The Transience of Life

John Donne:

George Herbert:

Henry King:

Henry Vaughan:

Andrew Marvell:

In contrast to the Elizabethans, the Metaphysicals are not usually unduly worried about the brevity of life. Only Marvell's To his Coy Mistress captures the urgency of the Elizabethans, the Carpe Diem theme as it is Mist by Wing-Chi Poon available through Creative Commonssometimes called. Vaughan's The Water-fall and Marvell's On a Drop of Dew are remarkably similar in their quiet and philosophical treatment of the theme, presented in Platonic terms. The soul actually only wants to spend a short time in the worlds: it would far sooner be back in heaven. Images of mist or dew are therefore appropriate, if somewhat traditional images. See also Grass and wild flowers.

This absence of angst is also seen in Herbert. His Life and Vertue put life's shortness in a more specifically Christian context. Life's shortness is to be philosophically accepted. Donne's The Anniversarie is, in fact, a celebration. In contrast, King's loss triggers a much more dramatic struggle. In The Exequy, yes, he does want his life to be short, but only so he can rejoin his wife in heaven. It was the ‘untimely' shortness of her life that precipitates him into this wish, rather than any quiet acceptance. In the end, he does come to a place of some consolation, but this is rather different from Herbert's sunny acceptance of the ‘timeliness' of our life-span.

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