Sunday, August 8, 2010

Life Explained, Part Four: "Who Then To Frail Mortality Shall Trust But Limns On Water, Or But Writes In Dust"

The Elizabethan age is a fertile source of poems that provide succinct Explanations of Life.  I am not competent to say why this is so.  Perhaps it was a particularly perilous time in which to live -- wars, plagues, dangerous court intrigues, etcetera -- and poets (both known and unknown) felt a need to sum up this state of affairs in a few pithy lines.  The poems do not often make for sunny reading, I am afraid.

Even Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) -- a Renaissance man if ever there was one, but a man whose life was not without difficulties -- wrote a poem cataloguing Life's woes.  (An aside:  as is often the case with Elizabethan poems, there is a lengthy history concerning the authorship of this poem.  Bacon is now generally recognized to be its author.)

The world's a bubble, and the life of man
     Less than a span;
In his conception wretched, from the womb,
     So to the tomb;
Curst from his cradle, and brought up to years
     With cares and fears.
Who then to frail mortality shall trust
But limns on water, or but writes in dust.

Yet, whilst with sorrow here we live oppressed,
     What life is best?
Courts are but only superficial schools,
     To dandle fools;
The rural part is turned into a den
     Of savage men;
And where's a city from foul vice so free
But may be termed the worst of all the three?

Domestic cares afflict the husband's bed,
     Or pains his head:
Those that live single take it for a curse,
     Or do things worse:
These would have children; those that have them moan,
     Or wish them gone,
What is it, then, to have or have no wife,
But single thraldom or a double strife?

Our own affections still at home to please
     Is a disease;
To cross the seas to any foreign soil,
     Peril and toil;
Wars with their noise affright us; when they cease,
     We're worse in peace:
What then remains, but that we still should cry
For being born, and, being born, to die?

As I said, these Elizabethan summaries of Life do not make for sunny reading.  Bacon comes dangerously close to reaching the conclusion later arrived at by Arthur Schopenhauer and Giacomo Leopardi:  that we would be better off having never been born.  Welladay!

             Pieter Claesz, "Still Life with Skull and Writing Quill" (1628)

No comments: