Thursday, October 03, 2013

`Done When It Was Scant Begun'

It was out of necessity, not Kerouacian bohemianism, that I hitchhiked the 180 miles each week across northern Ohio, along the Turnpike, from Bowling Green to Youngstown on Friday, and back again on Sunday. I was a car-less junior at the university in 1972-73, and my girlfriend was a high-school teacher at the other end of the state. After my final class of the week I carried my cardboard sign to the Turnpike entrance, suitcase in hand, and stuck out my thumb. The cops left me alone. If I was lucky a driver carried me all the way to Youngstown; less lucky, to Cleveland, a city more than half way to my goal but rich in potential rides. I was never stranded, never robbed or otherwise molested, though frightened several times (once, by an AWOL soldier with a knife in his boot), but that was a different time and place. As Theodore Dalrymple says in “Hitching to Gomorrah”: “We thought the world was a friendly place.” In short, I was emboldened by naiveté and did things I would forbid my sons to even contemplate today.

Dalrymple’s essay is fashioned around his memory of an event that occurred while hitchhiking in Scotland as a teenager. What revived the memory, a happy one suffused with the wistful sadness of his years, was his discovery of a stanza from Edward Fairfax’s translation in 1600 of Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered:
“So in the passing of a day doth pass
The bud and blossom of the life of man,
Nor e'er doth flourish more, but, like the grass
Cut down, becometh wither'd pale and wan.
O! gather then the rose while time thou has;
Short is the day, done when it scant began,
Gather the rose of love, while yet thou may'st
Loving be lov'd, embracing be embrac'd.”
As Dalrymple says, the lines “reflect on that perennial theme of English (and other) poetry, the shortness of life.” One hears echoes of Spencer, Dalrymple notes, but also Shakespeare and Herrick, not to mention the Isaiah of the King James Bible. The lines are dense with allusions to the literary culture that, forty years ago, seemed immortal. “Perhaps our civilization will go quietly, nicely,” concludes Dalrymple, slyly.  In my year of hitchhiking, my literary education was well underway. I was immersed in Sterne and Johnson, Swift and Nabokov, with no understanding of how young I was (twenty!), how fortunate, how easily I could lose everything, whether to a stranger with a knife or my own self-destructiveness: “Short is the day, done when it was scant begun.”


Denkof Zwemmen said...

How short life is and how important it is to take advantage of every moment of it is, as you say, a perennial theme, and not only in English poetry. Carpe diem, Horace says.
What is particular about most Elizabethan exhortations to seize the day, to gather rosebuds while you can still do so, is that they refer to love – to eros specifically, not to agape, and not to glory, procreation, spiritual serenity, good deeds, not even to wine, women and song, just women.
I’m not sure what that’s all about. The Elizabethan style of using metaphysical conceits as a tool of seduction poetry, I guess.

Vincent said...

I'm grateful for your link to Dalrymple's essay, and your own personal gloss on it.

I hitch-hiked in England at France at that age too; and wrote about it particularly in this post.