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Poem of the week: The Shortness of Life by Francis Quarles


From a writer known for his pious themes, these verses offer an appealingly mundane view of time's passing

The Protestant poet, Francis Quarles, by his own description was an "Essex quill". He was born in Romford in 1592 into a family with a long tradition of royal service. He began as a lawyer, fathered 18 children, became Chronologer to the City of London, and worked as secretary to James Ussher, the religious historian and Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, in addition to varied literary activities. His career had its vicissitudes, despite his much-proclaimed loyalty to King James I, and life-long devotion to the Royalist cause, and he died in poverty in 1644. He wrote pamphlets and one play, but achieved his greatest success as a poet. His second collection Emblems immediately sold out, proving especially popular with the Puritan readership. Impressively illustrated by William Marshall, among others, the collection moved Alexander Pope, in the Dunciad, to comment: "the pictures for the page atone/ And Quarles is saved by beauty not his own."

The title of this week's poem, "The Shortness of Life", reminds us that Quarles was concerned to work themes suitable for religious meditation into his poetry. But it's rather less didactic in tone than usual, and doesn't flag up its underlying Christian moral. There's a kind of bluff realism in the language and attitude, suggesting independence from dogma. The fascination with time's passing perhaps owes something to his experience as a Chronologer. Quarles is a solid craftsman, if not a finely elegant one, and, here as elsewhere, Pope's verdict on his verse seems undeserved.

The informally-phrased question, "And what's a life," is answered by a trope beloved of Elizabethan and Jacobean poets, the metaphor of the stage. As if dissatisfied with the conventional answer, Quarles repeats the question, and this time comes up with a different image – the summer-meadow "wearing her green plush". This is predictable too, perhaps, but it's given an original and refreshing "turn", when, as if no longer worth the poet's personification, the meadow subsides into the merely material substance – hay.

In the third stanza, the speaker comes on stage. You can imagine him strolling moodily through the gardens of a great house, searching, like Hamlet in the graveyard, for a memento mori. He finds it in the shape of a dial. The demonstrative, "this dial", might suggest that the poem itself had been destined for inscription on an ornamented sundial. Both the references to "this dial" and "these lilies" bring their objects close to the reader. It's possible there's a sundial somewhere in England bearing a fragment of Quarles's text. On the other hand, the dial could simply be the poet's own time-scarred face. The lilies ("fair copies of my life") are more difficult to interpret.

It seems at first that the speaker is an older man ("my short-lived winter's day") but in stanza five, there's a conflicting chronology in "my nonaged day." Of course, the speaker might be picking different vantage-points from which to view the brevity of a life. Or the winter's day might not only be metaphorical. The hours of daylight, "but from eight to four," are precisely spanned to an English mid-winter.

It's tempting to believe that some direct personal experience is feeding Quarles's imagination. For instance, he travelled abroad with Princess Elizabeth, as an aide on the occasion of her marriage to the Elector Palatine. "How simple is my suit! How small my boon!" might conceivably be inspired by a comparison of ordinary circumstances with the complex "suit" and showy "boon" of royal marriage.

"Slender inch" may refer to the miniature length of winter daylight, to life itself, or even to the style (the device on the sundial which casts the shadow). The spelling of "wile" as a verb meaning "to magic," is surprising and produces a neat, unostentatious pun with the implicit "while." After the poet's brief flirtation with a fantasy of consolation, the last stanza doggedly refuses false hopes. The concluding statement, "here's nothing worth a smile", gains force from the caesura before it, though the tone seems a little sulky. While it signals the importance of other values to the religious believer, looking forward to eternal rewards "over there", it seems more immediately to express an ordinarily glum fit of the "winter blues". For modern readers, averse to preaching, that tone lends an attractive human quality to the poem – and to the poet.

The Shortness of Life

And what's a life? A weary pilgrimage,
Whose glory in one day doth fill the stage
With childhood, manhood, and decrepit age.

And what's a life? The flourishing array
Of the proud summer-meadow, which to-day
Wears her green plush, and is to-morrow hay.

Read on this dial, how the shades devour
My short-lived winter's day! hour eats up hour;
Alas! the total's but from eight to four.

Behold these lilies, which Thy hands have made
Fair copies of my life, and open laid
To view, how soon they droop, how soon they fade!

Shade not that dial, night will blind too soon;
My nonaged day already points to noon;
How simple is my suit! how small my boon!

Nor do I beg this slender inch to wile
The time away, or falsely to beguile
My thoughts with joy: here's nothing worth a smile.

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