Understanding Poetry 6: Poems and Time

In the previous lesson we looked at a poem’s relationship to space; we now turn to its relationship to time. We’ll look at prominent poetic modes of pondering a passing moment, elegy and satire. The lesson pays close attention to John Milton’s “Lycidas” and ends with a close reading of Louise Gluck’s “The Queen of Carthage.”

Recovery and Loss

Last lesson, I suggested that the technical challenge of placing words expands thematically into large considerations of positioning in the world. The mind of a poet is geared to ponder, How does x relate to its surroundings? This question, as we saw, can be at its most pressing in nature poetry, when the poet is liable to personalize her way of thinking and wonder, How do I relate to my surroundings?

In this lesson, we’re going to look at the poetic obsession behind rhythm, which is time. Without time, of course, meter would be meaningless. Meter has to unfold; its identity can only be known over time. Again, the mind of a poet is liable to apply this technical challenge to a larger concern with the effects of time. What are the rhythms of our lives? What is the meaning that becomes clear with the passage of time? How might change be turned into poetry?

To explore a poet’s larger interest in time, we’ll concentrate in this lesson on a “shaping form”: the elegy. We’ll also take a quick look at satire. At first it might seem to you that this is an odd couple. Elegies, after all, tend to be sad and serious, while satire is full of disruptive ridicule. But actually, these forms share a lot more than you might initially think, thanks to their common obsession with the passing moment.

Let’s take a moment, while we’re still generalizing like crazy, to think about the interaction of space and time.

Life and Food for Future Years

In many ways, it’s absurd to differentiate time and space: they’re both ways of defining the outside world, and we move through both. It makes perfect sense, for instance, that in “Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth should be so concerned with physical and temporal returns. Look how one slides to another in passages such as this:

While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years . . . .

The poet is standing in a very specific place: right here, with his sister Dorothy. And the sensory impressions each of them take in will be stored up, to be digested over time. This basic scenario leads Wordsworth into dividing his life into stages — boyish days with their “glad animal movements,” the time of “wild pleasures,” and a later stage of maturity, which brings appreciation of “the still sad music of humanity,” the fruit of five more years of aging.

In “The Prelude,” a very long poem about his life, Wordsworth identifies “spots of time” — significant moments of our experience, usually from our youth, to which we return over and over. The expression again brings together time and space — and also shows that the goal of memory is, ultimately, to overcome both.

After all, if I can store and retrieve this space, then I can use it to my ends. Similarly, if I can return to past moments, I’m not subject to the tyranny of time. “Tintern Abbey,” you remember, developed an absolute faith in such blessed powers — watch again how such faith weaves time and place:

. . . Nor, perchance –
If I should be where I no more can hear
Thy voice, nor catch from thy wild eyes these gleams
Of past existence — wilt thou then forget
That on the banks of this delightful stream
We stood together . . .

Is it morbid that Wordsworth ends “Tintern Abbey” by fantasizing about his death? Not nearly as much as it could have been, thanks to his great success in stressing the landscape and its continuities. Place and time overcome each other’s absence.

Poems in which loss is acknowledged, and explored, ascribe much more power to time. In such poems, place is important only as a placeholder for what’s absent, and that absence is an inexorable effect of time. So it shouldn’t surprise you that we’re about to turn to the poem which, above all, ponders the subjection of everything in the world to time: the elegy.

Thanks, Sis

Though “Tintern Abbey” suggests that Dorothy’s imagination was fed by her brother, the feeding actually went both ways. Some of Wordsworth’s descriptive poems lift entire phrases out of Dorothy’s journals. Wordsworth’s poem “Daffodils” does this, even though it begins, “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” Sometimes it paid to write Dorothy into the scene, and sometimes it paid to write her out.


The word “elegy” stretches back to ancient Greece. In the Middle Ages, it was applied to poems that pondered the transience of this world. Many of them ended by turning toward the consolation of eternal salvation. Though the elegy evolved into a form for personal mourning and reflection, this basic pattern holds.

A Model Elegy: “Lycidas”

John Milton’s “Lycidas” (MP, p. 173) has long been celebrated as one of the treasures of English poetry. Not only does it offer beautiful rhythms and imagery of its own, but it also falls right in line with the outline of traditional elegy. It was written in memory of a fellow student at Cambridge, Edward King, who drowned when a ship he was on hit a rock on a perfectly calm day and went down.

