Wednesday, 4 March 2009


“This is the spot where I am mortal…” - Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller

Memento mori! This, in Latin, means “be mindful of dying” or “remember you are mortal”. In the not too distant past it was a potent and ever timely reminder of human frailty, as most people had several blood relatives succumbing to death’s imperious invitation all too soon and with amazing frequency. Disease, wars, infant mortality, accidents, all carried away large numbers of the population so people were surrounded by death and each day that they personally survived was a triumph, but ever-present in their mind was the stern warning: “Memento mori!”

This omnipresent idea of death and of human mortality in the past spawned a whole genre of literally and artistic works, all of which drove home this point and these artworks were a constant reminder of the transience of our life. The preoccupation with death was balanced by the intense religious feelings that people had and the reassurance that everlasting life, life after death, heaven (for the righteous!) would be recompense enough for a short earthly existence. The agnostics and epicureans of course, would use this as an excuse for making the most of our earthly existence, as Callimachus affirms: “O Charidas, what of the underworld?” “Great darkness.” “And what of the resurrection?” “A lie.” “And Pluto?” “A fable; we perish utterly.”

We have become unused to the idea of physical, actual death. Sure enough we see it all the time on television screen, in the movie theatre, in video games, in our literature, in our news bulletins. However, most of us have not experienced it first hand and when we do, the machinery of the death industry insulates our experience of it in a sanitised, expurgated, censored version that protects our sensibilities. Our culture is youth, life and present-oriented. Memento mori has gone out of fashion. Our idea of ourselves centres on invincible youthfulness and immortal self-assurance. Here is my memento mori for today:

Fog on the River

The fog hangs heavy above the river;
Skeleton trees only just discernible,
Sparse, silent, frozen, dead.

The grey water flows slow
And the river travels, to far away lands
Between banks that never change.

A dewdrop hangs and sparkles on a twig
Before it drops delayed by a spider’s web
On its trip to sodden earth.

Deep in the silent cloud that hangs above the river
I shall venture, losing myself,
Enclosed in a soft cotton shroud.

Abducted by the mist,
I’ll forget and be forgotten, fading
In the oblivion of downy foggy clouds.

And the waters of the river will flow on silent,
And the fog will each skeletal branch embrace,
And the banks immutable, impassive,
Will stare, will understand, will witness all,
But oh, so silently…

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for a beautiful poem.. . Love the images - can almost hear the drop of water sliced by a thread of the spider web!
    The sentiment can't be more appropriate during the Great Lent...
    And yes, I have seen The Mirrormask - mesmerizing!

    I think you are the first English speaking person I
    discover loving Thomas Mann! My favorites are Joseph and His Brothers and The Buddenbrooks... How about his brother, Heinrich Mann?