The three fragments here displayed deal with the theme of the flowing of time. Over the centuries, this theme has become really dear to several poets who, despite their belonging to different historical periods, have shown their feelings and their regret about the brief and fast course of life and about the decay that time brings about in nature.
Following a chronological order, the first piece of work belongs to Mimnermus, a Greek lyrical poet who lived in Colophon or Smyrna during the VII or VI century B.C. He owed his success especially to his elegies, where he focused his attention on the theme of love and the pleasures of life. His verses offer the famous image of man compared to a leaf, blooming in the spring and enjoying its youth, but unaware of the coming winter that will destroy it. In the same way, according to the poet, man has a really brief life and he should prefer death to an old age made of illnesses and regrets.
In the Latin world, it was Seneca who was interested in this topic. He was a philosopher, a poet and a public speaker. He lived in Rome between 4 and 65 B.C. He wrote, besides other works, an essay called “De Brevitate Vitae” about what he regarded as the most priceless property of men, life. This fragment, from “De Brevitate Vitae”, shows how quick the time of life is. Life flows quietly, never stopping, but since man is too busy thinking about money and similar unworthy matters, he notices neither its course nor the death which is waiting for him.
Finally, the third fragment is part of a sonnet from “The Canzoniere”, composed by Petrarch. He was a Medieval lyrical poet, but at the same time a modern poet in the way he dealt with his inner conflicts, his doubts and the attention to the individual. The extract above refers to a personal event, the death of his beloved woman, Laura, which allows the poet to deal with the theme of time. The poet suffers both when he remembers his past, full of mistakes, and when he thinks about the future without the certainty of an eternal salvation coming from God, who also controls time. In these lines the poet shows how he lives with an inner conflict. Past and present things can be compared to two armies that face each other on a battle field that corresponds to the soul of the poet himself.
Mimnermus, fr. 8 Gent-Pr./ 2 W
ἡμεῖς δ’, οἷά τε φύλλα φύει πολυάνθεμος ὥρη
ἔαρος, ὅτ’ αἶψ’ αὐγῆις αὔξεται ἠελίου,
τοῖς ἴκελοι πήχυιον ἐπὶ χρόνον ἄνθεσιν ἥβης
τερπόμεθα, πρὸς θεῶν εἰδότες οὔτε κακὸν
οὔτ’ ἀγαθόν· Κῆρες δὲ παρεστήκασι μέλαιναι,
ἡ μὲν ἔχουσα τέλος γήραος ἀργαλέου,
ἡ δ’ ἑτέρη θανάτοιο· μίνυνθα δὲ γίνεται ἥβης
καρπός, ὅσον τ’ ἐπὶ γῆν κίδναται ἠέλιος.
αὐτὰρ ἐπὴν δὴ τοῦτο τέλος παραμείψεται ὥρης,
αὐτίκα δὴ τεθνάναι βέλτιον ἢ βίοτος·
πολλὰ γὰρ ἐν θυμῶι κακὰ γίνεται· ἄλλοτε οἶκος
τρυχοῦται, πενίης δ’ ἔργ’ ὀδυνηρὰ πέλει·
ἄλλος δ’ αὖ παίδων ἐπιδεύεται, ὧν τε μάλιστα
ἱμείρων κατὰ γῆς ἔρχεται εἰς Ἀΐδην·
ἄλλος νοῦσον ἔχει θυμοφθόρον· οὐδέ τίς ἐστιν
ἀνθρώπων ὧι Ζεὺς μὴ κακὰ πολλὰ διδοῖ.
Like leaves, blooming
in the flowering spring,
once they begin to grow under the sunlight,
we humans like them enjoy
the bloom of youth only for a while,
without knowing, as a gift of gods,
neither good nor evil.
Dark are the Keres and they stand just beside us :
the one bringing the end of horrible old age,
the other leading death. Just like lightning,
as brief as the sunlight
the fruit of youth is shining on the earth
And when this season has gone by,
then, suddenly, to be dead is better than being alive.
So much sorrow affects the soul;
Sometimes, property has been lost
and the painful effects of poverty come after.
Someone longs for children so much that
he descends into Hades with this unfulfilled wish
Someone else has a disease that breaks his soul.
None is spared from suffering by wrathful Zeus
Seneca, De brevitate vitae, VIII, 5
Nemo restituet annos, nemo iterum te tibi reddet; ibit, qua coepit, aetas nec cursum suum aut revocabit aut supprimet; nihil tumultuabitur, nihil admonebit velocitatis suae: tacita labetur; non illa se regis imperio, non favore populi longius proferet: sicut missa est a primo die curret, nusquam devertetur, nusquam remorabitur. Quid fiet? Tu occupatus es, vita festinat: mors interim aderit, cui, velis nolis, vacandum est.
Nobody will return you your years gone by; nobody will give you back your previous self; the time of your life will go down the taken path; it will neither come back nor will it stop its flow; it will not make a noise or display its speed. The time of life will flow quietly. It will not last longer by the order of a king or by the approval of the crowd. It will run as it has done since the beginning, never stopping. What is going to happen? You are busy now, but life rushes away, in the meanwhile death lies right there and you must have time for it whether you like it or not.
Petrarch, La vita fugge et non s’arresta una hora, vv. 1-4
La vita fugge, et non s’arresta una hora,
et la morte vien dietro a gran giornate,
et le cose presenti et le passate
mi dànno guerra, et le future anchora
Life flows quickly and does not stop even for an hour
and death chases by leaps and bounds,
and present and past things
torment me, as well as those to come.
Translations by Domenico Crea
Sundial from Orchomenos, Boeotia, Greece:
Panagia Skripou Monastery