Ver Erat Aeternum

NOTE: this piece first appeared in the Winter 2020 print edition of Ad Fontes.


In Michigan, fall has just passed us. Nights are cooler; leaves have finished changing from green to red, yellow, and orange, and they now litter our yards or are gone altogether.

When I was younger, fall was my favorite season, in part because of its apparently Romantic-emo aesthetics, as the time when, in Shakespeare’s phrase, the trees are “bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.”[1] “Isn’t it,” I thought, “like, poetic—the death and decay? A symbol of, like, life?” It was, for me, like the second verse of “Abide with Me,” only without any of the things that make that verse good—maturity, for instance.

Having experienced some of the things that my younger self romanticized, and having aged significantly, I no longer count fall as my favorite season. I like it well enough, but now I join Chaucer—with apologies to T. S. Eliot, who thought little of April[2]—as a spring man, an April man: “proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim,”[3] which, as Shakespeare again has it, puts “a spirit of youth in everything.”[4] As spring waxes and April turns to May, Shakespeare’s trees receive new life and address creation:

Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.[5]

If, like spring, it would not be intemperate, I would suggest that there is a supernatural logic to my natural preferences, one embedded in the structure of the world and so deeply fixed in the human consciousness that awareness of it transcends the divide between pagans and Christians: spring is the originary state of the world. Fall, on the other hand, comes from the Fall.

We see this recognition in particularly acute fashion in the first book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a Heraclitean poem about stability and change. The poem begins with an account of the prima origo mundi, the “first origin of the world,” which culminates in the creation of man, fashioned by Prometheus “in the image of the all-governing gods” (finxit in effigiem moderantum cuncta deorum). The earth used in man’s creation, previously “unformed and without image” (fudis et sine imagine), takes on human shape: the first metamorphosis.

As Ovid details man’s degradation—another metamorphosis—he utilizes the ancient myth of ages, most famously preserved in Hesiod’s Works and Days; in it, a primal Golden Age gives way to Silver, and then Bronze, and then Iron (the current state of the world). Though all save the first are flawed in some way, each successive age is worse than its predecessor and increases the evil in the world.

But the first age, the aurea aetas, was a state of idyllic perfection. Man was good without law and without the fear of punishment. He was content; the restless wanderlust to see new places, and to undertake the unnatural journey on the sea to do so, troubled no one. Towns had no need of fortification, for there was no war. The earth brought forth its fruits of its own accord, without the sweat of man’s brow.

The season was spring. It was always spring, for “spring was eternal”: ver erat aeternum. And in this seasonless season—for where there is no change, there are no seasons—rivers flowed with milk and nectar.

But it did not last. In the pagan story, there was war among the gods. Saturn, who reigned in the Golden Age, was overthrown by his son, and this cosmic upheaval coincided with a change from gold to silver, “worse than gold, more precious than yellow bronze” (auro deterior, fulvo pretiosior aere). It is suggestive that the pagan myth gives no clear justification for why this had to be the case, an omission that justifies the contention of Protestant Reformers of the Philippist stripe that the ancients were able to ascertain that something had gone wrong with man, though they were unable rightly to understand why.[6] So powerful, in fact, was the myth of decline, and so mysterious the omission of a reason for it, that “the story of Saturn,” who devoured his own children and was revenged by Jupiter, “was understood by [Renaissance England] as an allegory of the fall.”[7] In The History of the World, Sir Walter Raleigh tells us that, “as Adam was the ancient and first Saturne, Cain the eldest Iupiter, Eva Rhea, and Noema or Naamoth the first Venus: so did the fable of the dividing of the world betweene the three brethren the sonnes of Saturne arise, from the true story of the dividing of the earth between the three brethren the sonnes of Noah.”[8] If Saturn is Adam and Jupiter is Cain, it is easy enough to see how Saturn presides over the Fall that simultaneously marks the end of his rule over the idyllic, primordial garden.

Suggestive, too, is what occurs next in Ovid’s account. When the Golden Age ceased under Jupiter ascendant, eternal spring ceased as well: the second metamorphosis.

Iuppiter antiqui contraxit tempora veris,
perque hiemes aestusque et inaequales autumnos
et breve ver spatiis exegit quattuor annum.

Jupiter drew up short the time of ancient spring,
and, through winters and summers and unequal autumns
and brief spring, he drew out the year in four seasons.[9]

Notice the contrasts: fall is unequal (perhaps “too long,” but with the attendant connotation of “not right”), while spring has been cut short. Paradoxically, this contraction of time (contraxit) gives a sense of uncomfortable lengthening to time (exegit). The seasons are an index of our experience of time as both repetitive duration and onrushing impermanence.

