Steve Whitaker, Literary Editor

Poem Of The Week: 'Vanitas Vanitatum' By John Webster (C. 1580 - C. 1632)

Vanitas Vanitatum

ALL the flowers of the spring
Meet to perfume our burying;
These have but their growing prime,
And man does flourish but his time:
Survey our progress from our birth—
We are set, we grow, we turn to earth.
Courts adieu, and all delights,
All bewitching appetites!
Sweetest breath and clearest eye
Like perfumes go out and die;
And consequently this is done
As shadows wait upon the sun.
Vain the ambition of kings
Who seek by trophies and dead things
To leave a living name behind,
And weave but nets to catch the wind.

<i>Et in Arcadia Ego</i> - Nicholas Poussin
Et in Arcadia Ego - Nicholas Poussin
Nicholas Poussin’s seminal painting of 1637-8, ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’, which depicts a tomb in a manicured paradisal landscape, drew his audience’s attention to a contemporary preoccupation: death, and the idea of decay. That the sarcophagus’ inscription is emblazoned in full view of the onlooker is a sharp reminder that death also dwells in arcadian fields.

More or less contemporaneous with the playwright John Webster, Poussin is echoing a Jacobean obsession with the idea of life’s brevity. And, along with hosts of seventeenth century Flemish painters, and the more perspicacious of poets, here Webster is engraving the transience of human existence onto a tomb of his own devising, where consolation, if it is to be vouchsafed at all, might only be found in acknowledgement of the warning.

The formal measures of ‘Vanitas Vanitatum’, and the careful attention to rhyme in the unfolding melodrama of this sixteen line sonnet, are both of a piece with the literary demands of the era, and calculated to make the reader consider his or her own corporeal finitude. Placing rhyming couplets at the service of oxymoron – ‘spring / burying’, ‘clearest eye / die’ - Webster creates an exquisite tension between the appearance, and the reality, of what we perceive. The Ozymandian flavouring of the Latin from Ecclesiastes - ‘Vanitas Vanitatum’ may be taken as an expression of disillusionment and emptiness - undermines the instinctive human claim to attainment and endurance.

And it is significant that an otherwise consistent rhyme scheme breaks into assonance in the poem’s breathtaking concluding line, as though the fabric of illusion was finally dissolving, leaving certitude at the mercy of the wind.

’Vanitas Vanitatum’ is taken from The New Oxford Book of English Verse, Chosen and Edited by Helen Gardner, and is published by Oxford University Press.