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Fair Daffodils, we weep to see
You haste away so soon;
As yet the early-rising sun
Has not attain’d his noon.
Until the hasting day
But to the even-song;
And, having pray’d together, we
Will go with you along.
We have short time to stay, as you,
We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
As you, or anything.
As your hours do, and dry
Like to the summer’s rain;
Or as the pearls of morning’s dew,
Ne’er to be found again.
–Robert Herrick, To Daffodils (1665) in The Works of Robert Herrick, vol. 1, p. 156 (A. Pollard ed. 1891).
Yesterday, walking home I passed by the first stand of blooming daffodils of the season, and it brought my mind back to this poem by Robert Herrick, last read more than thirty years ago in college days. Herrick, the man who wrote that ridiculous “gather ye rosebuds while ye may” poem, was a divine with an effusive and suspiciously secular personality, to judge from his poems, in any event. He was not quite a cavalier poet, of course, but he was also something of an adventurer (as chaplain to the duke of Buckingham, he participated in the military disaster at the île de Rhé, when Buckingham’s efforts to relieve the siege of the Calvinist city of La Rochelle collapsed). Daffodils can seem a bit trite as a metaphor, I suppose, but of course to the seventeenth century aesthetic, those daffodils were a perfect image. The beauty of nature, its spontaneity, and also the transitory nature of life, especially of human life. There is a carpe diem sense behind this work, and Herrick carries it out beautifully. Scan this poem and look at how it brims with monosyllabic words in alliterative sequence (die, do, dry, for instance). It’s an impressive work of studied, very carefully studied, simplicity, where the word choice and form closely match images and thoughts. And across the sea in Holland, Ambrosius Bosschaert (the Younger) is painting much the same concepts, with oil on canvas, picking a bouquet that speaks more of the end of May (for my garden in any event), roses, iris, convalaria, fritullaria. But for a Hollander of that age, the message was the same: enjoy the splendor that nature offers, but don’t forget the fleeting nature of this beauty, the fact that it will pass, decay, fade, very quickly. The world is warming to the green fuse, and the thought of transitition couldn’t be more timely.
More from Scott Horton:
Six Questions — October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm
Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.
I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:
The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.
Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”