Vol. XLI No. 10 — October 1963

The Days of Wine and Roses

Conrad Hahn

In August 1962 this phrase has been on everyone’s lips because of its use as the title of a motion picture and of a popular song. The former became successful entertainment because it was widely regarded as a sensational treatment of the problem of alcoholism. The latter has become a juke-box favorite because it is a sentimental love song that suits the popular tastes of the day.

Yet, as so frequently happens when Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley lay profitable hands on an artistic theme, it has been distorted so badly from its original meaning as to be almost unrecognizable.

“The days of wine and roses” is a phrase from a short poem by Ernest Dowson, an English writer of the Victorian era. He used the expression as a symbol of man’s transitory existence in this life and hinted at an immortality that encompasses an existence before and after death.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.

Obviously in such a context the poet is not dealing with the problems of the compulsive drinker nor with the sighs of a youthful lover who craves erotic fulfillment.

The poet is dealing with the brevity of human life. His image achieves the same large point of view that Shakespeare pictorialized in many of his sonorous pentameters, like “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns.” It recalls the vivid image created by the poet Shelley:

Life, like a dome of many-colored glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments.

Ernest Dowson would probably be saddened to learn of the interpretations that modern entertainers have derived from his symbols, “the days of wine and roses.” He used them to denote some universal characteristics of human life: refreshment, or sustenance, and beauty.

As such they also suggest the duality of human needs and satisfactions, the material, or physical, and the spiritual. To Masons the concept of wine as a source of refreshment or sustenance is perfectly natural and obvious. The rose as a symbol of the spiritual is equally à propos.

But if any further clarification of the poet’s symbolism is necessary, the first stanza of his little poem provides it:

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.

Human emotions are contrasted, to be sure, but only to suggest the transitoriness of all that makes us finite human beings. Here is no morbid concern with aberration or agony. Here is only a calm, if somewhat sad contemplation of life as an interlude in the eternity of non-awareness that we call death.

A similar although less startling “corruption” has overtaken a famous seventeenth century phrase, “for whom the bell tolls.” The popularization of this expression, in Hemingway’s modern novel of that name and in Hollywood’s dramatization of that tale, with Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper in the leading roles, has made that phrase a common symbol for death.

Yet the Reverend John Donne, who wrote that phrase in a poem more than three hundred years ago, probably considered the two words that preceded it the key idea for his image: “Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee and me.”

The Reverend Donne was trying to emphasize the inter-relatedness of all human lives — a companion idea to the Masonic concept of a universal Brotherhood of Man. In comparing the death of an individual with the washing away of a piece of the continent of Europe, the poet revealed his concern for the living rather than with the funereal trappings that accompany the death of one whom we have known.

"Ask not for whom the bell tolls” suggests a considerably different idea from the statement, “The church bell is tolling. Who died?”

Masonic ideas have not escaped such distortions or “sea changes,” especially as they became more widely dispersed over the face of the earth or when they were “popularized” by Masonic writers and speakers.

The term “Speculative Freemasonry” itself suggests a tremendous change in the purposes and organization of a society that had originally been a craft association to protect and to regulate the wages, working conditions, and qualifications of a particular class of artisans, the stonemasons of the builders’ art. In becoming a school of moral philosophy, Freemasonry inevitably attracted to itself a great many additional rites and orders that also aimed at instructing their initiates in moral philosophy and ethical ideals.

This is not the place to trace the history of the Masonic idea of landmarks; but few subjects have created more discussion in the Fraternity than “the Ancient Landmarks.” A century ago Masonic thinkers tried to define and to enumerate them with finality. Dr. Albert Gallatin Mackey particularized the landmarks so minutely and so exclusively that his definitions were bound to arouse objections and dissent. Today, those who seriously try to discuss the landmarks are generally content to limit themselves to the universal tenets of the institution and its one dogma concerning the existence of a Supreme Being.

A Speculative Mason cannot understand “the Ancient Landmarks” without a thorough knowledge and a deep understanding of the Ancient Charges of a Freemason. They express the universal modes of conduct that must characterize those men who would be builders, whether they build with stone or with their spirits.

Yet there are members of the Craft today who argue with determination that our modern lodges need nothing more to govern themselves Masonically than the by-laws of their lodges and the rules and regulations of the grand lodge.

But is this not twisting the theme of Freemasonry’s “days of wine and roses” into something less than the Fraternity has always tried to represent? If the Ancient Charges are “useless” for a modern Craft, may it not be due to a desire to popularize the Fraternity into a purely social club or a political action society? The Ancient Charges came to us out of “a misty dream” of legendary history, but they are "the days of wine and roses” which give the Craft its distinctive purpose for existence.

Another Masonic idea that is sometimes twisted into new and ephemeral meanings is the concept of “lawful age” for initiates. To a purely legalistic mind, lawful age can sometimes be defined as the age at which a man is entitled to vote. But that results from a purely political definition of lawful age, which in Freemasonry has always been defined as "the age of maturity.” To the philosophic mind there is serious doubt that character and moral determination are maturing at an earlier age than twenty-one. The uncertainties of modern existence and the overwhelming materialism of the most popular philosophies of life are retarding the serious development of men’s moral and ethical understanding.

But the real question involved in a discussion of “lawful age” should be the one that lays bare the motives that underlie the proposal to lower the age for initiates. Freemasonry will never prosper if it changes its fundamental practices for negative reasons. Fear of declining membership is an unworthy motive for lowering the age for initiation. Freemasonry’s concern should never be about mere numbers. It must always be, first and foremost, about the moral and spiritual qualities of each individual who seeks its beneficent Light and inspiration. Otherwise, its real existence, its “days of wine and roses,” may experience a popularization that can only lead to debasement.

Similarly, the modification of “the unanimous ballot” suggested by many members of the Craft reveals a desire to solve one problem by creating another, without facing squarely the real problem involved. If members are casting blackballs for unworthy reasons, the real problem is to make worthy brothers out of men who were not really worthy when they were admitted.

How did they get in? How can they be helped to rise to the moral and spiritual level that a unanimous ballot requires of every brother?

To permit two or three blackballs to circumvent the negative ballot of such an unworthy member leads logically to election by a simple majority, because the power of a small clique or faction has been acknowledged. A small faction whose power has been acknowledged will naturally grow and acquire greater power, until the lodge is rent by factionalism. Such a spirit destroys the peace and harmony that must prevail, if true Masonic labors are to be pursued.

Freemasonry exists for individuals. It works on individuals. It believes in individuals. When the Fraternity loses its faith in the individual, it tends to manipulate numbers or masses to achieve temporary solutions for ephemeral problems.

But that is corrupting its “days of wine and roses” — its philosophy of existence — into something new and different, into something less effective for its universal and timeless objectives.

“They are not long, the days of wine and roses,” — but Freemasonry’s days are longer than those of any individual member, of any single grand lodge, of any particular era in history. To “popularize” its practices and objectives may produce some temporary “successes,” but it may also destroy its “days of wine and roses” long before it has a chance to penetrate the “misty dream” to which its path is leading.

The Masonic Service Association of North America