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“Time” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Dali's Persistence of Memory

Dali’s Persistence of Memory

It’s Friday the 13th today, so I felt a poem on mortality would be appropriate.

TIME

Unfathomable Sea! whose waves are years,
Ocean of Time, whose waters of deep woe
Are brackish with the salt of human tears!
Thou shoreless flood, which in thy ebb and flow
Claspest the limits of mortality,
And sick of prey, yet howling on for more,
Vomitest thy wrecks on its inhospitable shore;
Treacherous in calm, and terrible in storm,
Who shall put forth on thee,
Unfathomable Sea?

This poem immediately conjured an image of Dali’s “Persistence of Memory,” where time is depicted as fluid and rippling. It also reminded me a lot of the Pink Floyd song “Time.” I can’t help but wonder if Shelley inspired these other works.

If you think about it, this poem is way ahead of its time (pun intended). It’s my understanding that the view of time and space as waves is a fairly recent concept. The poem definitely does not present time in a linear manner; it is something that swirls around us, surging in waves, with a depth that is beyond our comprehension.

The strangest thing about this poem, though, is the sense of imminent mortality. Time is associated with death and the imagery used in the poem builds on this association. But here’s what really gets me. Shelley wrote this poem in 1821. He died the next year at the ripe age of 29. As I read through the poem a second and third time, I began to feel that Shelley was anticipating his death, that somehow he sensed that his life was nearing its end. I’ve always believed that poets and artists are able to tap into a state of consciousness that provides visions and promotes intuition, and I feel that Shelley certainly did so when he composed this poem.

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