Ubi sunt and the snows of yesteryear

from the vanitas series (2007) by Guido Mocafico (b. 1962),
an Italian-Swiss photographer living in France.
Song of Love, Giorgio de Chirico, 1914

Pennsylvania Station

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
— Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818 

“Where are the snows of yesteryear?” is a line taken from the Ballade des dames du temps jadis ("Ballad of the Ladies of Times Past") by the medieval French poet Fran├žois Villon. It expresses the sentiment of ubi sunt, a term I came across the other day and was surprised that I hadnt learned years ago. Latin, meaning “Where are....[they]?", it comes from a longer phrase, "Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerent?" [Where are those who went before us?]*.

The phrase is used as a literary term: a meditation on the transience of life, youth, beauty, and human achievement. A common motif throughout literature and song**, Hamlet's soliloquy in the graveyard is an example:

"Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath bore me on his back a thousand times, and now how abhorr'd in my imagination it is! my gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kiss'd I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?..."
Shelley's Ozymandias is, I think, an ubi sunt once removed.

In its emphasis on the brevity and ephemeral quality of existence, ubi sunt is on a spectrum between carpe diem's almost jocular parry against the implied futility of existence and memento mori's blatant corpse waving. Unlike carpe diem, there is no exhortation to embrace the now. Yet ubi sunt, I believe, stops short of the grim rumination and
extravagant, hand-wringing denial of life of memento mori. It is a softer rueful awareness.

In this way it is like mono no aware, a Japanese term for the mindfulness of the transience of things. Mono no aware incorporates both an immediate wistfulness at their passing as well as a more prolonged and resonant sadness about the reality of life. Significantly, in
mono no aware, as wikipedia notes, “awareness of the transience of all things heightens appreciation of their beauty.” I think this engagement with and affirmation of the world as it is is also true with ubi sunt and further distances it from memento mori.

I find myself falling into an ubi sunt frame of mind all too often, which then leads to a bad case of sehnsucht, but that is for another post...

* I cannot track its source, if anyone out there knows.
** Wikipedia gives two interesting examples of 20th century popular music which incorporate the ubi sunt motif: the 1960s folk song "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" by Pete Seeger and Joe Hickerson and the final verse of the Simon and Garfunkle song "Mrs. Robinson" which asks, "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?" 

1 comment:

Robert Arvanitis said...

Similar feeling in the Japanese "shayozuko."
Literally "sunset aristocracy," the fading of a noble house.


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