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Poems about Time

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This article is about: literature

Time is a funny thing. Whilst modern science has helped us to see it’s not as constant as we might have imagined, we still rarely are able to see it and our experiences within it from different perspectives. Although I really enjoy these few poems that seem to be able to step outside of the flow in one way or another.

Clouds - Joni Mitchell

Why I like it: Joni has an amazing mind and all of her music shares the immediacy and intimacy of a life of experiences. Yet this one in particular is written from three unique perspectives: the first verse is Joni as a child looking at clouds and noticing, perhaps for the first time, the passing of time. As the verses progress, she gets older and reaches adulthood and then old age, and has time to reflect on the similarities between clouds, and love, and indeed life itself

Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
Looked at clouds that way
But now they only block the sun
They rain and they snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way
I've looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It's cloud illusions I recall
I really don't know clouds at all
Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels
The dizzy dancing way that you feel
As every fairy tale comes real
I've looked at love that way
But now it's just another show
And you leave 'em laughing when you go
And if you care, don't let them know
Don't give yourself away
I've looked at love from both sides now
From give and take and still somehow
It's love's illusions that I recall
I really don't know love 
Really don't know love at all
Tears and fears and feeling proud
To say, "I love you" right out loud
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
I've looked at life that way
Oh, but now old friends they're acting strange
And they shake their heads and they tell me that I've changed
Well something's lost, but something's gained
In living every day
I've looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It's life's illusions I recall
I really don't know life at all
It's life's illusions that I recall
I really don't know life
I really don't know life at all

Time - Pink Floyd (David Gilmour, Nick Mason,  Roger Waters and Richard Wright)

Why I like it: This is one of the songs I grew up with: my dad played it for me when I was a teen. It’s bound to a young mans’ perspective but is remarkably foresighted; the writer already perceives that life will go by quickly and will inevitably end in regret one way or another.

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
Fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your hometown
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way

Tired of lying in the sunshine, staying home to watch the rain
You are young and life is long, and there is time to kill today
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun

And you run, and you run to catch up with the sun but it's sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again
The sun is the same in a relative way but you're older
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death
Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines

Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over, thought I'd something more to say

Shakespeare - Sonnet 19​

Why I like it: Maybe Dylan Thomas was thinking of this sonnet when he was writing “do not go gentle”, another poem I admire but for different reasons. In this poem, the protagonist (it could be Shakespeare; but he hardly ever wrote from his own perspective) rages against time, almost sticking a thumb up, because he believes he has found a way to outwit time: by writing this very verse.

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-liv’d phœnix in her blood;
Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleets,
And do whate’er thou wilt, swift-footed Time,
To the wide world and all her fading sweets;
But I forbid thee one most heinous crime:
O, carve not with thy hours my love’s fair brow,
Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen;
Him in thy course untainted do allow
For beauty’s pattern to succeeding men.
Yet do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong,
My love shall in my verse ever live young.

Keats - Ode on a Grecian Urn

Why I like it: This ode remains my favourite verse on the subject of time. In it, time is frozen in one single moment by the creation of art. It’s almost a response to Sonnet 19 above, where someone future is able to appreciate that time is beaten; but Keats’ luscious and very living words betray a sad fact: the impression is real, but the people, as Keats himself, are gone.

Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,
  Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
  A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring'd legend haunts about thy shape 
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
    In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
  What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
    What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
  Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
  Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
  Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;

    Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
  She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
    For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
      Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
      For ever piping songs for ever new;

More happy love! more happy, happy love!
      For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,
       For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
      That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,
       A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
      To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
      And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?

What little town by river or sea shore,
      Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
       Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
      Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
       Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
      Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
      Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
      When old age shall this generation waste,
       Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
      "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
       Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

I find time fascinating because its so intrinsic to our nature as humans; if we were to not exist within the stream of time we would hardly be called such. Yet I can also appreciate that there exists a perspective that is outside its bounds.”

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“Wisest are they who know they do not know.”

— Jostein Gaarder