A Morbid Theory of Time
2013 has almost come to its end, and a new year is approaching rapidly. How time flies, people sigh. Because that is what time does: it lapses, it passes, it soars over our heads in the blink of an eye, cackling maliciously in the process. Sometimes it bears uncanny similarities to a lazy tortoise. Nevertheless, Einstein would remind us impatiently that time is a relative concept, so a) real time does not exist and b) if it did, it would not have the capability to cackle. However, while for Einstein time was simply a factor conditioned by gravity and speed, many poets treat time with a mix of reverence and hate. In his sonnet “Mutability”, Wordsworth highlights that attitude in the last line, where he speaks of “the unimaginable touch of Time”.
Indeed, there is something elusive about time. I think we can safely say that time is weird. Now it decides to rush, then it creeps with sluggish slowness: it seems to have a will of its own. The human qualities of time have been explored in many stories: the Greek personification of time is Kronos, a destructive Titan god; a somewhat more friendly image is the character of Father Time. This act of personification is an indication of our considering time as being a tremendously significant factor in our lives – more so than describing it as an abstract entity. Yet Shakespeare takes it one step further. We are probably all familiar with his famous apostrophe, “Devouring Time, blunt thy the lion’s paws” of Sonnet 19 (l.1 ). This poem acknowledges the substantial power of Time, who is stronger than seemingly invincible creatures. Moreover, by using the epithet “swift-footed” time some lines on, Shakespeare compares Time to a mythical hero – “swift-footed” was the epithet Homer frequently used for Achilles in his Iliad. Shakespeare is not the only poet to depict Time as a person. For example, John Milton portrays Time as a cunning kleptomaniac: “How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth, / Stolen on his wing my three and twentieth year!”, the afflicted speaker exclaims in his sonnet (l. 1-2, Sonnet 7). The Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelly, too, reproaches time, when he compares the “unfathomable Sea” to an “Ocean of Time, whose waters of deep woe/ Are brackish with the salt of human tears!” (Time, l.1-3).
An even more negative attitude towards time is its association with death and decay. Shakespeare, who felt the need to express his vexation about the passing of time more than once, speaks of “wasteful Time” allied with Decay (Sonnet 15, l.11). Pirates, as often as flashing the notorious skull and crossbones (cheerfully called “Jolly Roger”), would hoist a flag depicting an hourglass, when approaching a shipful of victims. Sometimes Time and Death are united in one character, and Time wields the decisive weapon against men: “And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defense”, Shakespeare alarmingly states in Sonnet 12 (l.13). He reveals that Time has access to a range of instruments that are connected with death and mortality, as he holds his “fickle glass¹, his sickle, hour² (Sonnet 126, l.2). We can do nothing to prevent that “rosy lips and cheeks/ Within his bending sickle’s compass come” (Sonnet 116, l…): with time, everything weakens to eventually pass away – beauty being no exception. Interestingly, the Urban Dictionary describes Father Time as “the more friendly version of the Grim Reaper”, a milder view which nevertheless serves as an example that Time reminds of the transitory aspects of life, and so, eventually, of death.
In short, it seems that poets consider Time as being to a high degree responsible for human suffering. When this does not appear from a melancholic or nostalgic tone, it is visible in a rebellious attitude. Even if time is not personified explicitly, it remains an active force that we humans have to fight. Again Shakespeare, in his Sonnet 123, adopts a challenging attitude to Time, when he claims that he will not change, and boasts: “Thy registers and thee I both defy” (l.9). In fact, it is not just poetic geniuses who approach time as something to fight, or indeed as something more than an abstract concept: in everyday life this attitude resounds in expressions such as “to take time by the forelock”. Even the most prosaic individual will at times show poetic hostility when they are waiting and “killing time”. Roles are reversed again in the ominously sounding “deadlines” (those of essays in particular can haunt the dreams of an exasperated student). The courageous amongst us simply “fritter away time” like mushy peas.
Time has everything to do with perception. Whereas Shakespeare’s attempt to defy Time with ink and paper in his sequence of sonnets may appear to be a bit lame, he does have a point. In a way, fiction is a medium that can control time. However, it is not really in the preservation of a work of fiction, as in the experience of reading that we can achieve that. Paper crumbles, ink fades, but it is with the techniques of narration itself that an author can manipulate a reader’s perception of time. Through the adaption of narrative pace, an observation that in real life takes a second can seem to go on for ages, whereas the description of a year can require no more than a minute to read. Authors play with the chronology of a story as they flash backwards and forwards through a story, unrestrained by such trifling matters as scythes and hourglasses.
Whether it is in everyday-life expressions or in apostrophes of elevated style, humans have to somehow express their struggle with the concept of time. We are, after all, the most manipulative creatures on this planet. We feel the need, and perhaps even the right, to be in control of our days on earth. Einstein may have seemed to grasp the idea of time, but the average human does not. In the past, men captured time in hourglasses; seconds became more or less palpable in the shape of sand grains. Time was governed by terrifying gods and one could only pray for an extra grain or two. Through the ages, poets, by lending a personality to time, make it comprehensible, and as a figure easier to blame and fight. Quite recently, scientists have discovered the exact definition of time – yet we still have problems meeting our deadlines. Time machines, unfortunately, do not exist as of yet. But in our language we can try to make what Wordsworth calls “unimaginable” manageable.
By Maj Hansen
1. i.e. a mirror
2. i.e. an hourglass
Bysshe Shelly, P.”Time” (accessed through: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174408)
Milton, J. “Sonnet 7” (accessed through http://www.poetry-foundation. org/poem/174010)
Shakespeare, W. “Sonnets 12, 15, 19, 116, 126” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. B New York: Norton, 2012
Shakespeare, W. “Sonnet 123” (accessed through: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/245764)
Wordsworth, W.“Mutability” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. D. New York: Norton, 2012.