Time in Poetry East and West

A paper presented on May 12, 2007, at the 2007 International Conference of the Korean Society for Philosophy East-West

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.

When Shakespeare wrote these lines in his 60th sonnet, he was deliberately exploring an image he had seen in the last lines of Ovid’s Metamorphoses:

As every wave drives other forth, and that which comes behind
Both thrusteth and is thrust itself, even so the times by kind
Do fly and follow both at once, and evermore renew,
For that that was before is left, and straight there doth ensue
Another that was never erst.

Both poets were using the constant forward flow of the sea’s waves to represent the process of change and loss resulting from the passage of time. Ovid’s main philosophical claim in the Metamorphoses is that there is no contradiction between change and identity since despite the changes and loss wrought by time, there is a deeper, underlying continuity of being. Nothing, he says, is lost, all is only transformed.

    Shakespeare is perhaps more human; his central concern in the Sonnets is with the threat time poses to individual physical beauty, and thus to physical love, to human relationships; but beyond that, he knows that time brings not just mutability but mortality, the inevitable end of all human experience, and of even the most spiritual love. His response is, first, that the past, forever lost though it is in fact, is made present again by the work of memory; second, he claims that beauty destroyed by time lives on in the poems inspired by it. That is a conceit he also got from Ovid, and it remains in reality an uncertain hope, as he surely knew it to be, since the fact of the matter is as Andrew Marvell wrote to his Coy Mistress; “The grave’s a fine and private place, But none, I think, do there embrace.” The survival of books and post-mortem remembrance of lovers by later generations of readers is paltry consolation for loss of the physical presence of the beloved. Romantic love between persons does not, we feel intuitively, survive death, so that the burial in a single tomb of Romeo and Juliet, Heloise and Abelard, and others too, is a token gesture that only underlines its own futility, since these mingled bodies are nothing now but compounded absence and dust.

    Accompanying this concern with transience and mortality is an ancient dichotomy between illusion and reality which is reflected in the tension between body and soul in the human person. Since Greek times, there has been a constant search in the West for a solution to the destructive flow of time, attempted by formulations opposing the changing, transient world of physical matter under the rule of time to an unchanging, undying “eternal” world of mind or spirit. Plato offered the fundamental vision, according to which the human mind, in its highest operations, transcends the limitations of time and space and becomes one with the eternal world of Forms (Ideas). The act of anamnesis, remembering, allows a correct identification of the eternal, unchanging truths lying under and beyond all temporal phenomena.

    Certainly, Plato’s hypothesis of the memory of eternal forms as an explanation for the way acts of sense-perception pass in the human mind to abstract generalizations of identity was already rejected by Aristotle. Yet Platonism and Neo-Platonism might be blamed for sowing the seeds of a long-lived western rejection of the value of a life lived in the realities of time and the visible world. It is still believed by many people (quite wrongly) that the Bible teaches that the human person is composed of a base, mortal, corrupt, and almost worthless physical body housing an immortal, spiritual soul that alone has value in the eyes of God. As a result, human life in time has been reduced by many preachers to a qualifying exam for a bodiless perpetuity after death, either in bliss or torment. The poets’ celebrations of the wonders of human love, beauty, and even of pain, are an important weapon in the battle against this platonizing heresy, which denies the significance of Christ’s incarnation and his redemption, both of which are essentially directed toward life here, in time and history.

    The universal experience of time, whether it be personal or collective, is very often represented by an onward flow, irresistible and irreversible, within which human history occurs. As a Victorian hymn puts it: “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away” (where the sons are the years, not people, although they too vanish in the end). In western poetry, that has always been the source of some of the strongest emotion, the elegaic lament of loss, whether of beauty, companionship, love or life. “Ubi sunt” (where now are . . .?) is the Big Question, as François Villon in modern translation puts it: “Where are the snows of yester-year?” The flow of time, linear, gives rise to and then destroys both individuals and whole nations, cultures, languages, libraries. History is the study of that which no longer exists, a reconstructing by the imagination, on the basis of uncertain documents, of what once was. Sometimes, poets and novelists evoke a future reality, as a way to contradict the backward-looking gestures of nostalgia and elegy. However, since the future can only be an imagined possibility, the emotional power is inevitably less, at best some kind of ironic contrast with the present, dystopia or eutopia.