The poem is long and challenging; it makes extensive references to mythology, and its references can be puzzling to the modern reader. We could even think of our unfamiliarity with “Smooth-sliding Minicius, crowned with vocal reeds,” say, as another kind of loss, another victim of time. Yet it’s easy to hear the music in the line — the flourished dactyl, the artful pause.

Let’s look at the key ways this model elegy emphasizes change.

Changing Modes

Thus sang the uncouth swain to th’ oaks and rills . . .

This is a song by a rude shepherd? What happened to the simplicity of live with me and be my love? Since “Lycidas” is bookish and elevated, Milton must be using the pastoral as a symbol — draining out its conventions. Groves are full of mourning willows, flowers are stricken with frost, animals are prone to taint-worms. Milton shows, regretfully and thoroughly, the insufficiency of pastoral illusion — which makes compensatory religious comfort all the more important.

Changing Tones

But O the heavy change, now thou art gone . . .

Up until its final eight lines, the poem is a sustained monologue that ranges through many shades of grief. Our narrator is by turns reluctant, angry, despairing, melancholy, resigned. He also quotes many other voices — unsettled sea and wind spirits, a reassuring sun god, a mourning teacher, an accusatory St. Peter. This variation is a key component of the elegy. Like the ode, it highlights the fluctuation of strong emotion — and ropes this fluctuation into order. The last eight lines, a closing bit of narration after the shepherd has resolved his grief, settle into a traditional Italian stanza, the ottava rhyma (iambic pentameter, abababcc rhyme scheme).

Changing Poets

Who would not sing for Lycidas?
He knew Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.

The poem highlights the author’s reluctant replacement of Lycidas as a poet. “Bitter constraint, and sad occasion dear” force him to write, but Lycidas knew how to make the satyrs really dance. Poet mourns poet, and death, again, forces a shift in voice. This is a tradition in elegy: notable examples include Shelley’s Adonias (mourning Keats), Tennyson’s In Memoriam (for poet A.H. Hallam), and W.H. Auden’s In Memory of W.B. Yeats (AFP, p. 14).

So may some gentle Muse With lucky words favor my destined urn . . .

Changing Locations

. . . Whilst thee the shores and sounding seas
Wash far away, where’er thy bones are hurled . . .

The heavy change of Lycidas’s absence leads to an unsettled hunt across the world: where is he? This roving search gives a sense of the insufficiency of any place to contain the effects of time. Even in the poem’s religious ending, when Lycidas is said to be “In the blest kingdoms meek of joy and love,” the location of those kingdoms is notably vague. The last four lines of the poem describe the sweep of the sun across a landscape and the shepherd’s plan to visit “fresh woods, and pastures new” — a final emphasis on time’s dominion over space in the elegy.

I touched on abrupt change in tone in “Lycidas,” but I saved one shift for special consideration: the bitter satire of St. Peter’s speech. It’s a digression that helps to emphasize the way elegy and satire echo each other in responding to time’s power. Let’s turn, then, to satire.

The Heavy Change

“Lycidas” also mourns college life. After its completion in 1637, John Milton was able to write very little for 20 years. Political turmoil and employment as a tutor consumed his energies, making it impossible to “tend the homely shepherd’s trade.” Only after he had served time in jail for his beliefs and had lost his eyesight was Milton able to concentrate on his true love — the poetry that made student days so promising.


Blind mouths! That scarce themselves know how to hold
A sheep-hook, or have learned aught else the least
That to the faithful herdsman’s art belongs! What recks it them? What need they?
They are sped; And when they list, their lean and flashy songs
Grate on their scrannel pipes of wretched straw.

A reader of Milton’s elegy could well ask, what does St. Peter’s long outburst against bad shepherds have to do with mourning for Lycidas? There seems excessive disgust here, conveyed by harshly clashing vowel sounds, especially in the last line quoted above. How is this ridicule contributing to the elegy?

Milton’s satire on selfish shepherds is an indictment of corruption in the church as well as of incompetence in poetry. The loss of a genuine talent is all the more felt against an empty background of poseurs.

