The Brief Sum of Life

Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus), Roman lyrist and satirist, wrote, “Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam.”  Translated it means “the brief sum of life forbids us the hope of enduring long.”

This echoes a statement from the Psalms (90:10).  The Jewish Orthodox Bible (OJB) renders Tehillim 90:10 “ The yamim of shnoteinu (our years, life) are threescore shanah and ten; and if by reason of gevurot they are fourscore shanah, yet is their boast amal (trouble, toil) and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.”  The Common English Bible (CEB) translates the Hebrew this way: “We live at best to be seventy years old, maybe eighty, if we’re strong. But their duration brings hard work and trouble because they go by so quickly. And then we fly off.

Life, human life, is a mere dust speck tossed by the winds of time.  Like a falling autumn leaf it floats briefly in the air before it lands on the ground and disintegrates before Spring.

In MACBETH (Act V, Scene V), life is summed up succinctly with these few words by Macbeth upon being told that his wife was dead,

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

In the English nursery rhyme which we heard so often in childhood says,

Row, row, row your boat,

Gently down the stream.

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,

Life is but a dream.

Perhaps, Lewis Carroll in his poem LIFE IS BUT A DREAM expanded on the nursery rhyme where he writes

Long has paled that sunny sky;

Echoes fade and memories die;

Autumn frosts have slain July.

In a Wonderland they lie,

Dreaming as the days go by,

Dreaming as the summers die;

Ever drifting down the stream–

Lingering in the golden gleam–

Life, what is it but a dream?

The never ending story of seasonal cycles on this planet traversing the cosmos seems to reflect the human journey from conception to birth to aging and eventually to dying.  We are part of the annual trek around our sun with its pace steady and sure.

Ernest Christopher Dowson wrote

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,

Love and desire and hate:

I think they have no portion in us after

We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:

Out of a misty dream

Our path emerges for a while, then closes

Within a dream.

Our days of wine and roses are too few on this earth.  When we pass the gate of human existence all that we were ceases. Over the years our life becomes like a misty dream to those who knew and loved us while we walked among them.  Time closes the chapter of memories of which we are a part as their lives fade like the lotus at sunset.

When your threescore and ten or fourscore years come to an end on this orb hanging in infinite space, what do you expect?  Do you believe like so many that death is a long dreamless sleep from which there is no awakening? It will be your last syllable, your final utterance to those you leave behind?

Or do you hold on to some promise, some future hope, like Sir Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote in his poem CROSSING THE BAR

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.

Like the lotus which closes at night but at sunrise awakens to the beauty of a new day, Tennyson and many others hoped for that day of awakening.

Whatever you believe about death,

Until that time, stay thirsty for life and its joys.  Live each day well like it was Christmas.  Always, and always, lend a hand to a fellow traveller on the road of life.

My hope for you is

May you dance among the stars and sing the songs of creation. You are star stuff, and star stuff is always being recreated by the cosmic winds.

G. D. Williams       © 2013

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Ernest Christopher Dowson (August 2, 1867-February 23, 1900)


CROSSING THE BAR Sir Alfred Lord Tennyson