O how feeble is man’s power,
That if good fortune fall,
Cannot add another hour,
Nor a lost hour recall!
But come bad chance,
And we join to’it our strength,
And we teach it art and length,
Itself o’er us to’advance.
This stanza is from one of my favourite poems by John Donne, who is my top, all-time favourite poet (well, perhaps joint first with Shakespeare and Marlowe). Indeed, the verse comes from one of the very few poems I have ever learned off by heart.
I was reminded of it today by some third year students I saw earlier. They are still keen to be involved in a project on which I am working, and still considering all of their options. Should they spend time working with me on activities which would look good on their CVs once they leave us? Will they have enough time to do it well? Most important, would they be able to produce something of which they could be proud? And therein lies the rub. Last year those same students would have had a very different point of view – university life stretched ahead of them, apparently without limit. Now they are aware that they are going to leave us in a few months, which they have already started counting in weeks.
Those of us lucky enough to work here have the luxury of enjoying the challenges of the term as they arise, feeling that Spring, let alone Summer, is still a long way off. For finalists, the time is whizzing by perilously fast, not just in terms of their workload (how on earth am I going to read all of this and learn it and reflect upon it in time for the exams?) but also emotionally (how am I ever going to be able to face leaving uni and starting a whole new life this Summer?). Not all of our students feel this way, but an awful lot of them do.
That’s where Donne comes in. The speaker in this poem insists that we extend the length of our angst by worrying about it, by looking forward to it with trepidation, by pondering on how much we will miss something when it is gone. Human nature, he would argue, dictates that we enjoy our pleasures only fleetingly and endure our pains to the fullest extent possible. What he fails to mention, and it might be worth our finalists remembering at this point in their university careers, is that in retrospect we can recall our lives in delicious detail. You ‘cannot add another hour,/Nor a lost hour recall’, as he so rightly says, but you will recollect it later and take pleasure in your achievements.
Looking back, I think I have always enjoyed this poem because, as one would expect from Donne, the speaker is expending a fearsome amount of intellectual energy, just taking leave of his loved one. It sort of makes me wonder what he will be up to once he leaves her. But perhaps you would read it as an utterly sincere expression of love and the dread of absence. That’s the beauty of studying literature, of course: it can take each of us to different places…might be worth you googling and taking a look at the whole poem? Perhaps just a little peek?