The biggest fault of these “Blind mouths” (they’re not even whole persons) is that they have no respect for time. They ridiculously “scramble at the shearers’ feast, / And shove away the worthy bidden guest” — unaware of doom in the form of a “two-handed engine at the door.” (Whatever that is: commentators have always been unsure. But it seems grim. And it’s coming soon.)

The disruption of this passage is perfectly consistent with what satire does: break up assumptions. The term “satire” has evolved from the Latin word for “medley,” as in a mix of various things. In terms of literary works, satire means wit, irony, or sarcasm used in a manner that exposes human vices or folly. Thus a full satirical poem tends to rove all over, looking for victims and treating them to different heapings of scorn.

Blindness to the effects of time has always been a prime target of satire. Interestingly enough, the more specific a satire gets, the more of a victim of time it can be itself. Had Milton focused his attack on a specific rotten Reverend So-and-So, it would have been quickly outdated. The satire that outlasts its age thus tends to be generalized — or, if it names particular victims, it treats them as ridiculous evidence of shifting values.

For a quick example of satire, look at Samuel Johnson’s The Vanity of Human Wishes (extract on p. 126 of MP).

Johnson’s lines, an imitation of verse by the Roman satirist Juvenal, convey a disgust similar to Milton’s denouncement. Again, the prevalence of a “Wide-wasting pest” is bemoaned.

Heroic couplets, the workhorse of eighteenth century poetry, are particularly suitable to the put-downs and contrasts here.

Johnson’s emphasis on “fate” is a common way to contrast the frenzied ambitions of man against time. Notice how the poet himself stays carefully abstract; we’re pointed to “busy scenes of crowded life” and unspecified kings, traitors, orators, and the like. Unlike the ambition it mocks, Johnson’s poem respects time and is built to outlast his age.

Satire that announces itself as such is much more uncommon today than in the eighteenth century, when prominent poets like Dryden, Pope, and Jonathan Swift all wrote extensive and sometimes even epic satires (Pope’s “The Dunciad” is a famous example of that). Extended satire in the nineteenth century migrated towards the novel (Charles Dickens is an obvious case). Poetry after the eighteenth century certainly incorporates satire, but as a stand-alone form, the satire is much rarer since the romantic era. The romantic focus on the individual perspective acts against the traditional satire’s sweeping denouncement of social folly.

However, that might be evidence of the success of satire. Its wide-ranging scope, its suspicion of authority, its exposure of folly, and its respect for time’s effects: all these elements seem quite modern and work themselves into a variety of contemporary art. Whether self-announced or not, the spirit of satire thrives.

The same goes for elegy. Let’s end the lesson with our usual close reading — this time of a recent poem that incorporates elegy while revising its purpose.

Lighten Up!

The satirist Ambrose Bierce defined elegy as: “A composition in verse, in which, without employing any of the methods of humor, the writer aims to produce in the reader’s mind the dampest kind of dejection.”

Compare the beginning of Gray’s “Elegy” (MP, p.180) with Bierce’s imitation here:

The cur foretells the knell of parting day; The loafing herd winds slowly o’er the lea The wise man homeward plods; I only stay To fiddle-faddle in a minor key.

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For a deft satire on more modern pretentiousness, read Allen Ginsberg’s lines on Time Magazine in “America” (MP, p. 269).

“I’m obsessed by Time Magazine. / I read it every week.” The joke here is that “It’s always telling me about responsibility.” Through predictable repetition and blindness to the giddy turmoil of the day, Ginsberg suggests, the magazine resists its very name — Time.

Are you impressed with Ginsberg’s deftness?

Case Reading: Louise Gluck’s “The Queen of Carthage”

We could have chosen any number of elegies for our case reading — look at the wide range printed, for example, in pp. 168-205 of MP. Of these, probably the most famous elegy is Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (MP, p. 180). If you look through it, you’ll discover familiar elegiac traits: an isolated speaker, a changing setting, tone that varies from empathy to scorn, a satiric treatment of worldly ambition. (“The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”)

But in keeping with our larger emphasis on poetry and time, it’s fitting that we look at a poem that broods on the past, renewing some elegiac approaches and revising others. Louise Gluck’s “The Queen of Carthage” (AFP, p. 101) is a fine example of just such a poem.

Is Gluck’s poem an elegy? It doesn’t call itself one, and yet we can tease out along the way many echoes of the elegiac tradition.

