Wednesday, July 14, 2010


An Image of Old Age

Chekhov, Swan Song, Scene I, tr. Ronald Hingley in Anton Chekhov: Twelve Plays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992; rpt. 1999), p. 27:
Old age — whether you try to wriggle out of it or make the best of it or just act the fool, the fact is your life's over. Sixty-eight years down the drain, damn it! Gone with the wind! The cup's drained, there's just a bit left at the bottom: the dregs. That's the way of it, that's how it is, old man.
In a similar manner Chaucer, Canterbury Tales I, 3891-3894 (Prologue to the Reeve's Tale), represents the allotted span of life 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.


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