What do Pete Seeger’s folk song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and The Lord of the Rings have in common?
They both use the “ubi sunt”, a form of poetry that dwells on life’s transience. Ubi sunt is Latin for “where are?” taken from the Latin Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt?, meaning, “Where are those who were before us?”. This ancient poetic form draws me not only because it laments the loss of something (and as I get older, I lament more and more), but also because it is basically a list of questions—and I love questions. Here is an example of an ubi sunt from my book Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night, entitled “Moon’s Lament”:
Where are the bright dips of fireflies?
Where are the zigzags of moths?
Where are the diving sweeps of the nighthawk
and where its haunting cry?
Where is the thrum of crickets,
the throbbing of frogs?
Where are the great flocks of travelers
whose soft wings whispered to me,
wave upon wave,
beating toward some distant wood?
Where are the stars?
Where are the pale scarves of clouds?
Where are my ghostly shadows,
my pools of molten silver,
poured with such extravagance?
Where has it all gone—
now that day has come?
Alas. Another eternity of sunbeams to wait.
© Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2010
The verse form is very, very old, and very noble and sad, and is used in such tomes as Beowulf and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Shakespeare used it often, notably in his “Alas, Poor Yorick” soliloquy. A more modern-day literary example is King Théoden from Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, lamenting the loss of his son:
Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Who cares if we haven’t a clue what a “hauberk” is? (Well, OK, I looked it up: it’s a shirt of mail) We are still feeling his pain. He is addressing us, his audience, demanding, Where are those things? But he is really asking, Why did this happen? How can I go on?
Since publishing Dark Emperor in 2010, I have begun using ubi sunts in the classroom with 5th graders. Surprisingly, this archaic form has been a great success with this age group. I wasn’t sure that any 10-year-old (besides Billy Collins) would be old enough to feel a sharp sense of loss or nostalgia, or would want to meditate on mortality and life’s transience. But they really got it. At first, I thought they just had a fascination with the word “alas”, as in: “Alas, I am stuck here in the classroom”, or “Alas, I have eaten all the spaghetti and there is no more.”
Soon I realized there was something deeper going on, a real need to express the loss of people, places, or objects that had been very important to them. One of the best student ubi sunts I’ve ever read was humorous—“Lament for Gummy Worms”—which included the wonderful line, “Where is the happy crinkle of wrapper as you open a bag?” But others were very poignant, ranging from the boy who missed Puerto Rico (“Where is the cheerful taxicab barreling down my street?”) to the girl who wondered what had become of her Chinese birth mother (“Will she ever come here / or should I travel there, like a ghost wandering?”). One student wrote about his father’s death, and another about the death of her hamster, using this deliciously over-the-top line: “He is now in the waves of death / in a neverending sea.”
Something about the form of an ubi sunt is extremely satisfying. Perhaps it is the piling up of detail after detail about the lost, beloved object. Perhaps it is all those questions, which echo Pablo Neruda’s mysterious Book of Questions. Maybe is the permission to demand answers of the universe. Maybe, even for a ten-year-old, it is the chance to stop for a moment, and feel the passage of time:
(from “Lament for Kindergarten” by Nicole)
Where are the milk and goldfish snacks?
Where are the tiny backpacks filled with teddy bears?
Where are the games we all used to play?
Where are the friendships we thought would never end?
They have gone to memories, every one. When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?
Joyce Sidman is the author of the Newbery Honor-winning DARK EMPEROR AND OTHER POEMS OF THE NIGHT and two Caldecott Honor books, SONG OF THE WATER BOATMAN AND OTHER POND POEMS and RED SINGS FROM TREETOPS: A YEAR IN COLORS. She teaches poetry writing to schoolchildren and walks her dog endlessly. She loves to watch the seasons change in Minnesota and has found that she writes best on sunny days, with a handful of Guittard extra-dark chocolate chips at the ready. Visit her at http://www.joycesidman.com.