Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetat Incohare Longam

 Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetat Incohare Longam
(The brief sum of life forbids us the hope of enduring long – Horace)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.
Ernest Dowson

 

A brief meditation on the fleeting nature of our passions and woes.

It’s something I think about; the urgent intensity of things I feel when I feel them, and how vanishingly temporary they are, how they always pass without a trace. Sometimes the reminder is what I need to get through periods of emotional suffering; every time I think I will never recover from a wound, I do. Of course, I am glad to be relieved of pain, but when it does subside, it feels like a weird betrayal of the truth of its former intensity.

The same awareness of transience pulls me a few inches closer toward earth in moments when I’m drunk with ravishment. The idea also makes me anxious and mad. Why am I allowed a taste of this enthrallment, falling in love, submerging in beauty, but not to hold onto it? In these moments, I think of Salieri’s fury toward God, the anguish over desire and longing, having had a glimpse of transcendence too easily lost: “If He didn’t want me to praise him with music, why implant the desire? Like a lust in my body!”

I wonder, for Dowson, in the last few lines — does he seem relieved or melancholy that “Our path emerges for a while, then closes / Within a dream“? Is he sad about that, or is it a permission to tread with freedom and curiosity, since it is all but a dream anyway?

If the “days of wine and roses” are not long, is the poem a call to carpe the romance of the diem while it lasts, or a lamentation of its futility?


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