    One striking difference between western and eastern representations of time occurs when they consider the possibility of happiness. Put very simply, very much European poetry is about being happy. When happiness ceases, the standard reaction is to complain bitterly, as if one had a right to prosperity, success, and pleasure. For centuries, the most important explanation offered for the way good luck does not last was the image of Fortune’s ever-turning wheel, usually inspired by Book 2 of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. Boethius’s Lady Philosophy criticizes the optimism of sensuous humanity, that never remembers that happiness, like everything else that is subject to time’s changes, will not last for ever. True wisdom is shown by a steadfast heart that remains calm, no matter what happens, good or bad.

    Much Korean poetry expresses a strong awareness of the impossibility of lasting happiness in this world dominated by time. Rich, powerful people may believe that they are entitled to wealth and power by birth but ordinary people know, on the basis of centuries of sorrow, that time only brings variety in the kinds of unhappiness endured. Lovers expect to be separated soon, either by broken promises or by inevitable demands of duty. The most popular theme in love poetry is “separation,” the lament that follows involuntary separation. In the west, the Petrarchan tradition is full of “complaints” in which a man protests at a woman’s rejection of his offered affection. He is deeply insulted that someone should refuse to make him happy.

    In Asian poems, either the man is sent on military service to some remote, wild frontier, or is obliged to leave to look for a job in the city. The woman remains behind, there is no choice. Women, especially, are presented as the helpless victims of time’s disasters; lovers desert them, husbands die young, blind injustice is their daily lot. No one protests at the lack of happiness; western readers sometimes wonder at what they see as “fatalism” but Korean readers understand that the songs of people caught in such painful situations are in fact celebrations of endurance, proclamations of the wisdom of common folk who know that dignity demands courage, resistance, not pathetic despair. Life has to go on, until death comes, since that is how life is. And all is illusion, pain and happiness, alike. There are also from time to time good things to celebrate in spite of everything – young love, spring flowers, conviviality.

    Yet the western, optimistic view of life’s possible offers of happiness in time is complicated by another, contradictory consideration. When the western, Christian or post-Christian, mind turns toward the more distant reaches of the future, something else appears. The Judaeo-Christian tradition offers a strong vision of an End to time and history; that end of time is commonly represented by such words as Apocalypse, Judgement, and is also the ultimate locus of Christian redemption made visible “for ever”. The popular imagination conceives of Apocalypse as essentially destructive, although the word correctly means an “unveiling” of the true status of what exists, the abolition of illusion and the revelation of the true reality of affairs in God’s eternal love. In a secularizing process, evacuating the divine intervention, this notion of an end tends to vanish but the notion of an ultimate, universal salvation remains implicit in the optimistic notion of Progress, that has remained strong in the West since the Enlightenment, although modern notions of chaos theory are weakening the conviction that the movement toward the future follows an ever upward-leading curve of knowledge and civilization.

    A greater mystery still is proposed by the non-temporal dimension known as eternity, that is often, wrongly, identified with an ultimate, unchanging future state: the divine, God, who is often known as the Eternal. Henry Vaughan, still in the 17th century, began a poem-meditation in dramatic fashion:

I saw eternity the other night
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time, in hours, days, years,
Driven by the spheres,
Like a vast shadow moved, in which the world
And all her train were hurled.

Here, we find a distinction made between “the whirligig of time” (Shakespeare, Twelfth Night) and the stasis of God’s eternity. The rest of the poem pursues a quest for ways in which one might move from the processes of time to the immutability of the eternal moment. The mystery, of course, is the western (essentially Christian) belief that eternity is another name for God, together with the conviction that the human acts of anamnesis (memorializing), that we have been indicating as the poets’ way of resisting the ravages of time, are in fact metaphors for the reality of God’s eternal dealings with our human histories.

