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Finis: strive for none but yourself

Walter Savage Landor’s short poem sounds both quote-like and obituary-like.

By Asad Mian |
PUBLISHED January 02, 2022

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife

Nature I loved and, next to Nature, Art

I warm’d both hands before the fire of life;

It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

The above is my favorite short poem. Written by Walter Savage Landor and called Finis, it is both quote-like and obituary-like. I have been inspired by it for much of my life because I find it to be clever in its brevity as it invites you to delve into its possible meanings.

How do I interpret it, you may ask? Good question! My answer would be that it really depends on when in my life you asked me (or will ask). Having probed Finis for 30 odd years, my interpretation has hopefully become more nuanced and evolved.

At face value, the pretentiousness, presumptuousness, arrogance, or narcissism - the sheer audacity - of that first line hits you in the face and gut. However, I encourage you to overcome that initial reaction of disgust or disdain.

I came across Finis three decades ago in ‘Of Human Bondage’ by Somerset Maugham. There is a literary genre called Bildungsroman – a term that comes from the German words Bildung (‘education’) and Roman (‘novel’). Books of this genre tell the story of the protagonist’s ‘coming of age’: psychological and moral growth of the individual from childhood to adulthood. Bildung itself is an intriguing German tradition of self-cultivation. As I wrote in a previous article for the T-magazine, it is a lifelong process in which mind and heart facilitate personal growth through self-reflection. The fact that Of Human Bondage belongs to the aforementioned genre comes as no surprise as the protagonist of the novel, Philip Carrey, undergoes self-development through tremendous experiential reflection. And therefore, Finis - from the Latin, meaning the end, or goal to reach - is well ensconced in the novel. 

If or when you read that beautiful classic from the English Literature, you realize that Finis is quite aptly quoted in the book. When I was 15 or 16 years of age, upon reading it in that novel, it all connected rather well. Relationships weren't something I was an expert at I suppose. Or perhaps, I was being too narrow in my conception of relationships merely being those that one may call romantic? I was in high school when I fell in love with Finis (and the novel of course). For me, that was a time of trials and tribulations. Societal acceptance at that age and stage of my life essentially boiled down to peer acceptability. The confounding nature of those human interactions, oscillating between full acceptance to outright rejection, at times within the same moment with those same highly valued peers of mine, was perhaps not unique to me. Irrespective of that, the first line of Finis, 'I strove with none, for none was worth my strife' made much sense as it reflected the teenager’s existential angst owing to more rejection than acceptance.

Fast forward 30 years – many, many human interactions and experiences later - I think what those lines are intending to say: "fully experience life, human interactions and relationships, but ultimately the strife is within - so strive for none but yourself". Hence it may be more about converging or focusing within your own ‘self’ (through experiential learning) versus anyone else. Another interpretation may be "focus within because the battles without are not worth it". It is possible that you have people (friends and family) for whom you may want to ‘strive for’; in the sense that you want to be close to them and be there when they need you most. I don’t think Finis’ first line is exclusionary from that perspective, but you may be more likely responding to your sense of responsibility (of taking care of home and hearth) versus personal development that is most likely to be a solo journey within. Yet another context may be that in order to strive for someone else, you should first be able to strive for yourself and understand what you want before you can reach out to others. Although it may seem a bit lonely to say that no one else would ever be worth the effort of striving for entirely, one may want to recall that there's a difference between loneliness and solitude. One can seek (and recharge through) solitude without necessarily being lonely.

To conclude, I believe that meaning can evolve (or it can be formulated de novo) as you learn to interpret literary text, and it’s probably different for different people because of their unique interests and experiences. I don't know if you've noticed that the interpretations that I'm offering in this essay are predominantly of the first line of my favorite poem. Just imagine how the rest of it may be interpreted, and that’s the beauty of poetry. In the final analysis, for a ‘creativist’, innovator, and intra/entrepreneur Finis takes on a special meaning. It reminds me to understand human nature, to appreciate human creativity, and last, but not least, to depend on none but myself for implementing my ideas without delay as life is short.

(The author is an ER physician-researcher, and author of 'An Itinerant Observer' (2014) and ‘MEDJACK: the extraordinary journey of an ordinary hack’ (2021). He would like to acknowledge Rayaan Mian for the e-conversation that led to this essay)