By John Mason Lock
As a culture we are a low point for the reading and enjoyment of poetry. Most people say they don’t like poetry, and poetry has been relegated to the specialist as an oddity that requires special insight and education to read and appreciate. In college I had the good fortune to receive some of the best advice on reading poetry. I was trying to write a paper on the 17th-century metaphysical poet George Herbert, and my professor insisted that before I took pen to paper, I had to memorize the poem upon which I was trying to write. In an age when computers function as external memory, and rote memorization is treated as onerous, it seems like odd advice, but there is a kind of intimacy that grows from memorization. Black ink on the page becomes living word in the mind. I found that memorization aided not only understanding but also enjoyment of poetry.
I recently was introduced to a short poem — fit to be memorized — by the great John Milton. “On Time” seems particularly appropriate for our soon-concluding season of Advent. For me, Milton’s Paradise Lost is the greatest poem in English — equal parts piercing, sublime, and true. “On Time” is the product of a less mature mind, but this is all relative. Even Milton’s youthful mind was capable of profundity beyond the muse of nearly all.
The poem is about the relationship between time and eternity. It assumes something that we all know to be true that time is a thief. Time takes things and people away from us. It corrupts even good things. Consider the person who hoards so much that whatever he is hoarding actually goes bad. The cache of produce greedily purchased while on sale predictably turns sour before it can be consumed. Our body and outward appearance age and decline, wounding our vanity and challenging the fixed mental image of a younger, more fit version of ourselves.
Time also catches up with us, and we realize that perhaps our dreams and ambitions will not be achievable within the reasonable time-frame of your remaining years. Time is a thief of even good and noble goals. How many great noble men and women are there who have died with projects half-finished or projects merely envisioned and never realized? With time we also lose certain physical and mental abilities. What we could do at 18 or 25 or even 50 suddenly seems insurmountable. Time takes away some of our strengths leaving us unable to do what we would do. As various proverbs put it, youth is wasted on the young, or, my personal favorite, a French proverb that Faulkner often quoted, “If youth knew; if age could.”
We cannot give an accounting of how time is a thief without acknowledging the loss of loved ones and friends whom time removes from us either by death or distance, and in a very real way, these people who have so enriched our lives and made it, to a certain extent, worth living, are irreplaceable. The variety of human people, the tapestry of our species, is amazing, and yet, no one is altogether a suitable substitute for another. We are left to acknowledge the stark reality that life has been impoverished by the absence of our dearest and best.
From thinking of time as a thief, it is also a short step further to imagine time as an enemy. Here we find all the grim imagery around death, such as the grim reaper who comes sickle in hand to strike us down suddenly. In my own pastoral work, I have seen this time and again and been witness to how these losses age and dishearten those who are left behind, those who suffer the wearying assaults of thieving time. You can see it in their faces if you look carefully.
In Milton’s poem time is pictured as a glutton who greedily swallows all of these things, taking away our loved ones and friends, our ambitions and plans, our faculties and abilities. From this human standpoint time would seem to be our enemy, but not for Milton and not for us as Christians because for us time has a purpose and direction: namely, eternity. The passing of time takes us that much closer to eternity. Furthermore, time may be a thief, but it also takes away some of the bad things as well. We sometimes lose in forgetfulness negative and painful experiences. Unhealthy and destructive ambitions are not realized much to our own benefit, what we might call the grace of unanswered prayers.
I’m also struck how problems that seem insurmountable somehow with time are resolved. You might be dealing with one issue with your child that seems insurmountable and intractable, and then one day, it somehow has been resolved and you’re on to the next problem. I remember as young person not realizing that this is a regular and predicable pattern in life. Problems seemed to be all-encompassing with no discernible light or hope for resolution. A few years later those problems have become a distant memory, and a new set of problems is at hand. With age and time, problems seem less daunting because of the wisdom drawn from experience that is life is full of problems. In fact, life in this world is a succession of problems.
