Examples of Motif in Literature

Motif, in essence, is a recurring element, whether a concept, a phrase, an image, an object, an event, or a situation. This element can reappear within a single work, but also across many works written by one or numerous different authors (not always consciously imitating each other). Modern scholars tend to distinguish these two meanings of the word “motif” in literary studies by labeling the recurrence of elements in a single work with the German word leitmotif (“leading motif”)—borrowed from early analyses of the music of Wagner—and by referring to the repetition of concepts and themes across literary works with the rather old term topos (pl. topoi; “(common) place”)—borrowed from ancient rhetoric. So that you can understand better this distinction, below we provide examples of both topoi and leitmotifs, i.e., the two different types of motifs.

Across Many Works (Topoi)

Example #1: Ubi Sunt

“Ubi sunt” is Latin for “where are… [they]?” and it is one of the oldest and most pervasive motifs in world literature. It is a melancholic comment on the transience of life, usually made through a series of rhetorical questions concerning the fate of the most exemplary people of the past, be they the bravest, the wealthiest, or the most beautiful. Sometimes, ubi sunt can also take the form of a nostalgic yearning for “the good ol’ days;” in this case, the mood it tries to convey approximates the one captured by the numerous variations of another widespread motif: the “golden age” motif.

The Bible

You can find one of the earliest appearances of the ubi sunt motif in the Book of Baruch (33:16-19), a deuterocanonical book of the Bible (meaning: it is considered to be part of the Bible only by Catholics and Orthodox Christians). In fact, the expression ubi sunt is derived from the Latin translation of the first two words of this passage:

Where are the rulers of the nations, and those who lorded it over the animals on earth; those who made sport of the birds of the air, and who hoarded up silver and gold in which people trust, and there is no end to their getting; those who schemed to get silver, and were anxious, but there is no trace of their works? They have vanished and gone down to Hades, and others have arisen in their place.

Medieval Poetry

Medieval poets attempted to bring to mind this feeling of fleetingness pretty often, and you can find the same motif expressed in numerous poems written in many different languages during this period of time. Thus, the Old English poem Wanderer asks “Where is the horse gone? Where the rider? Where the giver of treasure?/ Where are the seats at the feast? Where are the revels in the hall?” and 13th-century French trouvère Rutebeuf sings “What has become of my friends/ That I had held so close/ And loved so much?”

One of the most famous evocations of the ubi sunt motif can be found in another French poet of the Middle Ages, the notorious François Villon. In his “Ballade of the Ladies of Times Past,” he sings that all the most beautiful maidens in history have disappeared just like last year’s snows. The poem contains perhaps the most imitated and alluded-to refrain of this kind: “Where are the snows of yesteryear?”

On a more positive note, the well-known academic commercium song “Gaudeamus igitur” contains the verses “Where are those who trod this globe/ In the years before us?” but only so as to inspire those who listen to seize the day, which is another prominent literary topos sometimes associated with the ubi sunt: the carpe diem motif. But we’ll get back to it later.

Renaissance and Romanticism

Shakespeare revisits the ubi sunt motif in the “Alas, poor Yorick” speech given by Hamlet in the fifth act of his most celebrated play, as does James Macpherson in his pseudo-translations of Ossian, Fragments of Ancient Poetry: “Where is Fingal the King? where is Oscur, my son? where are all my race?”

From the Romantic period come two more personalized and, thus, more devastating manifestations of the ubi sunt motif. The first one can be found in Goethe’s “Dedication” to Faust, in which he bemoans the fact that the people he wrote his poems for can no longer read them:

They hear no longer these succeeding measures,
The souls, to whom my earliest songs I sang:
Dispersed the friendly troop, with all its pleasures,
And still, alas! the echoes first that rang!

The second example comes from Charles Lamb’s brief poem “The Old Familiar Faces” which opens with this heart-rending tercet:

I have had playmates, I have had companions,
In my days of childhood, in my joyful school-days,
All, all are gone, the old familiar faces.

We can list many more examples, but we guess the above should suffice. As you can see, all of the works quoted here essentially say the same depressing thing—namely that life ends and that even the most remarkable among us will eventually die. Because of this, they can all be considered variations of the same theme, in this case labeled the ubi sunt motif.

Example #2: Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

Ars longa, vita brevis is another Latin phrase which is used as a common designation for a recurring theme in literature. Meaning “art is long, life is short,” this motif is essentially the optimistic other side of the ubi sunt coin. It says that even though our time on earth is short, and our beauty, bravery and wealth mean little when death arrives, our artistic creations remain long after we’re gone and can outlive us by centuries; death may conquer life, but art triumphs over death. The phrase is most frequently used with reference to the timelessness of the written word, or more particularly, poetry.

Ancient Rome

Interestingly enough, the antithetical phrase “ars longa, vita brevis” is a misinterpretation of an aphorism by the Father of Medicine, Hippocrates, who actually says (as translated by Chaucer): “the life so short, the craft so long to learn.” It is in this manner that Seneca quotes him in On the Shortness of Life from where the Latin phrase originates. However, the word “ars,” which originally meant “craft” or “technique,” in time came to mean “the fine arts,” which inspired many poets to reinterpret this initially pessimistic quote into the much more hopeful idea that art outlasts its creator.

