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Ubi sunt

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Ubi sunt

In ictu oculi ("In the blink of an eye") a vanitas by Juan de Valdés Leal

Ubi sunt (literally "where are... [they]") 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.[1]

Sometimes interpreted to indicate nostalgia, the ubi sunt motif is actually a meditation on mortality and life's transience.

Ubi sunt is a phrase that begins several Latin medieval poems and occurs, for example, in the second stanza of the student song "De Brevitate Vitae", known from its incipit as "Gaudeamus Igitur": "Ubi sunt qui ante nos / In mundo fuere?", "Where are those who, before us, existed in the world?" 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? [2]


  • Examples 1
    • Other than English 1.1
    • English 1.2
      • Anglo-Saxon 1.2.1
      • Middle English 1.2.2
      • William Dunbar 1.2.3
      • Shakespeare 1.2.4
      • Where is Bohun? 1.2.5
      • 18th century 1.2.6
      • 19th century 1.2.7
      • 20th century 1.2.8
  • See also 2
  • References 3


Other than English

François Villon, woodcut image

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, Mais où sont les neiges d'antan? ("Where are the snows of yesteryear?"), a refrain taken up in the bitter and ironic Berthold Brecht/Kurt Weill "Nannas Lied",[3] expressing the short-term memory without regrets of a hard-bitten prostitute, in the following refrain:

Wo sind die Tränen von gestern abend?
Wo ist der Schnee vom vergangenen Jahr?[4]

Another famous medieval French writer, Rutebeuf, wrote a poem called Poèmes de l'infortune ("Poems of the misfortune" – or bad luck) which contains those verses:

Que sont mes amis devenus
Que j'avais de si près tenus
Et tant aimés ?

Roughly: "Where are my friends I used to embrace so close and loved so much". In the second half of the 20th century, the singer Léo Ferré made this poem famous by adding music. The song was called Pauvre Rutebeuf (Poor – or sad – Rutebeuf).

In "Jorge Manrique wrote equally famous stanzas about contemporaries that death had taken away:

¿Qué se fizo el rey don Juan?
Los infantes de Aragón
¿qué se ficieron?
¿Qué fue de tanto galán,
qué fue de tanta invención
como trujeron?
Las justas y los torneos,
paramentos, bordaduras
y cimeras,
¿fueron sino devaneos?
¿qué fueron sino verduras
de las eras?
What became of King Don Juan?
The Princes of Aragon,
What became of all of them?
What of so much handsome nobility?
And of all the many fads
They brought with them?
What of their jousts and tournaments,
Gilded ornaments, fancy embroideries
And feathered tops?
Was all of that meaningless waste?
Was it all anything else but a summer's green
on the fields?

(Translation: Simón Saad)

In medieval Persian poetry, 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.



A general feeling of ubi sunt radiates from the text of Beowulf. The Anglo-Saxons, at the point in their cultural evolution in which Beowulf was written, experienced an inescapable feeling of doom, symptomatic of ubi sunt yearning. By conquering the Romanized Britons, they were faced with massive stone works and elaborate Celtic designs that seemed to come from a lost era of glory (called the "work of giants" in The Ruin).

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[5] most exemplifies Ubi sunt poetry in its use of erotema (the rhetorical question):

In Anglo-Saxon, this passage – from lines 92–96 of the poem – reads as follows:

Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?
[...]Hu seo þrag gewat,
genap under nihthelm, swa heo no wære.

One modern English translation of this passage is given below:

Where is the horse gone? Where the rider? Where the giver of treasure?
Where are the seats at the feast? Where are the revels in the hall?
[...]How that time has passed away,
grown dark under cover of night, as if it had never been.[6]

Middle English

The 13th century poem "Ubi Sunt Qui Ante Nos Fuerunt" (Where are those who were before us?) is a Middle English example following the medieval tradition:[7]

Uuere beþ þey biforen vs weren,
Houndes ladden and hauekes beren
And hadden feld and wode?
Þe riche leuedies in hoere bour,
Þat wereden gold in hoere tressour
Wiþ hoere briȝtte rode; ...[8]

Which roughly translates to:

Where are those who were before us,
who led hounds and bore hawks,
And owned field and wood?
The rich ladies in their chambers,
Who wore gold in their hair,
With their bright faces; ...

William Dunbar

The Lament for the Makaris ("Lament for the poets", c. 1505) of the Scottish makar or poet William Dunbar consists of a general introductory section (quoted from below) followed by a list of dead Scots poets with the Latin refrain Timor mortis conturbat me ("the fear of death disturbs me") at the end of each of the 25 four-line stanzas:[9]

On to the ded gois all estatis,
Princis, prelotis, and potestatis,
Baith riche and pur of al degre;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He takis the knychtis in to feild,
Anarmit under helme and scheild;
Victour he is at all mellie;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

(Lament for the Makaris, Lines 17-24)


Hamlet and Horatio in the graveyard, by Eugène Delacroix.

