“Vita brevis, Ars longa…” so begins the Latin version of an aphorism originally in Greek by Hippocrates, the oath guy. In English it is “Life is short, and art long”

The term “art” here is more craft or expertise—something learnable, not born with. But the saying implies one’s life is too short to really learn it, so it might as well be something you are born with—or not. It goes on talking of fleeting opportunity and perilous experimentation before ending with “iudicium difficile,” so you probably won’t even know if you really succeeded.


Geoffrey Chaucer picks up and expands on this in his poem “A Parliament of Fowls” 1700 years after Hippocrates but still more than 600 years ago; translated into modern English, it begins:

“The life so brief, the art so long in the learning, the attempt so hard, the conquest so sharp, the fearful joy that ever slips away so quickly–by all this I mean love, which so sorely astounds my feeling with its wondrous operation, that when I think upon it I scarce know whether I wake or sleep. For albeit I know not love myself; nor how he pays people their wage, yet I have very often chanced to read in books of his miracles and his cruel anger there, surely, I read he will ever be lord and sovereign, and his strokes will be so heavy I dare say nothing but, “God save such a lord!” I can say no more …”

The art in question here is “love” and Chaucer admits he knows nothing of it—this from the guy who wrote “The Canterbury Tales,” mind you. Lust he knows but Love he doesn’t. Then there’s the odd twist where narrator (Geoff himself?) refers to love paying wages. Does he consider Love better personified as a malicious [corporate] overlord than a horny teenager?


The poem continues telling us about a poet reading in an old book that greed is not good; “earth is so little and so full of torment and ill favor” and that if you don’t “labor diligently and teach for the common profit” there will be hell to pay. So the poet’s troubles bemoaned here are as much greed as lust, yes?

The poem’s poet reads all day and goes to bed, where he nods off in to a dream where, with the characters of the book he was just reading, he enters a garden with a pair of signs over the gate stating that the garden is either, or both, a blessed place; forever “lusty May” or “as the fish in prison is al drye.” His guide tells him not to worry as that only applies to lovers which our poet is no longer if he ever was. But the guide adds, “And if you have skill to set it down, I will show you something to write about.”

The dream garden is full of dramatis personæ of Greco-Roman myth as well as lots of birds who argue about which of three male eagle should win the “hand” of one female. The final arbitress, Dame Nature, says it’s the female who will choose. The female demands more time to decide, Dame Nature acquiesces, adding, “a year is not so long to wait.”

The poet, woken by the noisy birds, begins to read another book. “In truth I hope so to read that someday I shall meet with something of which I shall fare the better. And so I will not cease to read.” But what about the more pessimistic lines at the beginning: “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne,” where the not yet dreaming poet ponders not having enough time to learn the craft of love?

The pessimistic poet, acknowledges his failing in love, whether that be to be desired by a particular other, or more generally to be rewarded more concretely by a culture, “so full of torment and ill favor.” But the meta-poet—the poet in the poem—is more upbeat, for he has learned another craft, a different Art. Informed by his dream guide’s observations, “…many a man who cannot complete a bout is nevertheless pleased to be at a wrestling match, and judges whether one or another does better” he takes that path, and ironically so does the erstwhile pessimist.

Quotes: Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Parliament of Fowls. NeCastro, Gerard, ed. and trans. eChaucer: