Time flies. October 13, 2010Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
Tags: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Tempus fugit, Time flies, Vergil, Virgil
Tempus fugit: Time flies.* We gardeners are more likely to have seen this phrase as an inscription on a sundial than in the writings of its originator, the great Roman poet Virgil. Our friend Ben found that it rewards a closer look, and would like to share my findings with you today.
Virgil (70-19 B.C.) was a contemporary of the Emperor Augustus. Appropriately for all us sundial-owning gardener types, he wrote tempus fugit in his epic poem The Georgics, which is about, of all things, farming. (One of its four books was devoted to beekeeping.) The complete phrase translates as “time flees irretrievably, while we wander around, prisoners of our love of detail.” Or, as John Lennon put it, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
Fortunately, Virgil’s meaning is the same, whether you take the whole phrase or just the sundial version: Time is fleeting, so don’t get distracted. Make the most of it before the hourglass runs out. But by “making the most” of the time we’re given, Virgil wasn’t exactly endorsing the more sensual, enthusiastic, and proactive approach implied by that other famous Latin phrase about time, carpe diem, seize the day. Carpe diem’s “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”—get yours while the getting is good—is pretty much at the opposite end of the spectrum from Virgil’s tempus fugit, focus on what matters, not irrelevant trivia.
What made our friend Ben think of all this was visiting a friend’s website this morning. My friend has put a “Quote of the Day” feature on his site, and today’s quote was from Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), author of The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne’s comment was also about time flying, but it added a nuance I found both true and thought-provoking: “Time flies over us, but leaves its shadow behind.”
Now, given that Hawthorne was descended from Puritans and grew up in Salem, Massachusetts, and that his great-great-grandfather was actually a judge at the Salem Witch Trials, time probably left a few more shadows behind for him than it does for many of us moderns. But it’s undeniable that time leaves its mark on us all: on our bodies, our habits, our memories, our reactions, our thoughts, our actions. All are colored by what has ”flown over us.”
As a bird lover and bird watcher, our friend Ben loves the imagery of the bird flying overhead, casting its shadow down on us, then continuing on its way but leaving its bird-shaped shadow with us. I’ll take that over the Grim Reaper any day!
So, two quotes, two truths, two lessons: Time flies from us, but changes us in its flight. Let us recognize ourselves for what we are, “creatures of a day,” in the words of Aristophanes. Let us give that day, give every day we have, our best, be aware of it, savor it, so that, at day’s end, we will know we lived, rather than letting time slip away while we occupied ourselves with details and distractions.
Tempus fugit: Spiritus in aeternum durabit.
* Technically, the correct translation of tempus fugit is “time flees,” not “time flies.” But then, technically, the correct translation of Vergilius is Vergil, not Virgil.