The most celebrated ancient meditation upon this ars longa motif is the final poem of the third book of the Odes by Horace, in which the poet confidently—and correctly—predicts that, through his poetry, he has built himself a monument as enduring as time itself (tr. Sidney Alexander):

I have erected a monument more durable than bronze,
loftier than the regal pile of pyramids
that cannot be destroyed either by
corroding rains or the tempestuous North wind
or the endless passage of the years
or the flight of centuries. Not all of me
shall die. A great part of me shall escape
Libitina, Goddess of Death.

William Shakespeare

If that first line from Horace above rings any bells, it is because you’ve probably already read it rephrased into English by none other than Shakespeare in his Sonnet 55: “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments/ Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme.” However, as he informs us in the second stanza of the same sonnet, Shakespeare is interested in the timelessness of poetry not because of his own fame, but because of the beauty of his lover:

When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.

Shakespeare restates these feelings several times, most famously in the closing couplet of Sonnet 18, which, referring to itself, claims that:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Romanticism

Far from being the only one, Shakespeare is merely one of the hundreds and hundreds of poets who adapted Horace’s ode and generated their own variation of the ars longa motif. Alexander Pushkin directly imitates Horace in “Exegi momentum,” and both Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and Shelley’s “Ozymandias” comment upon the timelessness of art in connection with the brevity of life—though in a much less confident manner. One of the most popular Romantic poems which uses this motif is certainly Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life” which, among others, contains these verses:

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

Example #3: Carpe diem

Of course, in addition to producing artistic creations which may outlast you, there’s another way for you to confront the brevity of life; and that is by living it to the full. Made famous by the 1989 movie, Dead Poets Society, this motif is most succinctly referred to as the “carpe diem” motif, which is Latin for “seize the day” and which, once again, comes from Horace (I.11): “Even as we speak, envious Time is fleeing./ Seize the day: entrusting as little as possible to tomorrow.” Horace himself has written quite a few verses expressing this very same feeling, and who knows how many poems written after him are no more than variations of this motif! Here are just a few.

Pierre de Ronsard, “Sonnet to Helen” (II.43)

Pierre de Ronsard was the first French poet to be called “a prince of poets,” and it is only because he wrote in French that he is not that famous in the English-speaking world. Few of his poems have, nevertheless, reached a wide audience. Famously adapted by W. B. Yeats under the title “When You Are Old,” the most famous of Ronsard’s numerous “Sonnets to Helen” is undoubtedly one of the most memorable expressions of the carpe diem motif in any language. In it, Ronsard warns Helene that one day he will be dead and she just an old crone, sitting by the fireside and regretting the fact that she had once scorned the advances of one who loved her and thought her beautiful; however, the poet doesn’t want Helene to recognize this as a reason for concern, but as an invitation to enjoy the pleasures of life (tr. Humbert Wolfe):

And since what comes to-morrow who can say?
Live, pluck the roses of the world to-day.

Robert Herrick, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time”

Writing a century after Ronsard, English Cavalier poet Robert Herrick voices the very same opinion in the 208th poem of his lifework, the collection of verses, Hesperides, with language which obviously echoes his French predecessor:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
To-morrow will be dying.

Andrew Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress”

In the last stanza of Herrick’s carpe diem masterpiece, the poet urges the virgins to “be not coy, but use [their] time” while they still can. Written probably just a year after “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” was published, “To His Coy Mistress,” Andrew Marvell’s most famous love-song, is merely a modification of this advice, in this case, addressed to one particular lady.

In the first stanza of the poem, Marvell explains to this shy maiden that if they had “but world enough, and time,” he would have courted her for millennia, praising her eyes for at least a century and adoring each of her breasts for twice that time. However—he goes on in the second stanza—he can always hear “Time’s wingèd chariot” behind him, making him fully aware that, before too long, his lust will turn into ashes, and his beloved’s “long preserved virginity” will be tried by worms.

And if that is the case—Marvell finally gets to the point in the third stanza—then why all the coyness? “Let us sport us while we may,” the poet urges his beloved, “and tear our pleasures with rough strife/ Through the iron gates of life.” That way the two will have nothing to regret when they die because they’ve made the most of their lives:

Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

In a Single Work (Leitmotifs)

Example #1: William Shakespeare, Macbeth (1606)

Back in the time when there were no computers and Ctrl+F shortcuts, an English literary critic by the name of Caroline Spurgeon managed to diligently index every single image and metaphor in all of Shakespeare’s plays.

“It is a curious thing,” she notes at the beginning of Chapter XV of her pioneer study Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us, “that the part played by recurrent images in raising, developing, sustaining and repeating emotion in [Shakespeare’s] tragedies has not, so far as I know, ever yet been noticed. It is a part somewhat analogous to the action of a recurrent theme or ‘motif’ in a musical fugue or sonata, or in one of Wagner’s operas.” And then she proceeds to trace “the recurring images which serve as ‘motifs’” in each of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, after having done the same with his histories, comedies, and romances in the previous three chapters.