    From a materialistic point of view, what once was, now is not, and what now is, will soon, in the twinkling of an eye, not be. But in God’s Eternity, it is claimed, nothing at all is lost, forgotten, or abandoned. The movement of time is not then rightly seen ultimately as a raging torrent sweeping all into oblivion, although the immensities of the cosmic processes that science tells us of mean that it is also that. We are each composed of billions of years of accumulated star-dust and in due time our component atoms will be whirled back into cosmic immensities we cannot begin to imagine. But the Christian message holds up the alternative announcement of the life-giving mind of God.

    The most significant challenge to the power of time lies in that assertion, that the movement of human history is not toward a general oblivion but toward a fulfillment of all that has ever been. In Four Quartets, T. S. Elliot picked up and made familiar a phrase written by a medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich: “All will be well, and all will be well, all manner of thing will be well.” That utter, outrageous optimism of faith, combined with the sublimity of the last canto of Dante’s Commedia, enabled him to write in the last lines of the last poem of Four Quartets:

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

Already for Pythagoras and Plato, the demands of justice required a set of solutions lying somewhere beyond time and history, or at least after the individual’s death, by which the good would be vindicated and the evil punished. That is the closest the West ever came to a cyclic view of time as an endless sequence of new beginnings, incarnation after incarnation. Christianity brought an even more radical solution in its anticipation of an end of time and history that would not be a return to chaos, nor an everlasting cycle of rebirths and deaths, but an eternal redemption, a total vindication and restoration in joy and meaning, where all the tears shed throughout history’s injustices would be wiped away forever.

    That vision of faith has given rise to a set of powerful metaphysical systems, and to powerful poetry across Europe, at least. In Korea, as in the countries around it, for centuries, history has been lived in the light of other less optimistic systems, and the poets have written in very different ways about loss, value and hope; even the very act of memorializing might be expected to have different roots and perspectives. It is often said that the Eastern vision of time is best summarized by a sense that all moments coincide in an ultimate, single Now; past, present and future are themselves seen as illusion in such a pattern. In modern times, a Korean poet, Ku Sang, has written of Eternity in the light of Catholic teaching, having read deeply in the writings of 20th-century French Catholic philosophers, while his work is rooted in centuries of Chinese, Korean, Indian and Japanese religious thought and poetry that know no transcendence, no Eternity. He represents a striking synthesis:

River  9.

Watching how the river waters flow
around red mountain slopes,
I bring to mind that moment when
a single drop of dew, long seeping
through the crust of earth, sprang out,
a tiny spring high up there on a desolate peak.

Watching how the river waters wind
across the verdant fields,
I picture when at last they reach
their destined ocean’s waiting vastness
and flowing into the billowing waves
leap beyond the bounds of time.

Watching how the river waters flow
with perfect ease before me,
I imagine when at last
this river, now all transmigration
with its repeated evaporations,
and I, the carcass of Karma-destiny then thrown off,
will meet again upon this spot as living beings.

붉은 산구비를 감돌아 흘러오는
강물을 바라보며
어느 소슬한 山頂(산정) 옹달샘 속에
한 방울의 이슬이 地殼(지각)을 뚫은
그 순간을 생각는다네.

푸른 들판을 휘돌아 흘러가는
강물을 바라보며
마침내 다다른 茫茫大海(망망대해)
넘실 파도에 흘러 들어
億劫(억겁)의 시간을 뒤치고 있을
그 모습을 생각는다네.

내 앞을 悠然(유연)히 흐르는
강물을 바라보며
蒸化(증화)를 거듭한 輪廻의 강이
因業(인업)의 허물을 벗은 나와
現存(현존)으로 이곳에 다시 만날
그 날을 생각는다네.

