‘Swiftly see each moment flies,
See and learn be timely wise,
Every moment shortens day,
Every pulse beats life away,
Thus thy every heaving breath,
Waft thee on to certain death,
Seize the moments as they fly,
Know to live and learn to die.’
This quote that David Parr chose to put on his parlour wall seems to have been a popular verse of Victorian times. Earlier on in the 19th-century it was used as an inscription on decorative crockery, especially on lustreware produced in the northern potteries of Sunderland and Newcastle. These plates, plaques and jugs could be thought of as a more lasting equivalent of modern-day greeting cards, where a sentimental or thoughtful verse is printed for the receiver to ponder over. But such pieces were not just given to individuals as gifts…
This particular verse seems also to have been popular within Masonic circles, and several collections from various lodges contain jugs decorated with the inscription.
It was also found printed in various publications including a magazine dated 1827 called ‘The Christian Gleaner and Domestic Magazine’. This seems to have been aimed at those in domestic service and hoped to:
‘educate a certain class … Readers are multiplying in every class of society and it is of growing importance that each should be furnished with reading not only beneficial in its tendency, but adapted to their particular circumstances and sphere.’
The verse was clearly felt to be of suitable content for servants, along with other articles such as ‘Bad Effects of Sloth’, ‘How to Clean Decanters, Cruets and Bird Fountains’ and ‘A Hot Sunday Dinner That Keeps Nobody at Home’ (a hint to employers to allow their servants to go to church on Sundays).
With the verse being so much about the passing of time it is not surprising that it could also be found on watch and clock faces. Indeed, the earliest reference found from 1766 reports that these lines were ‘composed by a lady for a gentleman’s watch’.
Swiftly see each moment flies,
See, and learn! Be timely wise!
(Here I think the punctuation says quite a lot!)
A Shaker-designed clock with the verse inscribed on its face swaps around the words of the last line to read: ‘Learn to live and know to die’, whilst on another clock face the sentiment is further changed to read: ‘Learn to live – prepare to die’.