As I get older, I find that my attention span is getting shorter. This may explain why I find myself drawn to poems that explain Life in a few brief lines. I am not talking about Paradise Lost (or Regained, for that matter), The Faerie Queene, The Prelude, or Four Quartets. No, I am in search of a distillation of Life in, say, twenty lines or less. Humor is welcome. As is practical advice on how to live (and die).
Which brings us to William Ernest Henley (1849-1903). Henley is best known for "Invictus," that uplifting Victorian paean to self-sufficient selfhood: "My head is bloody, but unbowed"; "I am the master of my fate:/I am the captain of my soul," etcetera. But there is more to Henley than "Invictus." To prove that this is so, I give you the following (untitled) poem explaining Life in sixteen lines:
Madam Life's a piece in bloom
Death goes dogging everywhere:
She's the tenant of the room,
He's the ruffian on the stair.
You shall see her as a friend,
You shall bilk him once and twice;
But he'll trap you in the end,
And he'll stick you for her price.
With his kneebones at your chest,
And his knuckles in your throat,
You would reason -- plead -- protest!
Clutching at her petticoat;
But she's heard it all before,
Well she knows you've had your fun,
Gingerly she gains the door,
And your little job is done.
W. E. Henley, The Works of W. E. Henley, Volume I: Poems (1908). "Invictus" was written in 1875. "Madam Life's a piece in bloom" was written in 1877.