significant works of its kind”:


This bubble’s man: hope, fear, false joy and trouble,
Are those four winds with daily toss this bubble.

The remaining lines are (mis)taken from the end of Quarles’ gloss on Psalm 90:10 (“The days of our years are threescore years and ten”):

Thus man that’s born of woman can remain
But a short time: his days are full of sorrow;
His life’s a penance, and his death’s a pain;
Springs like a flow’r to-day, and fades to-morrow:
His breath’s a bubble, and his day’s a span;
‘Tis glorious mis’ry to be born a man!

The stone again, to ease comparison:

Hope,fear,false joy and trouble,(this bubble,
Are those four winds which daily toss-
His breath’s a vapor and his life’s a span,
Tis glorious misrey to be born a man.

Perhaps William or even Phillis cobbled together an epigrammatic ditty from Quarles when, already 70, they saw an edition of Quarles, and the mason or some other baboon turned it into gibberish. Perhaps the Cornish connection is down to the curious dedication to a certain Mary, Countess of Dorset, governess to Charles (later Charles II) and his brother James (II) (but not this Mary, who is too young and lusty).

I am sure I have seen similar graphics and sentiments in older German or Dutch publications; Quarles’ Life of Man is some kind of cousin of Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man; and the Zennor Mermaid used to also appear “on a bronze sundial on the tower wall, which is inscribed with the words: ‘The glory of the world Paseth, Paul Quick fecit. 1737′” (S.P.B. Mais, The Cornish Riviera (1934)). But enough of all this.

Of the Tinner’s, the artist above says:

I imagine it has changed. Buy a big bottle of cider and go and drink it on that big round doughnut stone, whose name I completely forget.

The doughnut stone is the ring stone on the extraordinary group of outcrops on Zennor Hill:

The bottle of cider will have to wait for another day, as will George Lloyd’s 1934 opera about the stone circle, Iernin, which I haven’t heard.


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Last updated 04/11/2018

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