Spurgeon singles out Macbeth’s imagery as “more rich and varied, more highly imaginative, more unapproachable… than that of any other single play.” However, among the several motifs she registers, one seems to stand out—that of Macbeth’s ill-fitting garments. Shakespeare makes recurrent allusions to this humiliating image of “a notably small man enveloped in a coat far too big for him.” First, it is Macbeth who brings attention to it, after he is named the Thane of Cawdor in the third scene of the first act (I.3.108-9):

The Thane of Cawdor lives: why do you dress me
In borrow’d robes?

Just a few moments later (I.3.144-6), Banquo explicitly calls it to mind by claiming of Macbeth that:

New honours come upon him,
Like our strange garments, cleave not to their mould
But with the aid of use.

And when Lady Macbeth later scolds her husband for his hesitation in relation to the murder of King Duncan, she admonishes him with these words (I.7.36-7): “Was the hope drunk/ wherein you dress’d yourself?” Macduff also resorts to clothing imagery in an ironic comment on Macbeth becoming the new king just as he sends Ross to the coronation in Scone (II.4.37-8): “Well, may you see things well done there: adieu!/ Lest our old robes sit easier than our new!”

Shakespeare returns to this same motif twice more in the second scene of the fifth act when, first, Caithness describes the already shaken Macbeth as someone who “cannot buckle his distemper’d cause/ within the belt of his rule” (V.2.15) and, furthermore, when Angus, just a few verses later (V.2.20) “sums up the essence” of Macbeth:

now does he feel his title
Hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe
Upon a dwarfish thief.

The motif of Macbeth’s “ill-fitting garments” is probably not something one is capable of noticing at first or even third reading; however, as Spurgeon demonstrated, it was always there in the verses, appearing over and over again across the play, so as to serve as a sort of a soundtrack for its main protagonist; just like a Wagnerian leitmotif.

Example #2: William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929)

William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is one of the indisputable masterpieces of 20th-century modernist literature (though Wyndham Lewis and Vladimir Nabokov would probably disagree). Similarly to a few other books which share comparable reputation—think Proust’s In Search of Lost Time—Faulkner’s novel deals prominently with the topic of subjective vs. objective time. Faulkner uses several motifs masterfully, not only so as to periodically suggest and hint at the theme (mainly that of arrested development), but also so as to provide some unity to his highly experimental work.

And this is especially evident by Faulkner’s prominent use of motifs in the first two parts of his work, which are narrated, respectively, by the intellectually disabled Benjamin “Benjy” Compson (who acts as if he is 3 even though he is 33 years old) and the depressed and deteriorated Quentin on the day of his suicide. Since both of these parts are presented in a stream of consciousness fashion, it can be difficult for the reader to make out the chronology of the described events or detect any intelligible storyline. However, by saturating Benjy’s and Quentin’s accounts with sporadically reappearing motifs, Faulkner successfully compensates for this lack of narrative clarity, transforming the first half of his novel into a sort of a lyrical exposé, rich with refrains and repetitions.

Think of these Faulknerian leitmotifs as conspicuous cues planted in the text so as to remind the reader from time to time that it is still the same story he’s trying to get to the bottom of, even though occasionally it may not seem like that. To understand this better, just consider how the word “caddie”—often uttered at the golf course—reminds Benjy of his favorite sibling’s name and stirs his mind into a whirlwind of unrelated associations of his sister Caddy. The word “caddie” itself doesn’t stand for anything here, i.e., it is not a symbol; it is merely a cue for a stream of connotations, a motif Faulkner spins out into something more important for the overall theme: the brothers’ relationship with Caddy.

Another thing that Benjy is passionate about is fire. It is an image he is fascinated and calmed by, and it often comes to his mind for no apparent reason whatsoever. A few examples should suffice: “I liked to smell Versh’s house. There was a fire in it…;” “There was a fire in the house, rising and falling…;” He was just looking at the fire, Caddy said… The fire-motif here works the same way choruses work in songs: reemerging from time to time to create a lyrical pattern. It is difficult to say whether the fire is meant to represent something: to Benjy, it is probably a friendly element and, just like caddies, it seems to have some kind of a warm connection to Caddy.

However, the fire-motif is infused with other meanings when it reappears in the second part as in this meditation by Quentin:

If it could just be a hell beyond that: the clean flame the two of us more than dead. Then you will have only me then only me then the two of us amid the pointing and the horror beyond the clean flame.

In Dante’s Purgatorio, poets are purified by passing through a wall of fire; it is what Dante has to do in order to see Beatrice. However, Quentin’s love for his sister seems something beyond purification, which is why he associates fire with both “clean flames” and “hell” at the same time: on the other side of the “clean flame” there is no Paradise, but “pointing and horror.” The phrase amid the pointing and the horror beyond the clean flame reappears four times in Quentin’s musings, thus becoming a sort of a sub-motif which always recalls and points to something more than what the phrase itself contains.

It is difficult to say here more without getting into unnecessary details with regards to our keyword, but, if you are interested, an excellent place to go on with your research is Sartre’s exceptional essay “Time in the Work of Faulkner”: large parts of it treat some of Faulkner’s time-related motifs, mostly in Quentin’s part (reference).

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