Instead of my planned tirade, occasioned by a brief immersion in today’s ‘news’, I started to think about the ways in which we let ourselves be overwhelmed and driven by the immediate misery of the moment. Let us count our blessings. And gather our rosebuds while we may. Here endeth the first lesson.
Gather Ye Rosebuds, or Ophelia – John William Waterhouse
To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time, Robert Herrick, 1648
Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.
That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.
This poem seems not solely about sage (reactionary?) advice to young women; it is perhaps an exhortation not simply to ‘seize the day’ as it was used in Dead Poets Society, for example, but to make the very most of what we have. The poem echoes Horace’s Ode 1.11 in which ‘carpe diem‘ appears, and is also an echo of Wisdom 2.8, in which the philosophy takes on a much more sinister character:
For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves,
“Short and sorrowful is our life,
and there is no remedy when a man comes to his end,
and no one has been known to return from Hades.
2 Because we were born by mere chance,
and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been;
because the breath in our nostrils is smoke,
and reason is a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts.
3 When it is extinguished, the body will turn to ashes,
and the spirit will dissolve like empty air.
4 Our name will be forgotten in time,
and no one will remember our works;
our life will pass away like the traces of a cloud,
and be scattered like mist
that is chased by the rays of the sun
and overcome by its heat.
5 For our allotted time is the passing of a shadow,
and there is no return from our death,
because it is sealed up and no one turns back.
6 “Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that exist,
and make use of the creation to the full as in youth.
7 Let us take our fill of costly wine and perfumes,
and let no flower of spring pass by us.
8 Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither.
9 Let none of us fail to share in our revelry,
everywhere let us leave signs of enjoyment,
because this is our portion, and this our lot.
10 Let us oppress the righteous poor man;
let us not spare the widow
nor regard the gray hairs of the aged.
11 But let our might be our law of right,
for what is weak proves itself to be useless.
So, let us value and guard what we have, but do so in a spirit that does not rob our neighbours of what they have…Compare the base sentiments of the characters in Wisdom with the Epistle of James:
9 Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, 10 and the rich in his humiliation, because like the flower of the grass he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.
Know this, my beloved brethren. Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, 20 for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rank growth of wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.[c] 23 For if any one is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who observes his natural face in a mirror; 24 for he observes himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 But he who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer that forgets but a doer that acts, he shall be blessed in his doing.
26 If any one thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is vain.27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
Caveat actor, then…