Quote Origin: Death Plucks My Ear and Says “Live, for I Am Coming”

Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.? Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.? Virgil? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Eighteenth Century Personification of Death

Question for Quote Investigator: The personification of Death has been employed in artworks to highlight mortality. We must attempt to achieve a full and worthwhile life during our brief period passing through this earthly realm. Here is a pertinent quotation:

Death plucks my ear and says “Live, for I am coming”

This macabre admonition has been attributed to physician Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., and ancient Roman poet Virgil (also spelled Vergil). I am having difficulty tracing the provenance of this statement. Would you please help?

Reply from Quote Investigator: One of the minor works attributed to Virgil is a drinking song titled “Copa” in which an entertainer at a tavern beyond the gates of Rome entices travelers to eat, drink, and spend the day with pleasure instead of arduously pursuing transient fame represented by a garland or wreath. Here are the final lines of the song in Latin and English. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1

Quid cineri ingrato servas bene olentia serta?
Anne coronato vis lapidi ista legi?
Pone merum et talos. Pereant, qui crastina curant!
Mors aurem vellens—Vivite, ait, venio.

Why reserve you the garland, all sweet with perfume,
To deck the cold marble that closes the tomb?—
Set the dice and the wine:—May he perish who cares
For the good or the ill which to-morrow prepares;
Death pulls by the ear, and cries, “Live while you may;
I approach, and perhaps shall be with you to-day.”

The translation above appeared in an 1827 book about Roman literature by John Dunlop. The song was ascribed to Virgil by fifth-century grammarian Servius, but the authorship is disputed, and modern scholars have become skeptical.

The line mentioning Death achieved a spike in popularity in 1931 when it was spoken by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. within a radio address transmitted during his 90th birthday celebration. Holmes credited the line to a “Latin poet who uttered the message more than fifteen hundred years ago”.

A variety of English translations have entered circulation. Here is a sampling of renditions with dates:

1827: Death pulls by the ear, and cries, “Live while you may.”
1899: Death plucks my ear, and says, “Live! for I come.”
1906: Death, plucking his ear says, “Live ! I am coming!”
1916: Death, your ear demands and says, “I come, so live to-day.”
1929: Here’s Death twitching my ear, “Live,” says he, “for I’m coming!”
1931: Death plucks my ear and says “Live I am coming.”
1931: Death clutches my ear, and says, “Live, I am coming.”
1977: Death tugs at my ear and says: “Live, I am coming.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

August Mau of the German Archaeological Institute in Rome published “Pompeii: Its Life and Art” in German. An English translation by Francis W. Kelsey appeared in 1899. The book contained an illustration of a mosaic depicting symbols of a tannery together with a human skull. The author commented on the meaning of the mosaic as follows:2

The thought of the tanner, or of the earlier proprietor of the house, is easy to divine: Mors aurem vellens, Vivite, ait, venio,
‘Death plucks my ear, and says,
“Live!” for I come.’

In 1906 by Reverend Patrick Augustine Sheehan published “Under the Cedars and the Stars” which contained an instance of the expression:3

Mors aurem vellens , “Vivite,” ait, “Venio.” Death, plucking his ear says, “Live! I am coming!”

In 1916 Joseph J. Mooney published a translation of “The Minor Poems of Vergil”. The final lines of “Copa” were rendered as follows:4

Why sweetly smelling chaplets dost thou keep
For thankless clay? Or dost thou wish those bones
To be o’erlaid by wreathéd stone? Then set
The wine and dice, and let him perish who
Doth care about to-morrow. Death your ear
Demands and says, ‘I come, so live to-day.’

In 1929 Helen Waddell published a translation of “Copa” (“Dancing Girl of Syria”) with the following lines:5

What thanks will cold ashes give for the sweetness of garlands?
Or is it your mind to hang a rose wreath upon your tombstone?
Set down the wine and the dice, and perish who thinks of to-morrow!
— Here’s Death twitching my ear, “Live,” says he, “for I’m coming.”

On March 8, 1931 jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. celebrated his 90th birthday, and he delivered a radio address as reported by the United Press news service the following day:6

Justice Holmes, speaking into the microphone from his home said: “The work never is done while the power to work remains.”

He closed with an ominous, yet heartening message in the words of a Latin poet of 1500 years ago: “Death plucks my ear and says — ‘Live, I am coming’.”

Oddly, the United Press article also included a transcript which presented a slightly different version of the remark using the word “clutches” instead of “plucks”:

“. . . and so I end with a line from the Latin poet who uttered the message more than 1500 years ago: ‘Death clutches my ear, and says, ‘Live, I am coming’.”
Mr. Justice Holmes’ voice broke as he concluded.

