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O Lente, Lente, Currite Noctis Equi

(O Slowly, Slowly, Run Horses of the Night)
-Marlowe’s Dr Faustus Act V Sc 2

The English language is a great borrower of words. Borrowing, appropriating or assimilating words and phrases from almost all languages that it has come into contact with. The borrowings from Greek, Latin, French, Germanic and Scandinavian languages are quite substantial and it would surprise us to find that many of the words we commonly use and we take for granted as purely of English origin are in fact loan words. There may be hundreds of thousands of them enriching English in such a way that one may wonder if the original words in the English lexicon (again a loan word) can be counted on one’s fingers.

See the following words of common currency, all of them borrowed from other tongues: father, mother, brother, home, house, plant, leaf, fruit, art, dance, painting, sculpture, diamond, ruby, government, state, parliament, army, navy, artillery, battle, defense, enemy, soldier, volunteer, beef, mutton, poultry, adventure, courage, dignity, letter, literature, male, female (incidentally Male comes from French but Female is from Latin), magic, comedy, tragedy, the list goes on ad infinitum.

Similar is the case with words denoting fear, especially unfounded fears. It would appear as if Englishmen do not know how to express them adequately without taking recourse to borrowings from other languages, especially Greek. And with such facile borrowing they have words to denote every kind of unfounded fear: Fear of enclosed places (Claustrophobia), fear of open places (Agoraphobia), fear of depths (Bathophobia), fear of heights (Acrophobia),fear of water (Aquaphobia), fear of winds (Anemophobia), fear of the wild (Agrizoophobia) , fear of the dark (Nyctophobia) and fear of death (Thanatophobia).

It is with the last mentioned, that is fear of death or Thanatophobia, that I am more concerned here. Thanatophobia, according to social psychologists, is a state of mind widely prevalent among the geriatric population. But why should anyone have Thanatophobia, knowing well that end of life is fully in nature’s scheme of things and something that can never be avoided. It is a different matter if the fear is not about death but about the process of dying. Dying can be peaceful or painful, in sleep or when fully awake, in deep coma or slight afternoon slumber. And one is apt to fear any painful process of dying. But not necessarily fear of death per se.

Whatever it be, Thanatophobia has accounted for one of the most memorable passages in English literature, one that crystallizes the raw dread of the speaker about impending death or doom. This is amply demonstrated in the final monologue of the protagonist in Dr Faustus, the Elizabethan classic of Christopher Marlowe.

Dr Faustus, a German scholar of vaulting ambitions, was totally dissatisfied with what he considered to be the limits of the academic knowledge he had gained. He wanted to exceed those limits and thought of even black magic to make him all powerful. After learning the fundamentals of black magic from two of his scholar friends, he summons Mephistopheles, the sinister assistant to Lucifer, and enters into an unwise agreement with him. The agreement, signed with his blood, was that with the help of Lucifer he would enjoy all imaginable worldly pleasures and comforts for twenty-four years at the end of which he would have to surrender his soul to Lucifer for everlasting damnation.

With Mephistopheles as his aide Dr Faustus strides the world with his impish magical powers, which help him to play pranks on the Pope, conjure up even Alexander the Great to impress the Duke and bring back Helen of Troy to impress himself and be his companion in pleasure, albeit temporarily.

But after playing out his whims and enjoying all the pleasures that he wants, the hour of reckoning comes—the midnight hour when hell’s dark angels would mercilessly draw him into the infinite abyss of hell. It was when he had all but one hour in this world that he wails pathetically: O lente, lente, currite, noctis equi (O, slowly, slowly run , horses of the night).

“Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,
And then thou must be damn'd perpetually!
Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of Heaven,
That time may cease, and midnight never come;
Fair Nature's eye, rise, rise again, and make
Perpetual day; or let this hour be but
A year, a month, a week, a natural day.

O lente, lente, currite, noctis equi!
The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The Devil will come, and Faustus must be damn'd.
O, I'll leap up to my God! Who pulls me down?
See, see, where Christ's blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul, half a drop: ah, my Christ.

No, Faustus, curse thyself, curse Lucifer
That hath deprived thee of the joys of Heaven.
Oh, it strikes, it strikes! Now, body, turn to air,
Or Lucifer will bear thee quick to hell!
O soul, be chang'd into little water-drops
And fall into the ocean, ne'er be found.
My God, my God, look not so fierce on me.
Adders and serpents, let me breathe awhile.
Ugly hell, gape not, come not, Lucifer!
I'll burn my books!—ah, Mephistopheles!"

O lente, lente, currite, noctis equi is in fact a quotation from Ovid’s Amores, a first century BC book of love elegy. It is interesting to note the contrast in the situations in which this appeal to the horses of the night, pulling the chariot of time, to go slow is made. In Ovid the lover appeals to the horses to go slow so that he may get more time for dalliance with his mistress. In the case of Dr Faustus it is a fervent, desperate appeal to get a little more time before his sure death and damnation forever.

Obsession with death or the process of dying may be found in other writers also. One of the most well known pieces is John Donne’s poem For Whom the Bell Tolls. Though always considered as a poem by Donne, who was Dean of St Paul’s, this was actually a prose piece contained in his 1624 book Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, and Several Steps in My Sickness, written when he was bedridden at home because of a serious illness. Apart from its intrinsic merit, this achieved much international fame when Ernest Hemingway chose For Whom the Bell Tolls as the title of one of his immensely popular novels.

While lying in his bed Donne used to hear the funeral chimes of a nearby Church almost every day. Profound thoughts on the significance of that chime made his writing on it a memorable composition: Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
As well as if a promontory were,
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know
For whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.


More by :  P. Ravindran Nayar

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