Monday, August 8, 2011

They Are Not Long - Ernest Dowson

Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam.

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.

The Latin at the start of the poem reads, "The shortness of life prevents us from entertaining far-off hopes" and is a quote from Horace, in the Odes (Odes 1.4.15).  I think it's a good preface to a poem which concerns itself with the ephemeral nature of our most extreme emotions.  Highest bliss and deepest hate are short things, in the long run.  Somehow, this is comforting.  It's good to know that the worst of the world will not follow us after death.  And if life is but a misty dream, peppered with days of wine and roses, and days of hate, then it is a good dream, on the whole.  That's what I take away from the poem, at least.

Does the poem strike you as more depressing than reassuring?  Is it dreary to know that all of our emotional life is, in the end, as nothing?  Let me know.


  1. Perhaps one has to have a certain age to fully understand the meaning of it. It is absolutely beautiful, one of my favourites. It is a goodbye to youth, bitter sweet.

    1. I agree, Tiania! I don't necessarily find it depressing - poignant however. The message is clear and one of my mottos - "things are with us for a time". That's people, things, etc. and I'm fortunate to have lived long enough to appreciate the immediacy of "things" -

  2. Christopher, hi! you deserved more comments. Downson was an influence on the composer Delius, who also dissipated his life away to some extent. Both died of excesses, Dowson of alcohol poisoning; Delius of syphilis. Delius was an atheist, I don't know about Dowson. However, both mourned and yearned for lost love and Delius (he never admitted this) for something more ... the meaning of life. He added 2+2 and got 5 in his musical expression; but a mere 3, in his soul. The very beauty he found in 'pure' love and in the natural world around him (e.g. in Florida, Norway and elsewhere)inspired him to great artistic heights, yet he failed to see in these things the glaring evidence of a loving Designer/Creator.

    So yes, the days of a lifetime are indeed short and short-lived everything in it. We are as "a mist appearing for a little while and then disappearing" (James 4:14). Man is subject to futility in the absence of true knowledge about God and his Son Jesus Christ. We all 'reach out for infinity' in this life because we were actually designed to live on, forever. Death has been mankind's common enemy throughout history, and in fear and expectation of it he has worked out every kind of selfish ambition, to the detriment of on his fellow man. Dowson's poem inspired Delius to write a beautiful song, in the same way that Walt Whitman inspired him to write the haunting 'Sea Drift'. Whitman and Delius were clearly soul mates - utterly gifted but ultimately lost and alone, adrift on the sea of life with neither a compass nor a destination. I never fail to be moved listening to Sea Drift, or Part II of a Mass of Life by Delius.
    Kindest wishes,
    A brit retired to Spain
    One of Jehovah's Witnesses

    1. Gareth,
      From the moment I read your "we are truly designed to live on, forever," I immediately wondered if you were a JW; it is my long-ago faith- I have drifted far off since then.. great comment.

    2. Beautiful poem just had to find it after watching it read in TV series the Durrells.

    3. Me too! The power of television, eh?

    4. Hahaha...make that four!

    5. 7. I find it bittersweet, but more sweet than bitter as it reminds me of my own long departed soulmate and fills my heart with memory and love that transcends time and space. When passion is spent. True love remains.

    6. Make me 8. She read it with such grace and feeling. Long ago my mother used to recite it, as well as sing the song to me. It is my favorite poem, stirring beautiful childhood memories, and reminding me of what really matters in my final years.

    7. Your words touch the heart, Anonymous. The old movie Days of Wine and Roses, watching now first time since it came out, the heart-breaking musical theme, the decades of awareness on alcoholism that were to follow, the pathos of this story, and these words from the poem. Had to know from where they came. Thank you, Christopher. So true that reading poetry is one of the most important things one can do. Nothing reaches the soul as does poetry. Sweet, deep melancholy of love confused.

  3. I found your page while looking for this poem to include in my Gran's funeral. She had written it in her diary in 1987 - I smiled to see you are in Wallingford. My Gran lived at 100 Wallingford Road, Bristol, UK.

  4. Hi Christopher, I came upon this by accident (of course it never is). Interesting question. I think this poem - especially the second verse - points to the truth in a way that only a poem can...that life's a dream. What happens when we awaken from a dream? We wake up to reality. I don't find that depressing at all...especially if reality is so much better than the dream.

