»  Ernest Dowson's "Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam"


Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam

by Ernest Dowson, 1867-1900


•  Background

Short accounts of Dowson's life paint a dismal picture. He was consumptive, alcoholic, and depressive. Both his parents committed suicide (separately, months apart) when he was 27. He was a victim of philocaption. He died at age 32.

Probably there were some happy times in there, though. Dowson was not antisocial. He had many friends and was decently productive in the literary way. He has two poems in The New Oxford Book of English Verse (1972 edition), an achievement which — he would undoubtedly agree — is well worth having lived for.

And those two poems, thirty-two lines in total, have generated at least one novel-and-movie title, one play-and-movie title, and one pop song title. That is an extraordinarily high quotient of pop culture references to lines of verse.

•  Notes

The title is a line from one of Horace's odes: precisely, the fifteenth line in the fourth ode of Book One. The Loeb translation by C.E. Bennett renders it as: "Life's brief span forbids thy entering on far-reaching hopes."


•  Play the reading


•  Text of the poem

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.