The version of Holmes’s remarks printed in the “New York Herald Tribune” used the word “plucks”:7

And so I end with a line from a Latin poet who uttered the message more than fifteen hundred years ago:
‘Death plucks my ear and says: “Live — I am coming.”’

On March 11, 1931 an article in “The New York Times” attempted trace the line used by Holmes and concluded that Virgil deserved credit:8

Who was the Latin poet quoted by Mr. Justice HOLMES in that short and perfect birthday speech to the nation? No small number of persons found themselves racked with curiosity and like to burst with ignorance . . .

The right track leads to VERGIL and the last line of “The Syrian Dancing Girl” . . .

Here’s Death twitching my ear, “Live,” says he, “for I’m coming!”

In 1949 “The Home Book of Quotations: Classical and Modern” edited by scholar Burton Stevenson contained the following entry:9

Set forth the wine and the dice, and perish who thinks of tomorrow!
Here’s Death twitching my ear, “Live,” says he, “for I’m coming!”
(Pone merum et talos. Pereat, qui crastinal curat!
Mors aurem vellens, “vivite,” ait, “venio.”)

VERGIL, Copa, l.37. (Helen Waddell, tr.) Quoted by Justice O. W. Holmes in radio address on his 90th birthday, 8 March, 1931: “Death plucks my ear and says, ‘Live — I am coming.’”

In 1977 “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” compiled by Laurence J. Peter printed an instance using the word “tugs”. The author mistakenly credited Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. instead of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. or Virgil:10

Death tugs at my ear and says: “Live, I am coming.”
— Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (1809–1894)

In conclusion, this line has been credited to Virgil for centuries, but modern scholars suggest that the true authorship remains uncertain. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. used the line in 1931 when he was ninety years old. He ascribed the words to an unnamed Latin poet.

Image Notes: Public domain illustration of an engraving made by Noël Le Mire based on a drawing by Jean-Baptiste Oudry representing a fable about death. The illustration is from volume 3 of “Fables choisies” by Jean de La Fontaine circa 1759. This image has been cropped and resized.

Acknowledgement: Great thanks to quotation expert Mardy Grothe whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Grothe operates the impressive website “Dr. Mardy’s Dictionary of Metaphorical Quotations”.

Update History: On April 16, 2024 the format of the bibliographical notes was updated. Also, the full article was placed on this website.

  1. 1827, History of Roman Literature During the Augustan Age by John Dunlop, Volume 3, Section: Publius Virgilius Maro (Virgil), Quote Page 195, Longman, Rees, Orma, Brown, and Green, London. (Verified with scans) link ↩︎
  2. 1899, Pompeii: Its Life and Art by August Mau (German Archaeological Institute in Rome), Translated into English by Francis W. Kelsey (University of Michigan), Chapter 47: The Fullers and the Tanners, Quote Page 391, The Macmillan Company, New York. (Verified with scans) link ↩︎
  3. 1906 Copyright, Under the Cedars and the Stars by Reverend P. A. Sheehan (Patrick Augustine Sheehan), Chapter 12, Quote Page 82, Benziger Brothers, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  4. 1916, The Minor Poems of Vergil: Comprising the Culex, Dirae, Lydia, Moretum, Copa, Priapeia, and Catalepton, Metrically Translated into English by Joseph J. Mooney, Quote Page 194 and 195, Cornish Brothers Ltd., Birmingham, England. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  5. 1938 (Revised version of 1929 edition), Mediaeval Latin Lyrics by Helen Waddell, Section: Appendix Vergiliana, Lyric: Dancing Girl of Syria, Quote Page 4 and 5, Henry Holt and Company, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  6. 1931 March 9, The News and Observer, Hughes Praises Fellow Jurist (UP News Service), Quote Page 1, Column 3, Raleigh, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  7. 1931 March 9, New York Herald Tribune, Holmes, at 90, Gets Nation’s High Tribute, (From The Herald Tribune Bureau), Quote Page 1, Column 3, New York. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  8. 1931 March 11, “A Line From a Latin Poet”, Quote Page 24, Column 5, New York. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  9. 1949, The Home Book of Quotations: Classical and Modern, Selected by Burton Stevenson, Sixth Edition, Topic: Life, Quote Page 1132, Dodd, Mead and Company, New York. (Internet Archive at archive.org) ↩︎
  10. 1977, Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time, Compiled by Laurence J. Peter, Section: Death, Quote Page 151, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified on with hardcopy) ↩︎
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