When is a cliché not a cliché?

by Mary Jackson (April 2012)

It is a while since I saw any Poems on the Underground on the underground. For those not in the know, Poems on the Underground is described on Wikipedia as:

a project to bring poetry to a wider audience by displaying various poems or stanzas on advertising boards across the London Underground rapid transit network.

A foreigner, probably an American, described it thus; no Englishman would use the term “rapid transit network”, least of all to describe the Tube. The poems appear sporadically, sometimes with themes. The last few I saw, on the Central Line, were translations of ancient Chinese poems, all of which seemed to go something like this:

A river rises
A bird flies. I watch, wait
And stay behind.

Perhaps they lost something in translation, but I was sorely tempted to scrawl underneath: © E. J. Thlibb, 1252. The Chinese are overrated if you ask me.

There have been some good ones, though. A few years ago I caught sight of this:

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.

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.

The title and author surprised me: “Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetat Incohare Longam” by Ernest Dowson (1867 to 1900). Well, to judge by his dates, he should know. But it is odd that he should give such a simple poem a long Latin title. I recognised the second verse, as most readers will: it is read aloud by Lee Remick in the film to which it also gives its title. “The Days of Wine and Roses”. The film is a harrowing study of alchoholism, starring that most versatile of actors, Jack Lemmon.

Is “days of wine and roses” a cliché? It is now, because of the film, but was it when Ernest Dowson, who sounds more like an accountant than a poet, first wrote it? And if it was, does it matter?

I like this poem’s second verse very much. Cliché or no cliché in the first line, the other three speak to me of life’s brevity and of the symmetry of darkness that bounds it far better than other images. Shakespeare’s stage, the brief candle, and even – Hugh would naturally disagree – Nabokov’s:

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.

are better written but they are written from the outside. Julian Barnes sees this flaw in the supposedly comforting idea of the medieval bird flying from darkness into a lighted hall then out again: it keeps on flying, and the reader is sees both the darkness and the hall.  In contrast, Dowson’s reader sees only the path, because he is on it, and its beginning and end are not clear, as to an observer, but a mist and a dream.

Dowson came up with “Gone With the Wind” from a less successful poem, also with a long Latin title:

I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind

Too many roses. He died of alcholism at thirty-two. Too much wine.

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