Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetat Incohare Longam

Ernest Dowson

‘Vitae Summa Brevis’ by Ernest Dowson is a short melancholic poem about the all too brief nature of life’s joys and the suddenness of its tragedies.


Ernest Dowson

Nationality: English

Ernest Dowson was an English poet and novelist.

He was a member of the Decadent Movement.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: All that is joyful and mournful about life eventually fades

Speaker: A melancholic person

Emotions Evoked: Depression, Hopelessness, Sadness

Poetic Form: Ballad

Time Period: 19th Century

This poem by Ernest Dowson is a short but incredibly moving lament over all the ways in which life is temporary and all things must inevitably end. One that uses both poignant imagery and figurative language to ponder the mystery of such fickleness.

‘Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetat Incohare Longam’ is a deeply poignant poem about life’s ineluctable capacity for change. One that — as the full Latin title suggests — prevents mortals like us from knowing with certainty what awaits us in life. Ernest Dowson understood this perhaps just as well as anyone acquainted with personal tragedies. The poem’s words are less a guide or consolation than a lucid statement of fact made by the speaker.

They assert drearily that we exist only briefly, spending our lives clinging to moments of joy too quick to end and sheltering ourselves from times of anguish too suddenly received. Death ends all significant memory and charged emotions.

Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetat Incohare Longam
Ernest Dowson

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,Love and desire and hate:I think they have no portion in us afterWe pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:Out of a misty dreamOur path emerges for a while, then closesWithin a dream.


‘Vitae Summa Brevis’ by Ernest Dowson is a beautiful poem about the bittersweet briefness of both human emotion and life’s joys.

‘Vitae Summa Brevis’ begins with the speaker asserting that all emotions — ” the weeping and the laughter, / Love and desire and hate” — is but briefly experienced and felt. Lasting only as long as the person who is influenced by them is alive. Once “we pass the gate,” they stop being a part of who we are.

In the second stanza, the speaker continues to comment on the all-encompassing brevity that defines our lives. They remark that all of life’s happiest moments — “the days of wine and roses,” they call them — are far too short. Ultimately, our lives resemble a path that emerges from a “misty dream.” We stumble down it for a short while before it closes, ending our part in the dream.

Structure and Form

‘Vitae Summa Brevis’ is comprised of two quatrains with a rhyme scheme of ‘ABAB CDCD’. Dowson utilizes a variety of different meters within the poem: the first and third lines of both stanzas are composed in iambic pentameter, the second lines are written in iambic trimester, and the fourth lines are an example of iambic diameter.

Literary Devices

‘Vitae Summa Brevis’ contains examples of the following literary devices:

  • Auditory Imagery: “the weeping and the laughter” (1).
  • Visual Imagery: “misty dream” (6); “Our path emerges” (7).
  • Metaphor: “after / We pass the gate” (3-4); “the days of wine and roses” (5); “Out of a misty dream / Our path emerges for a while, then closes” (6-7).
  • Diacope: “Love and desire and hate” (8)

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.

The first stanza of ‘Vitae Summa Brevis’ opens with the speaker declaring that the things we feel, no matter how intense, do not last very long in the grand scheme of things. Dowson uses the auditory image of “weeping and…laughter” (1) to underscore that everything from sorrow to joy eventually fades. All our “love and desire and hate” (2) vanish the moment we die — or “pass the gate” (4).

Their words underscore the bittersweetness of such transience. Inspiring comfort in the knowledge that misery is only temporary but also melancholy since the same holds true for moments of happiness.

Stanza Two

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.

In the second stanza of ‘Vitae Summa Brevis, ‘ the speaker refers to these blissful and peaceful moments of life as “the days of wine and roses” (5). Like all things in life, these splendid periods do not last half as long as we would like — the implication being that we should enjoy them while we can.

Dowson then uses an extended metaphor to describe all of existence as a dream and our lives but a path that “emerges for a while, then closes” (6-7). The visual imagery of this “misty dream” (6) accentuates the often surreal and esoteric experience of being alive. Each of our lives appears then recede back into the mist of this reality we find ourselves born into.

In other words, life can often appear as this incomprehensible enigma we’re expected to unriddle before we die. Yet whatever answers or knowledge we might stumble upon are just as temporary and vaporous as the emotions we experience in the course of being alive. These things are not meaningless — but they are just as fleeting as we are. When our path in the dream closes it takes with it all that was pleasurable within life. Dowson’s poem seeks to remind us that the one immutable quality of life is its mutability.


What is the theme of ‘Vitae Summa Brevis?

The poem’s theme is that the only thing certain about life is its inevitable brevity. Nothing good or bad lasts for very long, and stasis is not a permanent state. All things are doomed to fade while understanding the mystery of fate’s fickleness is a rare enough revelation.

Why did Ernest Dowson write ‘Vitae Summa Brevis?

