Alms for Oblivion

When I posted the great St Crispian’s Day from Henry V a while ago, a colleague of mine mentioned another great speech from Shakespeare that I might like to share. This is froma much less familiar play, Troilus and Cressida, which interweaves a love story between the title characters, with an account of the siege of Troy. This speech, from Act III, finds Ulysses trying to persuade the legendary warrior Achilles, who is sulking in his tent, to enter the fray and help his struggling army.

What Ulysses says, in a nutshell, is that all of Achilles’ past deeds, great though they were, will soon be forgotten and count for nothing. All that matters is what he does now, so he should stop resting on his laurels, get off his backside and come to the aid of his comrades.

It’s an important message for those in any field, including academia, who try to trade on past glories without making a contribution at the present moment. Honour goes to those who persevere. In other words, do it now or push off…

Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back,
Wherein he puts alms for oblivion,
A great-sized monster of ingratitudes:
Those scraps are good deeds past; which are devour’d
As fast as they are made, forgot as soon
As done: perseverance, dear my lord,
Keeps honour bright: to have done is to hang
Quite out of fashion, like a rusty mail
In monumental mockery. Take the instant way;
For honour travels in a strait so narrow,
Where one but goes abreast: keep then the path;
For emulation hath a thousand sons
That one by one pursue: if you give way,
Or hedge aside from the direct forthright,
Like to an enter’d tide, they all rush by
And leave you hindmost;
Or like a gallant horse fall’n in first rank,
Lie there for pavement to the abject rear,
O’er-run and trampled on: then what they do in present,
Though less than yours in past, must o’ertop yours;
For time is like a fashionable host
That slightly shakes his parting guest by the hand,
And with his arms outstretch’d, as he would fly,
Grasps in the comer: welcome ever smiles,
And farewell goes out sighing. O, let not
virtue seek
Remuneration for the thing it was;
For beauty, wit,
High birth, vigour of bone, desert in service,
Love, friendship, charity, are subjects all
To envious and calumniating time.
One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,
That all with one consent praise new-born gawds,
Though they are made and moulded of things past,
And give to dust that is a little gilt
More laud than gilt o’er-dusted.
The present eye praises the present object.
Then marvel not, thou great and complete man,
That all the Greeks begin to worship Ajax;
Since things in motion sooner catch the eye
Than what not stirs. The cry went once on thee,
And still it might, and yet it may again,
If thou wouldst not entomb thyself alive
And case thy reputation in thy tent;
Whose glorious deeds, but in these fields of late,
Made emulous missions ‘mongst the gods themselves
And drave great Mars to faction.

3 Responses to “Alms for Oblivion”

  1. This reminds me a little of a quote from Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate in the 2012 Unites States’ presidential election. During the campaign (or perhaps the campaign for the Republican nomination), he used the words, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”

    That would be appropriate advice to some academics too.

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    This is inviting the usual Francis Urquhart response, but is there anybody you have in mind Peter?

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