In the past few days, have noticed a great many people coming to this site for my discussion of the “Days of Wine and Roses” poem by Ernest Dowson. In it, he discusses the brevity of life, which appears as though out of a dream, and is soon gone again.
Musing on that poem and its theme, these lines popped into my head:
“Oh, why did I awake? When shall I sleep again?”
They are from poem #XLVIII (48)– “Be Still My Soul, Be Still” — In Alfred Edward Housman’s great anthology A Shropshire Lad. Let’s examine it stanza by stanza:
Be still, my soul, be still; the arms you bear are brittle,
Earth and high heaven are fixt of old and founded strong.
Think rather,– call to thought, if now you grieve a little,
The days when we had rest, O soul, for they were long.
The poet is telling his soul — his mind in modern terms — his “self” — to calm down. “The arms you bear are brittle” — meaning his “weapons” — his resources to struggle against the problems of life — are fragile, weak and easily broken, while earth and sky — the universe in which we live — was “fixt [fixed, set firmly in place] of old” — made to be what it is long ago — and was made strong, and will not become other than it is. His feeble resources will not change it. So instead of fretting about it all, he tells himself that he should instead be calm and think of “the days when we had rest,” that is, the time before he was born, when he was still free of all earth’s troubles. And those days of his non-existence were long, far longer than the brief period of grief allotted to him in his life here on earth.
Men loved unkindness then, but lightless in the quarry
I slept and saw not; tears fell down, I did not mourn;
Sweat ran and blood sprang out and I was never sorry:
Then it was well with me, in days ere I was born.
Before he was born, men loved unkindness as they do now, but then he was “lightless in the quarry,” he was still not removed from the darkness of non-existence. “Lightless” means without consciousness. “The quarry” here means that he was not yet “cut out of the rock” to become an individual, conscious entity. So before birth he “slept and saw not.” Living people wept over their sorrows, but he did not then mourn. People sweated and bled, but he was never sorry, because he was not yet conscious, not yet in the world “Then it was well with me, in days ere I was born.” “Ere” is an old word meaning “before.”
Now, and I muse for why and never find the reason,
I pace the earth, and drink the air, and feel the sun.
Be still, be still, my soul; it is but for a season:
Let us endure an hour and see injustice done.
Now the poet muses over the matter of life and death. He thinks about it all, but can find no reason for it for why he was born. But the fact is that for the present, he walks the earth, breathes, feels the sun on his skin. He exists. So he again tells his soul to be still, because this existence is only “for a season,” for a short time. He tells it to be patient in spite of the injustices of life and the cruelty of man: “Let us endure an hour and see injustice done.” “An hour” here means the relatively brief time left in his life. He tells himself, that we must just endure life as it is, with all its flaws, including the cruelty of man to man, and hold on, because it will soon be over. Life will come to its natural end.
Ay, look: high heaven and earth ail from the prime foundation;
All thoughts to rive the heart are here, and all are vain:
Horror and scorn and hate and fear and indignation–
Oh why did I awake? when shall I sleep again?
Yes, he says, look at the human condition. Heaven and earth “ail from the prime foundation,” that is, there is an inherent flaw, a suffering built into the universe from its very origin. All the thoughts that “rive the heart,” (“rive” means “split”) that tear us apart emotionally — are all here in our world — in life — but they are all vain — empty — they end ultimately in nothing. These emotions we suffer — horror and scorn, hate and indignation — they only move the poet to ask the fundamental questions: “Oh why did I awake? When shall I sleep again? That is, why was I born, made conscious — and when shall I return to the sleep of death and unconsciousness?
You may recall the Housman poem discussed earlier, On Wenlock Edge. In it, he discusses the same topic, though in a wider view. He tells us that
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.
The simple fact of being born makes one subject to the pain of emotions, to suffering. And in that earlier poem, as in this one, Housman says,
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.
The gale of human life and emotions, however strong and turbulent, will soon be gone. One returns to the nothingness out of which one came, back to the “quarry” of unconsciousness, and
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.
Then all the wind of emotion that troubles us is ended. This was Hopkins’ view. It was also the view of Ernest Dowson:
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.
Buddhism would agree that suffering is inherent in the structure of the universe, of existence. Humans are plagued by endless desire and aversion. But, it would add, dying does not end them, because this life is only one small link in a long chain of existence. We have all heard stories of children who claim to recall previous lives. So Buddhism offers a different solution — coming to know the true nature of that which we call the “self,” that which suffers, which ultimately it is said, is found to have no real existence, and when that happens, suffering ends.
In Fitzgerald’s version of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, we find stanzas that express much the same sense of the brevity and vanity of life that we find in Housman, for example:
The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon
Turns Ashes–or it prospers; and anon,
Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face,
Lighting a little hour or two–is gone.
And as for the meaning of life, the reason for birth, and what comes before and after it, the answer given in the Rubaiyat is this:
There was a Door to which I found no Key:
There was a Veil through which I could not see:
Some little Talk awhile of Me and Thee
There seemed — and then no more of Thee and Me.