Saturday, February 15, 2014

On Time


“time, time,” said old king tut
“is something i ain’t got anything but.”
--archie the cockroach

            I have been reading a book about the Black Death; someone must, or such books will cease being written and the memory of the disaster will fade and fray, until there is only the thought of a grey or yellow death, or perhaps a pale peach death, with stripes, suitable for summer wear. In it, the author mentions a road in Italy where, on certain afternoons, Time can be seen thinking about itself. The image is arresting, and seems to confirm what I have often thought about Time. Not truly an abstraction, we have shaped it and made it a sort of greater cousin of ours, and it shows human tendencies, including a propensity for boredom and self-absorption.

            Consider what generations of observation have taught us. Time is often loath to move; it hangs heavy on the hands. It scorns courtesy; along with the tide, it waits for no man. Ralph Hodgson called it an old gypsy, which seems right enough. Gypsies know time well enough not to be over-awed by it and its pretensions to rule. The bells in a W.H. Auden poem whirr and chime in warning: “Oh, let not Time deceive you! You cannot conquer Time!”

            It has even been known to fly, though no one says whether it flies to or away from something. Perhaps there is a hint in the Latin: Tempus Fugits, wherein Time doesn’t fly but flees, a fugitive (though from what would Time flee? And does it carry us along in simple mercy, so we don’t see the face of what comes after it?) Leigh Hunt called it a thief. John Ford, who wore a melancholy hat, spoke of a man who shook hands with Time. Indeed, Time was very present in great Elizabeth’s day; Walter Raleigh spoke of her as a lady who had been surprised by Time (I doubt she shook Time’s hand, but perhaps she gave it her hand to kiss).

            Shakespeare has little patience with Time, offering in his sonnets to defeat it by the sheer power of his language. Thus, as the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations affirms, he calls it sluttish (Sonnet 17), thievish (Sonnet 77), and possessed of a fell hand (Sonnet 64). It is a cormorant (Love’s Labor Lost), injurious (Troilus and Cressida) and not only envious but prone to calumny (Sonnet 171). It is dangerous to waste it, for it may turn and waste in return (Richard II). Still, Shakespeare’s Time has it’s less fearsome side. It has a wallet (Troilus and Cressida) and a whirligig (Twelfth Night). It sets clocks (King John)  and, though out of joint (Hamlet), is like a fashionable host (Sonnet 165).

            The poets who have sighted Time have given us enough information about its possessions that we could write its will. (Surely it has not long to live? We know that it is twice as old as Petra, that rose-red city half as old as Time). It has horses, a winged chariot, a cave,  a wheel, a river, a trumpet, rags, corridors, whips, a fool, a eunuch, a tooth (and that a sharp one). No wonder Keats saw it aching; the Reverend Richard Jago described Time as having a leaden foot.

            Among the Victorians, Tennyson knew Time for a maniac scattering dust, but Disraeli thought him a good physician, and Gladstone said “Time is on our side.” The important question is, is it the maniac or the physician we have with us?

            Time is golden, bald and has a noiseless foot. He is a kind friend, a liar, and (oddly) a sandpile. He is a peddler, deals in dust. He will come and take  my love. Though he is said to be money, Shakespeare said he is broke, and he is sometimes threadbare. Bartlett’s index assures us that there is Time to be a saint, to be born, to be happy, to be old, to begin anew, to dance, to die, to hear bird music, to laugh, to mourn, to remember, to weep. There is time to serve and sin, to stand and to stare, to stop a revolution, to wallop and to stigmatize.
            Time must have an end.

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