Ubi sunt

Ubi sunt

[oo-bee soont]
Ubi sunt (literally "where are...") is a phrase taken from the Latin Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt?, meaning "Where are those who were before us?" Ubi nunc...?, "where now?", is a common variant.

Ubi sunt is a phrase that begins several Latin medieval poems and occurs, for example, in the second stanza of the song De Brevitate Vitae (also known as Gaudeamus igitur). The theme was the common property of medieval Latin poets: Cicero may not have been available, but Boethius' line was known: Ubi nunc fidelis ossa Fabricii manent? Ubi may set the tone of a poem, and can even be used to indicate the tone of another work, such as Beowulf.

Sometimes considered to be a nostalgic longing for the clichéd "good old days", the ubi sunt motif is actually a meditation on mortality and life's transience. The medieval French poet François Villon famously echoes the sentiment in the Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis ("Ballad of the Ladies of Times Past") with his question, Où sont les neiges d'antan? ("Where are the snows of yesteryear?"). In "Coplas por la muerte de su padre", the Spanish poet Jorge Manrique wrote equally famous stanzas about contemporaries that death had taken away.

Other prominent ubi sunt Anglo-Saxon poems are The Wanderer, Deor, The Ruin, and The Seafarer (all part of a collection known as the Exeter Book, the largest surviving collection of Old English literature). The Wanderer most exemplifies Ubi sunt poetry in its use of erotema (the rhetorical question): "Where has the horse gone? Where the young warrior? Where is the giver of treasure? What has become of the feasting seats? Where are the joys of the hall?"

Interest in the ubi sunt motif enjoyed a renaissance during the late 18th century following the publication of James Macpherson's "translation" of Ossian. The eighth of Macpherson's Fragments of Ancient Poetry (1760) features Ossian lamenting,

Where is Fingal the King? where is Oscur my son? where are all my race? Alas! in the earth they lie. I feel their tombs with my hands. I hear the river below murmuring hoarsely over the stones. What dost thou, O river, to me? Thou bringest back the memory of the past.

This and Macpherson's subsequent Ossianic texts, Fingal (1761) and Temora (1763), fueled the romantics' interest in melancholy and primitivism.

Ubi sunt? is a pervasive theme in The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

Each Morn a thousand Roses brings, you say:
Yes, but where leaves the Rose of Yesterday?
And this first Summer month that brings the Rose
Shall take Jamshyd and Kaikobad away.

For many decades, the magazine Sports Illustrated has run a "Where Are They Now?" feature looking into the present circumstances of past athletic heroes.

References

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