Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.? Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.? Virgil? Apocryphal? Anonymous?
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: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 … Continue reading
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.”
Additional details are available in the article on the Medium platform which is located here.
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”.