Monday, September 17, 2007


The Time Allotted

In Greek mythology the three Fates are Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. When a man is born, Clotho spins the thread of his life, Lachesis measures it, and Atropos cuts it. We have a fixed amount of time to live, corresponding to the length of the thread.

Chaucer, Canterbury Tales I, 3891-3894 (Prologue to the Reeve's Tale), represents the allotted span of life in a different way, as the amount of liquid in a barrel. Let's suppose the barrel contains wine, because Chaucer's father was a vintner. When we are born, the spigot is opened, and the wine starts to spill out. When the barrel is empty, life comes to an end. Here is Nevill Coghill's modern English translation, followed by Chaucer's original Middle English:
Certain, when I was born, so long ago,
Death drew the tap of life and let it flow;
And ever since the tap has done its task,
And now there's little but an empty cask.
My stream of life's but drops upon the rim.

For sikerly, whan I was bore, anon
Deeth drough the tappe of lyf and leet it gon,
And ever sithe hath so the tappe yronne
Til that almoost al empty is the tonne.
The streem of lyf now droppeth on the chymbe.
Can we know how long the thread is, or how much wine is left in the barrel? Horace (Ode 1.11) chides Leuconoe for trying to find out:
Don't ask (it's forbidden to know) what final fate the gods have given to me and you, Leuconoe, and don't consult Babylonian horoscopes. How much better it is to accept whatever shall be, whether Jupiter has given many more winters or whether this is the last one, which now breaks the force of the Tuscan sea against the facing cliffs. Be wise, strain the wine, and trim distant hope within short limits. While we're talking, grudging time will already have fled: seize the day, trusting as little as possible in tomorrow.

Tu ne quaesieris, scire nefas, quem mihi, quem tibi
finem di dederint, Leuconoe, nec Babylonios
temptaris numeros. ut melius, quicquid erit, pati,
seu pluris hiemes seu tribuit Iuppiter ultimam,
quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare
Tyrrhenum: sapias, vina liques, et spatio brevi
spem longam reseces. dum loquimur, fugerit invida
aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.
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