What If a Day?

The full title of this poem/song is "What if a Day, Or a Month, Or a Yeare?" and it is by Thomas Campion. It was featured in Richard Alison's "An Howres Recreation in Musicke" (1606) and is reprinted here in its original olde-ish English. I must note that I once performed this song as part of my repertoire in my short career as a music major in college, and its setting in music is among one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard. It was originally accompanied by lute, though we make do with piano accompaniment in the modern age. The poem is posted here, with a bit of my interpretation below.

What if a day, or a month, or a yeare
Crown thy delights with a thousand sweet contentings?
Cannot a chance of a night or an howre
Crosse thy desires with as many sad tormentings?
Fortune, honor, beauty, youth
Are but blossoms dying;
Wanton pleasure, doating love,
Are but shadowes flying.
All our joyes are but toyes,
Idle thoughts deceiving;
None have power of an howre
In their lives bereaving.

Earthes but a point to the world, and a man
Is but a point to the worlds compared centure:
Shall then a point of a point be so vaine
As to triumph in a seely points adventure?
All is hassard that we have,
There is nothing biding;
Dayes of pleasure are like streames
Through faire meadowes gliding.
Weale and woe, time doth goe,
Time is ever turning:
Secret fates guide our states,
Both in mirth and mourning.

The first stanza is a bit less morbid than the second, but both bits of this poem embody the fleeting nature of humanity and encourage us to make the most of our time here, and to realize the impermanence of the human condition. When explaining some of these stanzas I will translate it into more readable modern English.

"What if a day or a month or a year crown thy delights with a thousand sweet contentings? Cannot the chance of a night or an hour cross thy desires with as many sad tormentings?" I take this to mean "Even if you think you've got it made, in just a moment it can all be taken away from you."

"Fortune, honor, beauty, youth; are but blossoms dying. Wanton pleasures, doting love; are but shadows flying." Everything from our possessions to the everyday pleasures of life are brief and will be lost upon our deaths, which as mentioned above could come at any second.

"All our joys are but toys; idle thoughts deceiving. None have power of an hour, in their lives' bereaving." We mustn't trick ourselves into believing that our pleasures of life can overcome or keep away death; it is not something anyone can control. No one can conquer it.

And the second stanza:

"Earth's but a point to the world, and a man is but a point to the world's compared center. Shall then the point of a point be so vain as to triumph in a silly point's adventure?" "The world" here really refers to the universe, and makes a point that Earth is so small in the scheme of things. Then it goes on to point (hehe) out that each person is so insignificant compared to the Earth. "The point of a point" is saying, of course, that every man is a tiny speck on a tiny speck, and therefore, we shouldn't be rejoicing in our stupid lives or think they mean anything at all.

"All is hazard that we have. There is nothing biding. Days of pleasure are like streams, through fair meadows gliding." So here, Mr. Campion is saying again that nothing stays the same, that change continues and it is so fast, like a stream through a meadow, that it's worthless. The stream may roll through a pleasant meadow, but at the end, all water trickles into the sea; the great eternity.

"Well and woe, time doth go, time is ever turning. Secret fates guide our states, both in mirth and mourning." Time skips along without regard to mankind's conception of what is dealt. And there is a hint here, in "secret fates," of predestination, as to how and when we will die, something beyond our control. This could be interpreted to mean God's plan, but probably just refers to "secret" fates, meaning just that the circumstances of one's future demise are always hidden in the folds of the future.

All in all, this poem is satisfying even though it is morbid. It is a refreshing slap in the face, and though it reminds us that nothing we do is important in the whole scheme of things, it makes me wish to make the most of the time I've got--because it does matter to me.

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Comments from others:

Mikey: This was an interesting poem and the interpreted words by you add quite a touch. It was really cool.

Brenda: Beautiful and melancholy piece. I used to perform it as a part of an acapella group that sang Renaissance period music. I was thinking of the lyrics and search on the internet and it led me here. Thanks for posting.