No. Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change
Thy pyramids built up with newer might
To me are nothing novel, nothing strange;
They are but dressings of a former sight.
Our dates are brief, and therefore we admire
What thou dost foist upon us that is old,
And rather make them born to our desire,
Than think that we before have heard them told.
Thy registyers and thee I doth defy,
Not wondering at the present or the past;
For thy records, and what we see, doth lie,
Made more or less by thy continual haste.
This I do vow, and this shall ever be,
I will be true despite thy scythe and thee.
Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’ersways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower ?
O how shalol summer’s honey breath hold out,
Against the wreckful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so stout but time decays ?
O fearful meditation, where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid ?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back,
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid ?
O none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.
As it moves closer to the end of the year, time becomes a major theme. New Year and Old Year’s Night in the Western world always bring to picture the looming, fearful image of ‘Time’ as a gruesome cloaked and hooded mediaeval figure, faceless and skeletal, holding a scythe and threatening final doom. Indeed over the several centuries of human existence mankind has responded to time with fear, with worship, with awe or with glorification. And all of this has been duly sung and fabled in the literature.
Both Christmas and New Year have had close associations with time. Many ancient cultures, particularly in Europe – the Norse, the Saxon (Germanic) and, most notably, the Roman – have looked upon time as a thing of mystery, but as a thing of such power that it was worshipped. Evergreen plants, for example, were regarded as having some supernatural qualities because they remained green during the harshest of winters while all other plants withered to leafless skeletons against a white spectral landscape. They are associated with the rebirth celebrated at New Year and worshipped in festivals celebrated then. They were held sacred in the Roman Saturnalia and other festivals that featured in the ancient origins of Christmas. The celebration of the birth of Christ was actually a take-over of Saturnalia and other bacchanals.
These are at the core of the reasons why some evergreen vegetation is glorified at Christmas. The holly and the ivy are celebrated in song – in Christmas carols about the Holy Mary and Jesus, attributing some sacred life to the plants. The fir and many evergreen trees reign supreme at year-end and at Christmas, and grew in importance in the Middle Ages, giving rise to the Christmas tree as an important symbol of Christmas – important as a decoration, but with roots that are sacred and symbolic. Equal in significance has been the mythology that evolved around Christmas as much as the beliefs of the Christian religion. The Christmas tree has come to feature in both.
This has to do with time because of the way evergreen vegetation appears to defy time, or hold some special supernatural place in time’s cycle. It is not subject to the mutability brought on by time, and also because both Christmas and the New Year are associated with rebirth and rejuvenation. Ancient religions hail the change of year and the newness in the life cycle, while Christmas is a celebration of the new life given to mankind by the arrival of the Christ. His mission on earth, according to Christianity, was to save mankind from the ravages and doom of time (mortality).
Very famously there is a theme in the world’s most popular New Year song ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ a traditional ballad adapted by eighteenth century Scottish poet Robert Burns. The song invites a friend to a drink in a pub in honour of friendship and the memories of times past which have not eliminated friendship and kindness. Friends remember each other and the time spent together in spite of the “seas [that] have roared between us” – in spite of separation and the passage of time ‘we’ll take a cup of kindness’ for the sake of “auld lang syne.” It is worth repeating that millions who sing this at midnight on New Year’s Eve believe it is saying that “old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind” as a way of bringing a close to the old year. That seems a misinterpretation, given the evidence in the rest of Burns’ lyrics. It is not a wish: the question, “Should all acquaintance be forgot?” is rhetorical – the answer is “no.” On the contrary, the song celebrates remembrance.
This theme of time is taken up in Western mythology. Somewhat differently, in some traditional societies time is seen as cyclic – presiding over the passage from one stage and cycle of life into another, and is a regeneration. That is why rites of passage are so important to those who believe in ancestor worship. Rituals are performed to preside over births, naming (which admits babies into human society), and marriages. Western mythology tends to see time as final; as a somewhat destructive and terminating executioner armed with his scythe. The Greeks had the Fates, or Fate, one of three goddesses of destiny who playfully, randomly, (or maliciously?) spin the thread of life and then snap it horribly with a pair of scissors. Since then, one’s fate as always been seen as grim destiny.
All this has been unfathomably, infinitely explored and covered in literature. Jamaican poet Dennis Scott wrote one of the outstanding poems of West Indian literature, ‘Uncle Time’ in which the archetypal Old Father Time is personified in very Caribbean terms in a poem written in Creole. The protean subject of the poem is all at once an idle, ageless old man, a destructive reducer of both the landscape and humans with whom he comes into contact. He destroys women, turns men old and bitter, is an anansi trickster figure, cunning, but also cruel – “and when him touch yu, weep.”
Time is a very favourite theme, image, metaphor and symbol of the greatest poet of all time – William Shakespeare. Scores of his 154 sonnets are about time or make reference to it. Time is mostly personified, as is the case in myth. As exemplified in both samples reproduced above, Shakespeare defies time and its power to reduce, destroy or eliminate. The poet states that his poetry can immortalise, can make its subjects live forever “in black ink” in spite of what the sonnets very often say is the irresistible destructive power of time. The evidence of it is, we still read, make a fuss over, or curse as a colonial fossil, the ever powerful verses of Shakespeare, more than 400 years after they were written.