Several centuries later, Augustine, though not commenting on man’s fall, gave a lucid account of the conundrum of time in Confessions 11. He writes:

What, then, is time? If no one ask of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not….[S]hould the present be always present, and should it not pass into time past, time truly it could not be, but eternity. If, then, time present — if it be time — only comes into existence because it passes into time past, how do we say that even this is, whose cause of being is that it shall not be — namely, so that we cannot truly say that time is, unless because it tends not to be?…For the past is not now, and the future is not yet.…Let us therefore see, O human soul, whether present time can be long; for to you is it given to perceive and to measure periods of time….For twelve months make the year, of which each individual month which is current is itself present, but the rest are either past or future. Although neither is that month which is current present, but one day only: if the first, the rest being to come, if the last, the rest being past; if any of the middle, then between past and future. Behold, the present time, which alone we found could be called long, is abridged to the space scarcely of one day. But let us discuss even that, for there is not one day present as a whole. For it is made up of four-and-twenty hours of night and day, whereof the first has the rest future, the last has them past, but any one of the intervening has those before it past, those after it future. And that one hour passes away in fleeting particles….When, therefore, time is passing, it can be perceived and measured; but when it has passed, it cannot, since it is not.[10]

This fragmented experience of time, then, is directly connected to change—to metamorphosis—and it sets us apart from what is eternal. As Augustine puts it elsewhere, “[T]hat is not properly called eternal which undergoes any degree of change. Therefore, in so far as we are changeable, in so far we stand apart from eternity.”[11]

The use of the Christian Augustine to elucidate the pagan Ovid is not frivolous. For Christian poets in subsequent centuries saw an Edenic quality in Ovid’s Golden Age that was lost by man’s Fall into sin and time’s fissure. The opening of Carol Ann Duffy’s 2018 Armistice Day poem which, while commemorating the First World War, could almost be repurposed to describe man’s declension into sin, an original disaster that is the archetype and spring of calamities like the First World War:

It is the wound in Time. The century’s tides,
chanting their bitter psalms, cannot heal it.
Not the war to end all wars; death’s birthing place…

Before this wound, there was peace. A shadowy fifth century poet in Gaul, Claudius Marius Victor, uses Ovid’s words to describe it in the first book of his poem on Genesis, the Alethia (Truth). Paradise is

hic, ubi iam spatiis limes discernitur aequis
solis et aeternum paribus ver temperat horis

here, where a boundary is already marked off with equal spaces
and eternal spring passes temperate time under the sun’s consistent light…[12]

Later Christian poets took up the theme. When Dante comes to the Garden of Eden in Purgatorio 28, Matelda tells him:

Quelli ch’anticamente poetaro
l’età de l’oro e suo stato felice,
forse in Parnaso esto loco sognaro.
Qui fu innocente l’umana radice;
qui primavera sempre e ogne frutto;
nettare è questo di che ciascun dice.

Those who in ancient times called up in verse
the age of gold and sang its happy state
dreamed on Parnassus of perhaps this very place.
Here the root of humankind was innocent,
here it is always spring, with every fruit in season.
This is the nectar of which the ancients tell.[13]

The Ovidian borrowings are not limited to the words in bold; they extend also to the “age of gold,” as well as to the presence of nectar (the classical drink of the gods) in the Garden.

The tradition continues three centuries later in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Describing the Garden of Eden, he writes:

The birds their choir apply; airs, vernal airs,
Breathing the smell of field and grove, attune
The trembling leaves, while universal Pan
Knit with the Graces and the Hours in dance
Led on th’ eternal spring. Not that fair field
Of Enna, where Proserpine gath’ring flow’rs
Herself a fairer flow’r by gloomy Dis
Was gathered, which cost Ceres all that pain
To seek her through the world; nor that sweet grove
Of Daphne by Orontes, and th’ inspired
Castalian spring, might with this Paradise
Of Eden strive….[14]

Theologians sometimes say that “eschatology is protology”—that is, the Last Things recapitulate the First Things.[15]Poets have said this, too: “In my end is my beginning.”[16] The inverse is true as well. Protology is eschatology.[17] If eschatology is protology realized, protology is eschatology anticipated. The First Things are already pregnant with the Last Things.

It is thus not altogether surprising that spring is the season of the Cross. Temptation is resisted; the autumnal curse of death and corruption is undone; the way to the Tree of Life is reopened by the Tree of the Cross—or, better, the Tree of the Cross becomes the Tree of Life.

