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30 December 2012
In our post “A butterfly existence” on 22 December 2012, we quoted the first sentence of Chapter 1 of “Speak, Memory” by Vladimir Nabokov:
“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”
A correspondent has written to us pointing out the similarity between this passage and an article, dated June 1990, by Hugh Shearman in “The Theosophist” publication:
“There is a well known passage in early Anglo-Saxon literature where the writer says that human life is like the flight of a bird which comes out of the night through the window of a brightly lighted banqueting hall and then flies out again into the darkness through a window at the other side of the hall. Where it comes from and where it goes we do not really know.”
Commentator Allan Tomlins of Brussels subsequently sourced the origin of this passage in the “Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum” (Ecclesiastical History of the English People) completed by the Venerable Bede (673-735), a monk at Jarrow in north-east England, in 731. Although Bede (Latin: Baeda) lived in Anglo-Saxon times, he wrote in Latin, the learned language of the Europe of his day. The text about the bird is in Book 2, Chapter 13, of Bede’s history:
“Talis, inquiens, mihi videtur, rex, vita hominum praesens in terris, ad comparationem eius, quod nobis incertum est, temporis, quale cum te residente ad caenam cum ducibus ac ministris tuis tempore brumali, accenso quidem foco in medio et calido effecto coenaculo, furentis autem foris per omnia turbinibus hiemalium pluviarum vel nivium, adveniensque unus passerum domum citissime pervolaverit; qui cum per unum ostium ingrediens, mox per aliud exierit. Ipso quidem tempore, quo intus est, hiemis tempestate non tangitur, sed tamen parvissimo spatio serenitatis ad momentum excurso, mox de hieme in hiemem regrediens, tuis occulis elabitur. Ita haec vita hominum ad modicum apparet; quid autem sequatur, quidve praecesserit, prorsus ignoramus.”
The passage has been translated into modern English as follows:
“It seems to me, your highness, that the life of man on earth is like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your captains and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall. Outside, the storms of winter rain and snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one window of the hall and out through another. While he is inside, the bird is safe from the winter storms, but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. So man appears on earth for a little while – but of what went before this life, or what follows, we know nothing.”
Compare also what the ancient Greek poet Pindar (518-438 BC) said in his Pythian Odes (Book 8, line 135):
ἐπάμεροι. τί δέ τις; τί δ᾽ οὔ τις; σκιᾶς ὄναρ ἄνθρωπος.
Here today, gone tomorrow! What is anyone? What is he not? Man is but a dream of a shadow .
You might perhaps care to view some of our earlier posts. For instance:
1. Why? or How? That is the question (3 Jan 2012)
2. Partitocracy v. Democracy (20 July 2012)
3. The shoddiest possible goods at the highest possible prices (2 Feb 2012)
4. Capitalism in practice (4 July 2012)
5.Ladder (21 June 2012)
6. A tale of two cities (1) (6 June 2012)
7. A tale of two cities (2) (7 June 2012)
8. Where’s the beef? Ontology and tinned meat (31 Jan 2012)
Every so often we shall change this sample of previously published posts.