Dowson poems often reckon with life’s relentlessly sudden sorrows, from personal tragedies to instances of unrequited love. He himself was no stranger to such anguishes of the heart: both his parents died of suicide. As a result, it’s not hard to imagine this poem as a bittersweet reminder of the ways in which life could take a turn for the worse.

What is the meaning of the poem’s title?

The poem’s title comes from a line written by the Roman poet Horace. A literal translation from Latin to English would be: “Life’s Supreme Shortness of Hope Forbids Us to Begin Long.” The poem comes with an epitaph that summarizes the quote as well: “The brief sum of life forbids us the hope of enduring long.”

What do the “wine” and “roses” symbolize?

The wine symbolizes revelry and pleasure, while the rose symbolizes radiant life and passion.

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Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetat Incohare Longam

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Ernest Dowson (poems)

Ernest Dowson

This poem by Ernest Dowson reveals his great ability to capture lucid sorrow with such affecting grace. It's not hard to see why he was revered by other writers, like Oscar Wilde, after his untimely youthful death at the age of 32 years old. Here, the earnestly misery-plagued poet offers a sobering description of life's futility and our trifling place within it.
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19th Century

Ernest Dowson's poem is one of three considered to be his most famous. The line "days of wine and roses," in particular, is a much-quoted phrase from the poem, one that even inspired a television play, film, and song. There is something evidently timeless about the message conveyed by the poem, which touches on everything from human mortality to a fear of life's uncertainty.
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Ernest Dowson was a famous English poet born in 1867 who tragically died young and penniless at the age of 32 in 1900. Although he displayed talent and was revered by a variety of different writers of his time, his life was derailed by the sudden suicide of his parents. Not long after, his own health started to fail him, and he died a few years later, survived by his poems and their often-quoted beauty.
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Death in Ernest Dowson's poem is described as being a great nullifier of human emotion and experience. Once we die, according to the speaker, all that we anguished over and loved will no longer be a part of us. It's clear that the speaker is severely depressed by this notion, and that feeling is imparted to the reader as well.
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Disappointment is another theme found within Ernest Dowson's poem. One that is expressed indirectly by the speaker's tone and the poem's relatively morose mood. This disappointment stems from the speaker's belief that everything about life is far too temporary, that it's all just a cycle between sadness and joy, and one that turns without warning.
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A theme explored in Ernest Dowson's poignant poem is the idea that life is comparable to a dream. In using such a metaphor and imagery, the poet emphasizes life's mercurial and surreal nature. Like our dreams, their beginnings and ends are a foggy mystery to us, while all that happens in between disappears once we die — or wake up.
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Depression is one of the more prominent emotions both expressed and inspired by Ernest Dowson's poem. There is no sign of a silver lining — or any attempt to search for one — found within it. The speaker simply sees only the tragedy in life's constantly shifting nature, which is understandable considering the poet's personal experience with sudden misfortunes.
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Perhaps the most potent of emotions elicited by Ernest Dowson's poem is a sense of hopelessness. The speaker posits that in life, both our "weeping" and "laughter" do not last very long. A more optimistic person might focus on the fact that this means every heartache will give way to some joy. But not the speaker — or Dowson, for that matter.
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Sadness is another evident emotion that finds expression in the poem. The speaker never articulates any specifics about the grandiose feelings that consume one while alive, but that ambiguity only makes Ernest Dowson's verse all the more relatable and impactful. In the final stanza, in particular, one might imagine the speaker sighing the words with resignation toward life's constant leaning toward sadness.
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Ernest Dowson's poem finds life's mutability to be a source of depression and anxiety. Change might be a natural state of life, but to the speaker, it too often comes as a swift transition from happiness to sadness. While the biggest change we as mortals undergo (i.e., death) leads us to relinquish all that we once held dear in life.
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Fate is another topic touched on in Ernest Dowson's poem. For the speaker, our ultimate fate as humans is not just to die but to be parted with all that we felt and experienced while alive, from our heartaches to our joys. But the poem also seems inclined to view our personal fate as a mystery or dream too brief to understand.
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Without a doubt, the poem's central topic is the brevity of humankind's mortality and the certainty of our departure from life into death. Nothing in life is very long, and all is subject to sudden transitions: be that a love souring or a life suddenly ending. Ernest Dowson himself was intimately acquainted with such tragedy.
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Uncertainty is another topic that Ernest Dowson explores in the poem. It's the underlying reason for the speaker's belief that life's happiest moments — "the days of wine and roses" — will eventually end. To make matters worse and far more dreary, the speaker also believes that when we die we take none of what made life beautiful with us.
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Ernest Dowson wrote the poem as a ballad, which is evidenced by its quatrain structure and 'ABAB' rhyme scheme. This form was often used because it allows the poet to create more complete images and explore far more complex ideas than anything shorter. Here, both stanzas explore different aspects of its theme regarding humanity's temporary and tragic existence.
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Steven Ward Poetry Expert
Steven Ward is a passionate writer, having studied for a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and being a poetry editor for the 'West Wind' publication. He brings this experience to his poetry analysis on Poem Analysis.

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