And yet we remain, at present, creatures of time. Here faith comes to our aid. Faith—“the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”—is, for traveling man (homo viator), the temporal road to eternity.[18] In a state of change, it unites us to the Unchanging. As is so often the case, Augustine has already said what needs to be said:

Since, then, we were not fit to take hold of things eternal, and since the foulness of sins weighed us down, which we had contracted by the love of temporal things, and which were implanted in us as it were naturally, from the root of mortality, it was needful that we should be cleansed. But cleansed we could not be, so as to be tempered together with things eternal, except it were through things temporal, wherewith we were already tempered together and held fast. For health is at the opposite extreme from disease; but the intermediate process of healing does not lead us to perfect health, unless it has some congruity with the disease. Things temporal that are useless merely deceive the sick; things temporal that are useful take up those that need healing, and pass them on healed, to things eternal. And the rational mind, as when cleansed it owes contemplation to things eternal; so, when needing cleansing, owes faith to things temporal.[19]

Or, more concisely: “Only through time time is conquered.”[20]

Contrariwise, faith is the means by which time ascends into the eternal order. Later in the same passage in On the Trinity, Augustine glosses the relation of time to eternity as analogous to the relation of faith to truth. Faith is the vehicle of changeable creatures subject to death to unchanging beatitude and life.[21] As faith points to truth, it is fulfilled by—changed into—sight. In the same way, the Cross points to, and is fulfilled by, the Resurrection, which is new life, spring’s first and final truth.

Thus faith in time leads us to Paradise in eternity. The Garden was always the goal, and spring was to be the season—and it will be again. The medieval poet Hildebert knew this, and he alluded to Ovid to say so:

Me receptet Sion illa,
Sion David urbs tranquilla,
Cuius faber auctor lucis,
Cuius portae lignum crucis,
Cuius claves lingua Petri,
Cuius cives semper laeti,
Cuius muri lapis vivus,
Cuius custos Rex festivus,
In hac urbe lux solemnis,
Ver aeternum, pax perennis.

Let that Zion take me in,
Zion, the serene City of David,
whose builder is the author of light,
whose gates are the wood of the Cross,
whose keys are the confession of Peter,
whose citizens are always happy,
whose walls are the living Stone,
whose guardian is the festal King;
in this city there is solemn light,
eternal spring, everlasting peace.[22]


E.J. Hutchinson is Associate Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College, where he also directs the Collegiate Scholars Program. His research focuses on the intersection of Christianity and classical civilization in late antiquity and early modernity. He is the editor and translator of Neils Hemmingsen, On the Law of Nature: A Demonstrative Method (CLP Academic, 2018).


Footnotes

  1. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 73.4.
  2. T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land 1.
  3. Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, “General Prologue,” line 1.
  4. Shakespeare, Sonnet 98.2–3.
  5. Philip Larkin, “The Trees,” 11–12.
  6. Cf. Niels Hemmingsen, On the Law of Nature: A Demonstrative Method, trans. E. J. Hutchinson (Grand Rapids, MI: CLP Academic, 2018), 21–22.
  7. A. C. Hamilton, “Titus Andronicus: The Form of Shakespearian Tragedy,” Shakespeare Quarterly 14 (1963): 203, to which I also owe the reference to Raleigh.
  8. Sir Walter Raleigh, The History of the World 1.1.6.4.
  9. Ovid, Metamorphoses 1.116–18. Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own.
  10. Augustine, Confessions 11.14–16, trans. J. G. Pilkington, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/110111.htm.
  11. Augustine, On the Trinity 4.18.24, trans. Arthur West Haddon, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/130104.htm.
  12. paribus…horis (“equal hours”) may imply that it was not only permanent spring in Paradise, but permanent equinox.
  13. Dante, Purgatorio 28.139–44, trans. Jean and Robert Hollander.
  14. John Milton, Paradise Lost 4.264–75. Milton lets us know he has Ovid in mind via an introductory “reflexive annotation,” a recherché hint for readers in the know. In this instance, it is the adjective “vernal” in line 264, intended to conjure Ovid’s ver erat aeternum. Cf. Stephen Hinds, “Reflexive Annotation in Poetic Allusion,” Hermathena 158 (1995): 41.
  15. Cf., e.g., G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Baker Academic, 2011), 177–8.
  16. Eliot, “East Coker,” 209.
  17. Again, Eliot says the same: “In my beginning is my end” (“East Coker,” 1).
  18. Hebrews 11:1 (ESV).
  19. Augustine, On the Trinity 4.18.24.
  20. Eliot, “Burnt Norton,” 89.
  21. Augustine, On the Trinity 4.18.24.
  22. Hildebert, Oratio devotissima ad tres personas sanctissimae Trinitatis 173–82.

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