Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Time has been a perennial theme of poetry, whether it’s the passing of time, the ravages of time, the symbolism of a ticking (or stopped) clock, or some deeper meditation on the nature of time. Below, we’ve selected ten of the very best poems on the theme of time. We hope you enjoy reading them, should you have time…
1. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 19.
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 …
So begins the sonnet which follows the far more famous ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ in Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence, which is also about a young man or ‘Fair Youth’. Shakespeare considers how time (or ‘Time’) destroys both the mighty and the mild, the strong and the gentle.
Shakespeare begins Sonnet 19 by considering how time (personified as Time, as in several of the earlier Sonnets) destroys both the mighty and the mild, the strong and the gentle: the lion’s paws are blunted by time, as are the tiger’s jaws, and the earth which gives life to every living thing ends up devouring every creature (because we and other land animals end up in the ground, rotting into the earth).
Shakespeare tells Time to do as it wants – but he urges it not to commit one particularly ‘heinous crime’: Shakespeare asks Time to refrain from carving the Fair Youth’s brow with its ‘hours’: i.e. not to let the young man’s youthful features give way to wrinkles and other signs of age. But then there comes a twist in the poem’s final couplet …
2. Robert Herrick, ‘To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time’.
The seventeenth century was the age of the carpe diem poem, where poets implored young people to make the most of time, before time made dead bodies of them. This poem from Robert Herrick (1591-1674) is one of the best examples of such a poem about fickle time:
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 …
Don’t tarry or waste time: you get just one life, so grasp the nettle and make the most of it. In his poem ‘To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time’ – often known by that ‘Gather ye rosebuds’ first line – Robert Herrick brilliantly captures the ‘seize the day’ sentiment.
Click on the link above to read the whole poem, and to learn more about it.
3. Emily Dickinson, ‘A Clock Stopped’.
A Clock stopped –
Not the Mantel’s –
Geneva’s farthest skill
Can’t put the puppet bowing –
That just now dangled still …
Emily Dickinson begins ‘A Clock stopped’ with that very simple line: ‘A Clock stopped’. There is no neat to-and-fro that one gets with a line of, say, iambic pentameter, to mirror the ticking and tocking of a clock – and then, with that dash, the line is over, just as the clock’s motion came to an end.
The pendulum of the clock – a stand-in for the human heart, which beats with its rhythm just as the pendulum swung from side to side – will not start going again, not even for Doctors. It’s also gone cold, like a dead body: it’s a ‘pendulum of snow’. The owner of the shop where the clock is found urges the clock to start, but nothing will work.
The notion of the various parts of the clock nodding a ‘No’ suggests the temporary movement of the pendulum and other parts as people try to will the clock to start ticking again.
This enigmatic poem about the stopping of a clock homes in on one aspect of time (or timekeeping), using it to comment on human life itself, with the stopped clock suggesting the stopping of a beating heart.
4. Thomas Hardy, ‘I Look into My Glass’.
A short poem, with a simple message: the speaker looks at himself in his mirror (or ‘glass’) and sees his wrinkled and ageing skin, and wishes that his heart was similarly weakened and reduced. The implication, of course, is that the speaker’s romantic leanings are those of a young man, even though the speaker himself is now old. The heart that beats in his aged chest is that of a young man still capable of feeling love, romantic longing, and infatuation:
But Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
With throbbings of noontide …
5. Carl Sandburg, ‘Clocks’.
What can clocks tell us? Quite a lot, according to Carl Sandburg in this experimental free-verse poem about the various kinds of clock he observes, from the alarm clock that gets people up at half-seven in the morning to the travel clock an actress carries around with her to various hotels.
6. Joyce Kilmer, ‘Alarm Clocks’.
Kilmer (1886-1918) is known for one poem: ‘Trees’. But he (yes, ‘Joyce’ is male in this case) also wrote others, including this fine sonnet about alarm clocks. Not the most poetic of subjects, you may think, but then ‘alarm clocks’ is a metaphor here: as Kilmer points out in a poem that is really about dawn and morning, there are various ways in which people are called to the business of their day…
When Dawn strides out to wake a dewy farm
Across green fields and yellow hills of hay
The little twittering birds laugh in his way
And poise triumphant on his shining arm.
He bears a sword of flame but not to harm
The wakened life that feels his quickening sway
And barnyard voices shrilling ‘It is day!’
Take by his grace a new and alien charm.
But in the city, like a wounded thing
That limps to cover from the angry chase,
He steals down streets where sickly arc-lights sing,
And wanly mock his young and shameful face;
And tiny gongs with cruel fervor ring
In many a high and dreary sleeping place.
7. T. S. Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’.
As the opening lines of Eliot’s 1935 poem ‘Burnt Norton’ make clear, time is a major theme. It also reflects Eliot’s conversion to Christianity (he had been received into the Church of England in 1927), and is partly about the soul’s salvation and how we might hope to be saved. The second half of this second section focuses on the notion of the ‘still point of the turning world’, which harks back to the focus of the opening section: how to live in the present moment while time is constantly moving, and the present is already becoming past (as Heraclitus, from whom Eliot takes his epigraphs for ‘Burnt Norton’, observed: everything is in constant flux).
How can poetry address these paradoxes and problems of time, lived experience, and spiritual meaning? A number of opposites – movement and stillness, being and not-being – are presented. Desire is like movement, and love, by contrast, is like stillness – ‘love’ here suggesting religious devotion.
In part, the poem explores an alternate reality, focusing on things which might have been but never were (the passage not taken, the door never opened). In the garden, Eliot hears the ‘unheard music’ of the roses. Is this a nod to John Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’? ‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter.’ Perhaps. But then the very bird that had lured Eliot into the garden commands him to leave, as humans cannot bear much reality.
We have analysed this poem here.
8. Philip Larkin, ‘Days’.
Completed in August 1953, ‘Days’ is one of Philip Larkin’s shortest poems. There is nowhere we can live but in ‘days’ – that is, in the daily cycle of work and being a functioning member of society – unless we’re mad or dead. The second stanza of Larkin’s poem characteristically combines the faintly comic (the priest and doctor in their long coats) with more morbid subject matter.
‘Days’ reflects, in a rather matter-of-fact way, on the deepest of questions: ‘what’s it all about?’ and ‘what is the meaning of life?’ But the recalibrating of this question in terms of ‘days’, rather than life or existence in general, points up an important and recurring theme for Larkin’s poetry: the daily ritual of work, the day-to-day business of living.
The idea of inhabiting time much as we ‘live in’ a house, say, is a novel one and encourages us to view the ‘days’ of our lives in a new way.
We have analysed this poem here.
9. Maya Angelou, ‘Passing Time’.
Here’s a short poem from probably the best-known African-American poet of the twentieth century, Maya Angelou (1928-2014). The title itself acknowledges a dual meaning: time passes and we inevitably grow older, but we also pass time doing a variety of things, caught up in the daily business of living, and we don’t always realise how much time has passed and how much we’ve changed.
10. Tony Harrison, ‘Timer’.
Stephen Spender called Tony Harrison’s elegies on the deaths of his parents the sort of poems he felt as if he’d waited his whole life to read.
This 1980 poem sees Harrison reflecting on the death of his mother, and on his father’s insistence that the eternity ring he bought for Harrison’s mother should be cremated with her body, since it was his way of ensuring that, when Harrison’s father died, he would be reunited with his wife in the afterlife. After the cremation, Harrison goes to collect his mother’s clothing and the eternity ring is also among his mother’s belongings.
We have analysed this moving poem here.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.