Featured Poem: Are They Shadows by Samuel Daniel

It’s always good to have something to look forward to in life. A light on the horizon to outshine the dull days, a landmark to travel towards; something of huge and overwhelming importance or just a little bit of loveliness. Wild and untamed anticipation of such things is part of the very essence of existence. Counting down to an event, mentally marking the days off as they pass, trying desperately to contain your excitement from boiling over – is there anything more satisfying? Of course that’s a contradiction in itself, given that the ultimate goal is still tantalisingly out of reach… there’s a lot to be said for the thrill of the chase.

But anticipation is a funny thing; in all its intoxicating headiness and inducing euphoria, it can often mislead and even make you miss what you were so fervently awaiting altogether. Perhaps it is a slight exaggeration to talk of post-occasion-depression following the conclusion of a long expected event but even when you’ve undeniably enjoyed whatever it was you’d waited in vain for, it’s almost certain that some element of deflation and melancholy will set in in the aftermath. Then the cycle begins again – needing to find another thing in the not-too-distant future to pencil into the diary, to feel and savour the addiction of anticipation, to play the waiting game once more. If it wasn’t such a universal phenomenon, I’d venture that the peculiar fondness for waiting for a thing to arrive has a lot to do with the unrivalled British ability to queue for outstanding amounts of time. Being accustomed to it is one thing, but having the process actually overshadow the eventual outcome is another thing altogether – and rather unfortunate.

Maybe the anti-climactic effect of some events arises due to the vastly disproportionate amount of time between expecting and experiencing. We can anticipate for days, weeks, even months and years and the feeling becomes almost tangible; on the other hand, many things awaited for come and go not quite within the blink of an eye but don’t last for all that long. The elusive, and indeed perhaps illusive, quality of events anticipated are emphasised by Samuel Daniel in this poem, whereby it is stated – after some questioning – that ‘pleasures only shadows be’. It seems appropriate to think of them as such, although somewhat semantically jarring as shadows are typically associated with the darker side of life. However the pleasures we do have flit and fade away relatively quickly and are made all the sweeter – or more appropriately bittersweet – for doing so. It’s unlikely we’ll ever completely learn to give up the chase so then we must continue to ‘feed apace’ our ‘greedy eyes’…

Are They Shadows

Are they shadows that we see?
And can shadows pleasure give?
Pleasures only shadows be
Cast by bodies we conceive
And are made the things we deem
In those figures which they seem.

But these pleasures vanish fast
Which by shadows are expressed;
Pleasures are not, if they last;
In their passing is their best.
Glory is most bright and gay
In a flash, and so away.

Feed apace then, greedy eyes,
On the wonder you behold;
Take it sudden as it flies,
Though you take it not to hold.
When your eyes have done their part,
Thought must length it in the heart.

Samuel Daniel (1562-1619)

6 thoughts on “Featured Poem: Are They Shadows by Samuel Daniel”

  1. Shadows are strange things depending on when you see one , in the summer sun can be GREAT fun trying to catch your shadow up and stamp onit , the same shadow in the evening is completly different , and seems to play at putting scary stories in your head ,

    NOT all people look forward to an event or holiday to get rid of the boredom of everyday of life , some people can be quite happy with their everyday so called hu m drum life as are content with everyday life , although others need a constant fix of excitement as are constantly looking for something not really attainable
    At a friends house the other night they asked if I was going on holiday , “NO WHY GO on holiday when I am happy where I am , I dont need to escape like other people and got everything here on merseyside , got the best dont bother with the rest ( I FORESEE A JOB WITH MERSEY TOURISM BREWING)
    Shadows are like thoughts in your head come and go constantly , never still , and try as you might you can’t make the shadows of your thoughts go away

  2. The word shadow gets me wondering. This is an irresistibly engaging poem. I’ll have time to think (and worry) about it on the weekend dog walks.

  3. Where amongst his work is this poem found? I first came upon it in Palgraves, and then poured through my 1965 ed. of “Poems and a Defence of Ryme” to no avail. Since then I’ve visually scanned through the google editions of the Works…still no luck. Does anyone know what part of Daniel’s work this poem comes from?

    1. Ask and ye shall find it yourself…it is from Thetys’ Festival, a masque presented in 1610…at least according to the book English Lyric Poetry, 1500-1700, ed. by Frederic Ives Carpenter.

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