  5. I am 20 and find the poem reassuring, just recently my world seemed to cave in and while reading "A long days journey into the night" I came across this poem, it eased my frustration and something clicked in my mind. I don't think that it is dreary rather that it is comforting. I interpreted the poem to mean that, just like when you are asleep- and you only dream for a short time- you also only have a short time to live, so live life to the fullest because when it is done there is nothing that you can do about it...

  6. "Gather ye rosebuds..."

    Arthur Quiller-Couch, ed. 1919. The Oxford Book of English Verse: 1250–1900.

    Robert Herrick. 1591–1674

    'To the Virgins, to make much of Time.'

    Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
    Old Time is still a-flying:
    And this same flower that smiles to-day
    To-morrow 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 for ever tarry.

    Reminds of the above but all of that is encapsulated in the last verse, so succinctly, lyrically and powerfully.

  7. I chanced upon Mr. Wallingford's 'poem a day' blog when googling for the full Dowson's poem "They Are Not Long" ... reviewing Mr. Kawalski's posting of Herrick's "To the Virgins" brings immediately to mind Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" ... and one of my favourite lines ... "The grave's a fine and private place ... but none, I fear, do there embrace ...". It's a long-honoured poetic device - the relative brevity of human existence, and the consequential foolishness of delaying, for propriety's sake, the satisfying of one's desires.

  8. This puts one in mind of Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality (etc.)," wherein you find:

    "Why with such earnest pains dost thou provoke
    The years to bring the inevitable yoke,
    Thus blindly with thy blessedness at strife?
    Full soon thy soul shall have her earthly freight,
    And custom lie upon thee with a weight,
    Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!"

  9. Check out the poem in a similar vein from "a poet in India" thomasdorsett it is a free translation of hoelty's poem from 18th century

  10. I found this poem, handwritten on a piece of paper, in an old book. After puzzling at the writing for a while, I realised it was mine. I must has copied it out when I was in my 20s. I can't remember what I made of it then, but now, in my late 50s, I find it poignant and -yes - comforting. Thanks for your posts.

  11. I found this a long time ago. What a well known quote days of wine and roses is but Dowson is virtually unknown. I love the brevity-such a lot of emotion in two four line simple verses

  12. This poem just makes me very sad. Mainly because I lost my child at a young age. Her 'days of wine and roses' should have lasted longer.

    1. Kathy, do you know this poem: " in small proportions we just beauties see, and in short measure life may perfect be." Ben Jonson

  13. Haven't seen this one for a long time, thanks for bringing it back to prominence in my mind.

  14. Hi Chris,

    Great poem; in answer to your question:

    No I don't find it depressing to know my desire & hates are but short lived, we all already know life's too short, that is a tad depressing.

    But I do hope that my loves, & hates (meaning towards inequality and prejudice) have been passed onto my children, in fact I know they have, none of my 4 children are bigoted, & my youngest know their mother and father love each other absolutely. Everyone I know can see how much I adore him, & people who I don't really know have informed me that it 'touched' them to see his clearly apparent love & devotion to me. I do hope the kids can find the same for themselves once they've flown the nest.


    A very proud to be Mrs Lisa Ainsworth-Barnes :)

  15. Thanks. I see this poem in the context of grief, struggling for years now to find my path again, now that the days of wine and roses are but a dream. The years have flown by but without purpose or true happiness.

  16. "Row, row, row your boat,
    Gently down the stream,
    Merrily, merrily,
    Verily, verily,
    Life is but...a dream..."

  17. These days, current events seem to be dire all the time, and this poem reminds me of what is truly real, that there is an Eternal-ness within each of us - far outreaching and overcoming what we suffer and mourn in this dimension. Thank you for posting it!

  18. Got here from The Durrells.... Thanks for all the wonderful loving comments...

    1. Got to The Durrells from here. Here is better.

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  20. Everyone has their day in the Sun. I have been saying this for years. As it sets we do our best to hold it up but after awhile our strength weakens. What really slows it down is our memories of when it was gloriously high.

  21. I agree with all the comments made. What a beautiful, concise and poignant poem. I also got something else from this that comforts and helps with my unresolved thoughts and feelings about what happens to us when we die. Is this just it or is there more? The reference to the misty dream from whence we come and then pass back into is the place we go to wait and emerge again from that misty dream.

  22. Thanks for keeping one of my favorite poets 'alive.' At certain times in my life Dowson, Rossetti, and Poe resonated with my spirit.

    1. Aww Rosetti...yes and yes!!

  23. Just watched the Durrells, and I think I'm going to write this one down and tuck it in with all my favorites. It's too big an idea to let go without a little meditation.