‘Where have all the flowers gone?’ by American folk singer and political activist Pete Seeger is not just an arrestingly powerful protest song from the era of the Cold War and McCarthyism; it draws on a deep tradition of lament literature as old as the English language itself.
Seeger opens each verse of his song with one of a linked chain of ‘where-are-they?’ questions that trouble the listener; not only have all the flowers apparently vanished, but so have all the young women, all the young men, and all the soldiers – the whereabouts of each being a mystery to the singer, until the end of the song, where we learn that they’ve gone to graveyards, which in turn disappear, to be replaced once more by flowers ‘long time ago’.
Structurally then, Seeger’s song is patterned according to an age-old rhetorical device known by its Latin name as the ubi sunt motif. Meaning ‘where are they?’, repeated ubi sunt questions would be used in ancient literature to introduce lists of people long-since dead, or of places or material objects which have decayed away, or otherwise been lost to time. The device is at least as old as Cicero, who used it in a speech defending Cnaeus Placius, introducing a set of abstract virtues that he associated with the old Republic, but which he felt to be lacking in his own time: ‘Where are our old customs? Where is our equality of privileges? Where is that ancient liberty?’
In the Middle Ages the motif became extremely popular, after it entered the work of Boethius, the sixth-century philosopher and author of The Consolation of Philosophy. Once the motif was in Boethius, a hugely influential text for almost a thousand years, it went viral in European poetry of the Middle Ages in a multitude of languages and nations.
The poets of Anglo-Saxon England were particularly fond of this device, and used it in many of their poems, several of which have survived to us in manuscripts written just over a thousand years ago, in the language known as Old English. Perhaps the most well-known example occurs in the elegy known as The Wanderer. Because the poet is writing in Old English, not Latin, he writes hwær cwom (‘where has it/they gone?’) rather than ubi sunt, but the effect is the same:
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.
(‘Where has the horse gone? Where the rider? Where the treasure-giver? Where are the seats at the feast? Where are the joys of the hall? How that time has passed away, grown dark under the helmet of night, as if it never was.)’
The ubi sunt motif was an international one, a meme that jumped languages and cultures appearing in French and German literature, as well as in early English. This is not unlike Seeger’s own adoption of the question-format of his song; by his own admission he found the outline of the song, in its bare bones, in a Cossack folk song, quoted within a Russian novel he was reading by Mikhail Sholokhov. In borrowing, extending, and setting to music the basic questions of his source text (‘Where are the flowers? The girls have plucked them. Where are the girls? They’ve all taken husbands. Where are the men? They’re all in the army.’), Seeger composes in ways very similar to those which our earliest English poets would have understood. Our idea that compositions are the ‘original’ property of those who first came up with them is an entirely modern way of thinking, which would have bewildered Old English poets (who refer to their own work as if it were song) as much as it is an anathema to modern folk musicians, who freely adopt, adapt, borrow and steal words, tunes, even whole songs from each other. For Seeger to take the question-structure of his song from Cossack folk tradition is entirely in keeping with the Anglo-Saxon poets ‘lifting’ the idea of ubi sunt from Boethius.
Seeger’s ‘Where have all the flowers gone’, also needs to be seen in the context of apocalyptic fears: fears engendered by the Cold War, fears of nuclear apocalypse and about the loss of youth to a culture of militarism. We, like the people of Anglo-Saxon England, belong to a culture that is contemplating its own, whether that be through an unimaginable more, or (more recently) through the kind of climate catastrophe that might well prompt us to ask ‘where have all the flowers gone?’
This too is something else that Seeger and these earlier writers have in common. Whenever the ubi sunt motif is deployed it’s not really about the past; it’s about the future. Ostensibly what’s going on in these poems and lyrics concerns the relationship between the present and past: look at these people, places, objects or qualities that have only barely survived to the here and now, either only in name and vague reputation, or in physical ruins and fragments. But what’s actually going on is about the relationship between the present and the future. What if we disappear the same way they did? What will the world look like in the future and will we be a part of it? Will our achievements matter or be remembered?
It’s this unspoken, but crystal-clear, anticipatory anxiety that gives the ubi sunt its power over our imagination. It’s a power that charges Old English poetry to a super-high voltage, and it’s a power which over a thousand years later crackles through Seeger’s voice when he sings ‘where have all the graveyards gone?’ It’s a power that will, no doubt, continue to be voiced in poetry and song for as long as our culture lasts. After that time, who knows to whom it might fall to ask of us ‘where are they now?’