We knew not that we were to live (1462)
We knew not that we were to live –
Nor when – we are to die –
Our ignorance – our cuirass is –
We wear Mortality
As lightly as an Option Gown
Till asked to take it off –
By his intrusion, God is known –
It is the same with Life –
Ignorance is a “cuirass:” a breastplate usually cavalrymen wear. Nobility and mobility – “riding high” – are a defense of sorts. But a defense against what? We knew not that we were to live – Nor when – we are to die does seem awful, and we do tend to forget that our coming into the world doesn’t seem to have any particular necessity, to say nothing of death. But that very specific lack of knowledge about our coming into being and the date of our death can itself be characterized as ignorance.
Another outstanding curiosity: “that we were to live” is a different issue from “when” we are to live. Both, in turn, are entirely distinct from “when – we are to die.” The entire fact of life seems to be equated with the mere date of one’s death at this point in the poem.
Our speaker changes the imagery from warfare to sensuality (perhaps the cuirass is about the defense of the heart?). The theme of knowledge of death still informs our interpretation. My first instinct is to think “Option Gown” the same thing as “clothing optional,” except that “Mortality” is worn as “lightly” as it and God makes Himself known through his “intrusion” – at first glance, the end of our being, the shedding of this mortal coil.
I’m not sure how playful or cynical the poem is. For Biblical reasons one has to think that what we consider shameful – nakedness, sexuality – belong to a providential order. And unity with God emphasizing the vulnerability of death would be the sort of knowledge we get when armor fails. The armor was destined to fail as it was mere ignorance. The description of knowing here seems to involve a theme I commonly employ: “Isn’t there a lust for knowledge? Wouldn’t we say love of wisdom, in that case, was erotic?”
In any case, we know God through the “intrusion.” God could be the union of soul with the supernatural that ends mortality. But God’s intrusion might also be the possibility we don’t have to die. “God” here is a question of life and the afterlife. The poem began with the speaker wondering about the fact of life and when it ends. These are pre-life considerations. If God recasts sensuality in another light, then “Life” intruded on the armor of our not knowing the necessity or duration of our life. We created honor and even a sense of freedom from that ignorance. We were moved to think about what we truly wear – our mortality, our sensual being – which is the fact of choice. We only truly choose what we love.