Reading Time: 3 minutes
Time has long tormented humans and by extension our poets and thinkers (particularly as they aged). These passages, chosen from across the ages, are ones that have touched me. They deal with eternal themes regarding the “passage of time”, uncertainty around the “future”, the futility of time and in particular its ravages.
Shakespeare, Sonnet 19
This ravaging of and by time is palatable in Shakespeare’s work. In this Sonnet, the poet even personifies time, painting it as the great monster that has no favourites and devours all before it. This is of the Father Time tradition and sees us as powerless victims subject to the ravages of time.
Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws,
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws,
And burn the long-lived phoenix in her blood …
Horace – Odes 3.29
Horace also bemoans the fickleness of time and of life, urging the reader to “seize the day, put little trust in what is to come”. Rather than a message of pessimism, this is a message of possibility as the poet is suggesting that there is much living to be done today and much happiness to be found. He is also saying in this particular verse that no matter what, time holds no sway over his past endeavours and memories. And yet we know that time is not always so kind in that respect either.
Happy the man, and happy he alone,
He who can call today his own:
He who, secure within, can say,
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.
Be fair or foul or rain or shine
The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate, are mine.
Not Heaven itself upon the past has power,
But what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.
Robert Herrick, ‘To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time’
The Carpe Diem tradition is very much picked up by the poet who, looking back on his “lost youth”, pleads with the young not to make the same mistake and to “gather ye rosebuds while ye may”. And yet, whilst the poet aims his words at the young it is surely a wider call to get busy living a life that gives us purpose and joy.
Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.
That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.
Philip Larkin – Days
Larkin’s powerful poem deals with the seeming futility of the daily grind. In the poet’s view, life is but an endless sequence of days and it does raise the eternal question of purpose. Why do we do what we do?
What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.
William Blake – Auguries of Innocence
To William Blake’s mind it is not so much the amount of time we have but rather what we do with it. Each and every moment offers us possibility for living a moment that lasts a lifetime. This is about bringing all our senses to bear to each and every moment and savouring what life is offering us rather than striving for that moment to be somehow different.
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour