Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"Man Is But A Bubble": Erasmus and Dodsley

"Man is but a bubble" is one of the adages collected by Erasmus in his Adagia.  He writes:

"Man is but a bubble.  The lesson of this proverb is that there is nothing so fragile, so fleeting and so empty as the life of man.  A bubble is that round swollen empty thing which we watch in water as it grows and vanishes in a moment of time.  Thus Marcus Terentius Varro in the preface to his book on agriculture:  'Bearing in mind', he says, 'that I must make haste; for if, as they say, man is but a bubble, much more is this true of an old man.  My eightieth year reminds me to pack my baggage, before I bid farewell to life.' . . . Nor could one think of anything, in fact, which would give a better picture of the utter nothingness of this life of ours."

The Adages of Erasmus (selected by William Barker), II.iii.48 (University of Toronto Press, 2001), pp. 171-172.

Long before encountering the comments by Erasmus, I came across this poem by Robert Dodsley (who is perhaps best known as one of Samuel Johnson's publishers):

Man's a poor deluded bubble, 
   Wand'ring in a mist of lies,
Seeing false, or seeing double,
   Who would trust to such weak eyes?
Yet presuming on his senses, 
   On he goes most wond'rous wise:
Doubts of truth, believes pretences;
   Lost in error, lives and dies. 

Robert Dodsley, Trifles (1745), page 241.  I particularly like the line: "on he goes most wond'rous wise."

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