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Time flies. October 13, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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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.



1. Barbee' - October 13, 2010

I enjoyed this post very much. Thank you, Ben. This is not really the same, but I think of my existence as compared to the shadow of a cloud moving across the hills, and then is gone. It never becomes tangled in a tree and pauses, it slowly, constantly moves on.

Thanks, Barbee’! But given the way you illuminate jewel-like moments in nature and life on your blog, I’d say your life was more like sunlight moving across the hills, lighting the trees as it rests on them before moving on…

2. Barbee' - October 13, 2010

Wow! That is one of the nicest things anyone ever said to me. Thank you very much. As the clichés or sayings go: you made my day, and, I needed that, for I have a cold and am feeling ill. I wanted to say “feeling punk”, but with the contemporary meaning of the word “punk”, I decided I shouldn’t say that. I guess that old-timey expression has been sabotaged by modern language same as the charming little word “gay”. (Why couldn’t a new word have been coined?!) Maybe I’m an old stuffy, I know English is alive as opposed to dead Latin (I like Latin.), but I dislike it very much when “they” damage or destroy (that is: change) my language. I am a word person, I enjoy words and working with them. Then there are the words “rout” and “route”… better stop here before I climb all the way onto my soap box. (One last jab: Did you know that “they” have taken that delightful word “shall” out of school children’s language books. ‘Tiz so, according to a friend who teaches high school English.)

No “shall,” Barbee’?! Gasp! And I grew up with “route” (root), and am still trying to figure out where “route” (rout) came from. Ditto “adult” (addled). What happened to “adult,” accent on the second syllable?!

3. Elephant's Eye - October 13, 2010

Synchronicity? http://deepmiddle.blogspot.com/2010/10/twilight-geese-in-autumn.html

A beautiful post from Benjamin as always, Diana! Thanks for the link.

4. Jen - October 13, 2010

I, for one, am shocked about “shall”! Whatever will we do? It’s a word I’ll miss, along with “davenport”, which is what my grandmother called a couch. I don’t think I’ve seen that word in anything I’ve read in years!

Yesterday I heard the most fascinating interview on NPR with the authors of a new book about people who have tattooed text on their bodies! I was thinking about what text I would choose if I were to tattoo a line. I’m considering Virgil – or maybe even the last sentence of your post.

Ah, yes, davenport, Jen! I wonder where that word came from? Perhaps someone named Davenport originated such a popular style of sofa that he leant his name to it. As for “shall,” we’ll have lost a distinction if we lose it, much like the conditional “were.” Sigh. Thanks for picking up on that last line—having only a smattering of Church Latin, trying to come up with it almost killed me! I was convinced that what I’d actually said was probably something like “Time flies: Better head to Wal-Mart now before the sale ends.” But fortunately, Silence’s ex is a Latin prof, and he gave it the thumbs-up. Whew! As for what text I’d have tattooed on me, whatever my intention going in, I’m sure what would come out would be “OW!!!”

5. Alan - October 14, 2010

All the profundities leave me hesitant to comment, but we have had a plague of Time Flies here at the Roost lately. Worse than the Fruit Flies, and not quite as bad as the Lady Bugs. I’ll have to turn the Latin over to CC and the Kids. They are 7 weeks into a Latin program (CC did it from K through College… but I, I didn’t live in a state where Latin was a recognized language. It was the language of heritics (Catholics and Scientists… and a few libral Literature teachers…)

So, Watch out for the time flys, (better than the cow flys, they are messy). Live NOW! that’s all there is.

Ha! I wonder if those time flies travel via wormholes, Alan? I needed a good laugh on this cold, dreary day. Thanks!

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