With grim humor and humorous grimness, In Search of the Great Dead engages the great themes of poetry: death and fame.
The title poem of this collection records Richard Cecil's quest for the tombs of the famous dead. At first the search leads him on a tour of famous European tombstones—the grave of Chateaubriand in St. Malo, the shared tomb of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in Pere-Lachaise cemetery in Paris, Yeats's old Celtic cross in Sligo—but gradually it expands into areas where all the tombs have been erased by time or vandalism—the tombs of Seneca and Lucan, and all of the great dead poets whose names have been lost. These once famous, now unknown poets lead Cecil to consider those graveyards full of anonymous dead—the civil war soldiers buried under tiny stones with numbers instead of names inscribed on them. Are they more anonymous than the once famous, now forgotten "great" dead?
Though Cecil is wryly aware of his own obscurity, his poems are strangely optimistic and life-affirming. His reply to Emily Dickinson's question: "I'm Nobody—are you / Nobody, too?" is an enthusiastic yes! In Search of the Great Dead conveys the joy of being Nobody and the shy, almost buried hope that someday (after death), he might become Somebody.