In Milton’s poem, time is such a glutton that in the end he will consume himself, and then the eternal Day of the Lord will begin.
For when as each thing bad thou [Time] hast entomb’d,
And last of all, thy greedy self consum’d,
Then long Eternity shall greet our bliss
With an individual kiss
This is our great hope as Christians. This world is not the end. One of the reasons, I think, we know this is because we see the evidences of God’s goodness all around us. There is so much goodness and joy and beauty in the world. These will survive in the eternal day of God. All that is good and beautiful and true will find it’s true home because all of these good things come from the Lord, and the Lord’s goodness cannot pass away. Time has not stolen them away; all those good things are stored securely in the bank of eternity.
In the popular caricature of Christianity, faith is more a list of thou shalt nots than a serious, wise, and deep way of life. Despite the caricature Christianity isn’t just about renunciation and being deprived of certain enjoyments. This false caricature of Christianity is corollary to the false notion that Christians are dour and somber and unable or unwilling to enjoy life. Undoubtedly some are this way, but this is not true to the faith. If eternity is the place where all good things have a true and lasting home, Christians ought to be those who can discern and appreciate the good around you right now. Undoubtedly there are many false worldly pleasures, whose duration is so brief, that are, in the end, not pleasures at all because they bring us to grief. These false goods will not last.
But Christians ought to be those who develop a palate for enjoying all the good the Lord lays out at the table he has prepared for us. We ought to be the true Epicureans — not debased ones, whose philosophy is a cloak for hedonism — who are dedicated to discerning the vestiges of the Lord’s goodness wherever they may be found. St. Paul famously wrote from his jail: “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice!” (Phil. 4). It’s critical to remember the context when we recite the familiar words. Christians ought to be people of real and sustained joy whatever the trouble or adversity that is besetting us now. The reality of eternity compels us not to take flight from the world but to find and enjoy the goodness of God.
We can find counter-examples aplenty. People who buckle under the realities of time. Cynical and jaded, they’re chronically unhappy with the world and happy with themselves. Others by contrast give themselves over to hedonism. Time is a thief so I will try to collect as many selfish pleasures as possible in my brief hours and days. Christians ought to be far more realistic. We know that time and existence are difficult. Life is a trial, a test, and sometimes even a catastrophe. That’s why it can be hard to discern those gifts and good things all around us, but discern them we must. Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice! Our belief in the triumph of eternity is a call to us not to renounce and forsake time and the world but to find, discern, and appreciate all the good that belong to eternity, those things that will never pass away from the Lord’s sight because he made them.
So, after this perhaps excessively protracted introduction, here is Milton’s poem. Kindly read it aloud as a tentative first step towards memorization, and enjoy as something good, true, and beautiful from the Lord’s hand.
Fly envious Time, till thou run out thy race,
Call on the lazy leaden-stepping hours,
Whose speed is but the heavy Plummets pace;
And glut thy self with what thy womb devours,
Which is no more then what is false and vain,
And meerly mortal dross;
So little is our loss,
So little is thy gain.
For when as each thing bad thou hast entomb’d,
And last of all, thy greedy self consum’d,
Then long Eternity shall greet our bliss
With an individual kiss;
And Joy shall overtake us as a flood,
When every thing that is sincerely good
And perfectly divine,
With Truth, and Peace, and Love shall ever shine
About the supreme Throne
Of him, t’whose happy-making sight alone,
When once our heav’nly-guided soul shall clime,
Then all this Earthy grosnes quit,
Attir’d with Stars, we shall for ever sit,
Triumphing over Death, and Chance, and thee O Time.
Thank you. Those who lived closer to death were given to ponder it and be graced by God’s eternity.
Thank you for introducing me to this poem, and for your fine meditation on it. There’s an echo in what you’ve said about time and problems in Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism, in the chapter on aging, and the blessing of wisdom. Maybe also in the final volume of Oliver O’Donovan’s trilogy (not at hand). In any case, a great subject for Advent!