Ubi sunt poetry also figures in some of Shakespeare's plays. When Hamlet finds skulls in the Graveyard (V. 1), these rhetorical questions appear:

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath bore me on his back a thousand times, and now how abhorr'd in my imagination it is! my gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kiss'd I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock your own grinning – quite chap-fall'n. Now get you to my lady's chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come; make her laugh at that.[10]

Where is Bohun?

In an often-quoted speech in a law case of 1625 over the Earldom of Oxford, the Lord Chief Justice Ranulph Crewe listed great noble dynasties of the English Middle Ages, extinct from the Wars of the Roses and other turmoils, and told the court:

"I have laboured to make a covenant with myself, that affection may not press upon judgment; for I suppose there is no man that hath any apprehension of gentry or nobleness, but his affection stands to the continuance of a house so illustrious, and would take hold of a twig or twine-thread to support it. And yet time hath his revolutions; there must be a period and an end to all temporal things—finis rerum—an end of names and dignities, and whatsoever is terrene; and why not of de Vere? Where is Bohun, where's Mowbray, where's Mortimer? Nay, which is more and most of all, where is Plantagenet? They are entombed in the urns and sepulchres of mortality. And yet let the name and dignity of De Vere stand so long as it pleaseth God."[11]

When the passage was quoted in the House of Lords in the 1970s, Charles Stourton, 26th Baron Mowbray (the barony having been revived in the meantime) loudly responded "Here's Mowbray", to great applause.[12]

18th century

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.[13]

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

19th century

In Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, Long John Silver recalls his previous pirate crew, and the imprudence which undid them:

"Why, how many tall ships, think ye, now, have I seen laid aboard? And how many brisk lads drying in the sun at Execution Dock?" cried Silver. "And all for this same hurry and hurry and hurry. You hear me? I seen a thing or two at sea, I have. If you would on'y lay your course, and a p'int to windward, you would ride in carriages, you would. But not you! I know you. You'll have your mouthful of rum tomorrow, and go hang." "Everybody knowed you was a kind of a chapling, John; but there's others as could hand and steer as well as you," said Israel. "They liked a bit o' fun, they did. They wasn't so high and dry, nohow, but took their fling, like jolly companions every one." "So?" says Silver. "Well, and where are they now? Pew was that sort, and he died a beggar-man. Flint was, and he died of rum at Savannah. Ah, they was a sweet crew, they was! On'y, where are they?"

20th century

The final verse of the Paul Simon song "Mrs. Robinson" uses the motif, asking, "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?" Simon's later explication of the song's meaning is consistent with the "ubi sunt" motif.[14]

The entire Don_McLean song "American Pie" is an "ubi sunt" for the 1950s rock and roll era.

J. R. R. Tolkien begins Aragorn's poem about Eorl (The Two Towers) with the phrase taken from the Anglo-Saxon Wanderer and continues with a series of Ubi sunt motifs.[15]

In Joseph Heller's 1961 novel Catch-22, the protagonist Yossarian laments the death of his friend Snowden, saying, "Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?"

Also, Martin Amis' The War Against Cliché mentions it in a contemplation of movie violence and Medved's polemic against Hollywood. He asks, "It is Ubi sunt? all over again. Where are they now, the great simplicities of yesterday?"

See also


  1. ^ See the examples in James W. Bright, "The 'ubi sunt' Formula" Modern Language Notes' 8.3 (March 1893:94).
  2. ^ Fulk, Robert Dennis; Christopher M. Cain; Rachel S. Anderson (2003). A History of Old English Literature. p. 57.  
  3. ^ Nanna's Lied, sung by Tiziana Sojat
  4. ^ "Where are last night's tears?
    Where is the snow of yesteryear?"
    More literally,
    "Where are those who were once so glad to be alive?" "Where are the tears of yesterday evening?
    Where is the snow of yesteryear?"
  5. ^ " : The Wanderer". Retrieved 2008-11-06. Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa? Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas? 
  6. ^
  7. ^ Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, Jon Stallworthy ed., The Norton Anthology of Poetry, Fourth Edition, W. W. Norton & Company, New York – London, 1996, p. 13, ISBN 0-393-96820-0
  8. ^ Carleton Brown, ed., English Lyrics of the XIIIth Century (Oxford: Clarendon, 1932), pp. 85–87
  9. ^ Lament for the MakarisFull text of
  10. ^ Shakespeare, William (1996-12-31). The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd Edition (2nd ed.). Heinle. p. 2057.  
  11. ^ [3]
  12. ^ [4]1066 And Rather More, by Huon Mallalieu, p. 3
  13. ^ Gaskill, Howard, ed. (1996). The Poems of Ossian and Related Works. Edinburgh University Press.  
  14. ^ "The Silent Superstar". The New York Times. 
  15. ^ "Song About Riders of Rohan". The Grey Havens. Retrieved 2013-06-14. 
  • Garde, Judith N. (1991). Old English Poetry in Medieval Christian Perspective. p. 191.  
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