As Years Come In and Years Go Out, I Totter Toward the Tomb

Dorothy L. Sayers? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Gossip mongers are obsessed with identifying and publicizing the latest carnal pairings of celebrities. The acclaimed mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers composed a short poem expressing disinterest in this subject, and I have seen two distinct versions of her humorous four lines. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in a letter written by Dorothy L. Sayers in 1953. She was responding to John Betjeman who inquired about the poem. Sayers recognized that different versions were circulating, and she presented the following text as genuine: 1

As years come in and years go out
I totter toward the tomb,
Still caring less and less about
Who goes to bed with whom.

Sayers highlighted the rhyme between the first and third lines, and said that the “alliteration in the second line lends, I feel, a kind of rickety dignity to the whole”. The third and fourth lines are spoken together without a pause; referred to as enjambment in poetry. Sayers commented that the rhyme and flow “seem to usher in the final pronouncement with a more breathless solemnity.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The alliterative phrase “totter toward(s) the tomb” has appeared in poems in the past. For example, in 1834 a work with a religious theme in “The Irish Congregational Record” included the following lines: 2

But while my footsteps totter towards the tomb,
And heart and flesh are hastening to decay,
I see the glories of a brighter home,
Nor bound my prospects but with endless day.

In 1925 several newspapers in the U.S. printed a six-line comical poem containing the alliterative line: 3

HAINT LIFE HORRIBLE?

Life is short and time is fleeting,
So I speed this cheery greeting:
Let us scatter words of gloom
As we totter toward the tomb.
Though it’s bad, it could be worse—
Have a drink and call the hearse!

In 1953 Sayers included an instance of the poem under examination in a letter she wrote to John Betjeman as mentioned at the beginning of this article.

The 1973 biography titled “Norman Lindsay: The Embattled Olympian” contained an interesting variant with the word “doom” instead of “tomb”: 4

Norman always chuckled when he quoted a scrap of ribald verse which Mary sent him in one of her letters.

The years come in and the years go out
As I totter towards my doom,
Still caring less and less about
Who goes to bed with whom.

That quatrain expressed his outlook to perfection. He had not lost interest in women and never did, but he saw them now with an old man’s detachment.

The 1975 book “Such a Strange Lady: A Biography of Dorothy L. Sayers” by Janet Hitchman ascribed a different version of the poem to Sayers. There was no rhyme between the first and third lines: 5

Her devouring interest in books continued and she was still reading almost everything that was published, except modern novels. When asked why she avoided these, she replied wearily,

As I grow older and older
And totter towards the tomb,
I find that I care less and less
Who goes to bed with whom.

In 1981 a journalist in “The Pittsburgh Press” of Pennsylvania printed an instance matching the one given in “Such a Strange Lady”: 6

The more movies I see about premarital and extramarital relations, the more I’m reminded of late mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers’s explanation as to why she never reads modern novels: “As I grow older and older and totter towards the tomb, I find that I care less and less who goes to bed with whom.”

The 1989 reference “The Macmillan Dictionary of Quotations” included the following entry: 7

As I grow older and older,
And totter towards the tomb,
I find that I care less and less
Who goes to bed with whom.

Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) British writer.
That’s Why I Never Read Modern Novels

The 1993 biography “Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul” by Barbara Reynolds included the version matching the verse in Sayers’s 1953 letter: 8

Her friends loved her humour and quoted her sayings. John Betjeman wrote to ask her for the correct version of four lines of verse which were in circulation and attributed to her. They were:

As years come in and years go out
I totter toward the tomb,
Still caring less and less about
Who goes to bed with whom.

In conclusion, Dorothy L. Sayers should receive credit for the verse in the 1953 letter. QI is uncertain how the variant was constructed. The verses overlap and the meaning is similar; thus, it may have been synthesized based on an incomplete memory.

Image Notes: Picture of cemetery from RNabogis at Pixabay. This image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Donna Halper who responded to a mailing list inquiry from QI by pointing to “The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers: Volume Two” which contained an instance of the poem within a footnote. The footnote pointed to Barbara Reynolds 1993 biography of Sayers. Halper also pointed to an instance in the 1996 collection titled “The Poetry of Dorothy L. Sayers” edited by Ralph E. Hone. In addition, thanks to discussant Dave Hause. Many thanks to the staff of Buswell Library at Wheaton College in Illinois who provided crucial scans of the 1953 letter from “The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers: Volume Four”.)

Notes:

  1. 2000 Copyright, The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers: Volume Four: 1951-1957: In the Midst of Life by Dorothy L. Sayers (Dorothy Leigh Sayers), Chosen and Edited by Barbara Reynolds, Letter from Dorothy L. Sayers to John Betjeman, Letter dated February 2, 1953, Quote Page 80, Published by The Dorothy L. Sayers Society, Carole Green Publishing, Cambridge, England. (Verified with scans from Wheaton College, Buswell Library)
  2. 1834 March, The Irish Congregational Record, Volume 1, Number 3, Gratitude of Old Age, Quote Page 80, John Robertson and Company, Dublin, Ireland. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1925 November 30, Ironwood Daily Globe, The Range Tattler, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Ironwood, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1973, Norman Lindsay: The Embattled Olympian by John Hetherington (John Aikman Hetherington), Chapter 11: The Twilight of an Olympian 1945-69, Quote Page 246 and 247, Oxford University Press, London. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1976 (1975 Copyright), Such a Strange Lady: A Biography of Dorothy L. Sayers by Janet Hitchman, Chapter 12: Final Chapters, Quote Page 179, Avon, New York. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1981 February 13, The Pittsburgh Press, ‘Whoopee’ Offers Snow Check by Ed Blank (Press Drama Editor), Quote Page A22, Column 1, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1989, The Macmillan Dictionary of Quotations, Section: Old Age, Quote Page 401, Column 3, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  8. 1994 (1993 Copyright), Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul by Barbara Reynolds, Chapter 27: Gaudium, Quote Page 409 and 410, A Sceptre Paperback: Hodder Stoughton, London. (Verified with scans)