The conflict between eternity and time is deeply embedded in the consciousness of human persons. I believe it gives rise to most impulses that define us as human: the impulse of language and literature, cults and philosophy. When I look at the Anastasis in the Chora Church or hear the words Handel chose from the book of Job (parts of which probably predate Judaism itself)–”and though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God”–these seem to express profound human hopes that exist in one form or another, even in prehistory.
Almost all cultures have some way of venerating the dead. The very notion of tradition is, as Chesterton called it, “the democracy of dead.” (And what is poetry if not, in some way, a tradition of speaking and a means by which poets gain for themselves a kind of immortality?) Of course, many belief systems do not have any notion of resurrection, or even an afterlife. That’s not what I’m talking about: rather, I think it’s the desire to merge or rectify sacred and secular time. I hear something similar in the grief of Gilgamesh over Enkidu (here in Ferry’s translation):
Enkidu, the companion, whom I loved,
who went together with me on the journey
no one has ever undergone before,
now Enkidu has undergone the fate
the high gods have established for mankind.
Seven days and nights I sat beside the body,
weeping for Enkidu beside the body,
and then I saw a worm fall out of his nose.
I roam the wilderness because of the fear.
Enkidu, the companion, whom I loved,
is dirt, the companion Enkidu is clay.
Must I die too? Must Gilgamesh be like that?
This might be a leap, but when eastern writers talk about emptiness, I see a similar impulse, an attempt to rectify time and eternity, though with a slightly different bent. Buddha:
He in whom a desire for the Ineffable (Nirvana) has sprung up, who in his mind is satisfied, and whose thoughts are not bewildered by love, he is called urdhvamsrotas (carried upwards by the stream).
And Lao Tzu:
Always without desire we must be found
If its deep mystery we would sound;
By emptying oneself of desire, one can hope to escape the vicissitudes of time (Nobody gets mad at an empty boat, Chuang Tzu says). Think of mystics who desire a peace beyond circumstance through ascetic practices. Think of the God’s rest on the seventh day of creation.
That scene set, think of Auden’s ballad-esque poem “As I Walked Out One Evening.” As I read it, the poem is a direct engagement of this conflict. It’s a debate between a lover enraptured with the beloved and a clock enraptured with time. Notably, the lover is singing “Love has no ending”:
‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
__Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
__And the salmon sing in the street,
‘I’ll love you till the ocean
__Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
__Like geese about the sky.
‘The years shall run like rabbits,
__For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
__And the first love of the world.’
I see the lover here as a stand in for the poet, as one who thinks love is both immortal and can be immortalized. The lover speaks in the tradition of the Song of Songs: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm: for love is strong as death.” Note the images of a kind of return to pre-history, perhaps because the ancients had a much keener sense of living in an almost eternal realm upon the earth. “I’ll love you / Till China and Africa meet” could be an image of impossibility, but I’m reminded of Pangea, the literal meeting of the continents.
I am still dubious, though, about whether the poet here is enraptured by the appetitive passions (the hunger for an other) or has tapped into something deeper, something almost pre-existent: is “the first love of the world” a profound statement about the nature of the universe or the result of engorged hormones?
“But all the clocks in the city / Began to whirr and chime:” now enters the machinery of modernity, dispelling the lover’s “magical” notions of reality. When I first read this poem, I assumed the clocks were metonymous for Time itself. But as I was doing the dishes the other night (hands plunged in the basin, as it were), I saw it makes more sense to see the clocks as beings enraptured with the notion of time, in the same way the lover is enraptured with the particular beloved.
The clock takes a certain delight in dismantling the ambitions of the lover, and in the process gets some of the best lines in the poem:
Time watches from the shadow
__And coughs when you would kiss.
‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
__The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
__A lane to the land of the dead.
‘O stand, stand at the window
__As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
__With your crooked heart.’
Notably, the clock’s speech about the “truer nature” of the world, about the crush of time, serves only to increase a desire to escape the transience of time.
It’s easy to think the clock has won this debate. Cynics always seem to win because their cynicism places them beyond reaching. It’s a crass, but often effective, perch to argue from. The clock is also given the last word, the chiding riposte.
It’s easy to forget the third voice, the translator of the event: Auden’s speaker. The imagistic choices of Auden’s speaker also seem to affirm the clock: first, “The crowds upon the pavement / Were fields of harvest wheat” could be a perfect image of the transience of life. And could there be a more perfect image for the crush of time than a river? Doesn’t water, like time, eventually wear even rocks to nothing?
But there’s this passage from Siddhartha that I think is relevant:
Have you learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time?
…That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere, and that the present only exists for it, not the shadows of the past, nor the shadow of the future?
Does the river upend the notion of time? If so, then one could at least consider the clock in Auden’s poem to be rebuffed. The fields of wheat could also be an image of history as cyclical, which also disrupts the notion of the arrow of time.
The true mystery in the end is that of the speaker, I suppose, a removed observer whose own latent perspective is too slippery to pin down: river? clocks? lover? Who wins the debate?