Time Over Place

Compare the extensive reference to time with the vagueness of reference to place. This short poem pulls its reader over a large field of time; it brings us into “the end” of a story, circles back to its “beginning,” and points to future “destiny.” Notice all the words associated with time in the poem:

  • “in the end”
  • “destiny”
  • “a short time”
  • “a lifetime”
  • “such moments”
  • “eternity”
  • “prolong”
  • “the beginning”

Verbs take a variety of tenses:

  • “to die”
  • “might see”
  • “came”
  • “will accept”
  • “to have honored”

Against all this changeable time, place hardly exists in the poem. Dido summons her ladies in waiting — but to where? The only physical orientation in the poem is vague: Aeneas came “over the shimmering water,” unhelpfully repeated as “over the water.” Dido suffers “beyond the reaches of justice,” but surely that’s an unfixed place.

Though Dido is the Queen of Carthage, and that title is even repeated in the poem, Carthage and the landscape have vanished out from under her, and she’s trapped wholly by time.

The Triumph of Fate

Who are the main players in this drama? Dido is named once by name, once by title; her lover Aeneas is named twice; but “the Fates” are invoked four times — once by the narrator, three times by Dido herself.

Neither Dido nor Aeneas are in control. The only active thing that Aeneas does is to arrive over the water. All Dido does is ask the Fates “to permit him to return my passion.” Her small attempt to modify the course of fate — “to increase, to prolong” — is squashed. Dido ends up feebly settling for being “noticed by the Fates.”

Who Weeps for Dido?

The trickiest part of Gluck’s poem is putting Dido’s victimization into context. Who’s telling this story? Who overhears the Queen’s words? And why is there no narration after them?

Our ghostly narrator is hardly indifferent. “Brutal” rings out three times in the first stanza — a trochaic cry that introduces the similarly trochaic name “Dido.” Dido presents her pain to her ladies, and in broadening the presentation to us, the narrator seems to honor the Queen’s wishes to be “noticed,” to have “distinction.”

But what good is that? A clue might lie in the old elegiac pattern of poet-substitution. We have two main substitutions here: Dido stepping into the narrator’s role and Gluck stepping into Virgil’s famous epic, The Aeneid.

By shifting the Queen of Carthage into the title, Gluck seems to be pressing for a revisionist reading of Virgil’s story. But just retelling the story won’t change it: Dido has long ago been “noticed.” But Gluck wants us to notice something new about Dido: her staged acceptance of the Fates, which is a submission to time.

This submission makes the sudden ending of the poem all the more effective. If we had a narrator circle back in to sum up the poem, or empathize with Dido again, that would interfere with her acceptance of suffering. “To have honored hunger”: Gluck honors Dido as hungry, a silent act of obedience to the Fates. The words strike us as they do, and there’s no attempt “to increase, to prolong.”

Moving Forward

We’ve now studied important ways poets approach time and space. These will always be fundamental concerns of poetry, and shaping forms that track these concerns — such as the elegy or the pastoral — will endure, however revised, as long as there’s poetry. In the next lesson we turn to an even more universal concern for a poet: his or her audience. No matter what a poem is about, and no matter what its use of time and space, it must define a connection to the reader.

But first, while we still have time on our minds (if not our hands), the assignment will ask you to analyze a poem about loss on your own. Make sure to share what you find on the message boards. Not everyone has time to read every poem, but collectively we can cover a lot of ground.

Assignment: Elegy

Choose any one poem in MP or AFP that is about loss, such as Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain” (MP, p. 185), Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” (MP, p. 185; AFP, p. 9), W.H. Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” (MP, p. 188), Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” (MP, p. 11), Seamus Heaney’s “Mid-Term Break” (AFP, p. 112), Lucille Clifton’s “The Lost Baby Poem” (AFP, p. 53), or Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Facing It” (AFP, p. 156).

Read your chosen poem carefully and answer the following questions about it:

  1. How is loss conveyed through rhyme, meter, or line formation?
  2. Does the tone change? If so, what different tones can you hear? If not, why not?
  3. Which is stronger in your poem, place or time? What details back up your answer?
  4. Does the poem reach toward any compensation for the loss it describes?
  5. Is the poem best described as an elegy? Why or why not?

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