    The Christian doctrine of individual resurrection on the last day comes in the last lines of this poem to challenge the usual Asian notion of arising and dissolution, where all individual identity is illusory, temporary, as all separateness returns to the ocean of the undistinguished, universal All. We might want to recall how T. S. Eliot comes extremely close to the same kind of notion in part of Four Quartets:

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the co-existence,
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now.  (From: Burnt Norton, V)

At the same time, the doctrine of “momentariness” found in developed, philosophical Buddhism has long taught that “all conditioned material and mental phenomena pass out of existence as soon as they have come into existence. They are intrinsically momentary and no permanent, unitary self is detected.” The world is presented as “a shifting and transitory array of phenomena. It lacks any underlying substrate to serve as a common thread holding the moments of phenomena together.” We are reminded of the struggles of the Greek pre-Socratic philosophers, Heraklitos and Parmenides, the Eleatics, determined as they were to affirm the reality of something enduring despite the ubiquity of change, where Buddhism developed the radical denial of any such essential, enduring reality. Heraklitos’ words, “We do not step twice into the same river,” comes closest to suggesting a discontinuity within the flow of time similar to that taught in Buddhism. But he opposed to it a conviction that all emerges from and returns to the element of fire, a constancy that denies that all is illusion.

Yet in East and West alike, modern poets usually give voice to memory, whether time is thought ultimately to bring dissolution or resurrection. In the present order of things, what is past can only be rescued from ever-looming oblivion by an act of deliberate remembering, anamnesis. Personal history, like national history, can only be expressed in the present moment as a past recalled from the tomb by living memories. In England, this theme is most starkly explored in the difficult poetry of Geoffrey Hill. Hill's most consistent topics are death, memory, and the impossibility of adequate record or tribute. It is a theme that we can follow through his entire work. We find it particularly clearly stated in the last half of the last poem of the King Log "Funeral Music" which is in part borne on memories of three people executed centuries ago, during the Wars of the Roses:

... If it is without
Consequence when we vaunt and suffer, or
If it is not, all echoes are the same
In such eternity. Then tell me, love,
How that should comfort us -- or anyone
Dragged half-unnerved out of this worldly place,
Crying to the end 'I have not finished'.

The pity the reader is invited to feel for so much wasted life, and so many unwilling deaths, is not dwelt on but lingers as an angry question in the silences:

Low tragedy, high farce, fight for command,
march, counter-march, and come to the salute
at every hole-and-corner burial-rite
bellowed with hoarse dignity into the wind.

Take that for your example! But still mourn,
being so moved: éloge and elegy
so moving on the scene as if to cry
'in memory of those things these words were born.'

Peter K. Walker, in his Agenda essay on Hill (Vol. 34 No. 2. pages 76-87), writes:

The cry of individual pain (becomes) a metaphor of the cry of a world which in the end is losing its sense of any radiance of passionate engagement or deeper self-surrender. It is the cry of the stuff of humanity itself. It is emblematic, metaphoric even, I believe, of Hill's recent poetry as a corpus, the mark of which is its fusion of intellectual strength with simple, sensuous and passionate immediacy, coming out in passionate admiration, or anger and protest, ... or out of a deep sense of loss.

Hill, writing and living within the remains of a Christian tradition, writes to defend the expectation of meaning in a context where the flow of time and of social history strongly support those who deny the possibility of meaning and therefore of justice. Memorializing is not only a battle against oblivion, it is also a rebuttal of the the claim that nothing has ultimate value or meaning. His verse rejects the triviality of the modern west-European political vision, the corruptions of public life reflected in the way history is rewritten or denied through propaganda and publicity. The poet’s task is nothing short of prophetic; s.he is the ultimate sooth-sayer, the speaker of truth in time, against the failures of human memory in time.

In modern Korean poetry, there is surely nothing as complex and challenging as the work of Hill, but there is an interesting parallel to his notion of “memorializing” in the task Ko Un has set himself in Maninbo (Ten Thousand Lives). It is a paradox that he writes to deliver a host of hidden and no-so-hidden individual lives from oblivion and meaninglessness late in a life that has been strongly marked by the rejections and potential nihilism of radical Buddhism.

Korean Buddhist thought, in particular, is deeply marked by the skepticism initiated long ago by Chuang Tzu’s dream of the butterfly:

Once Chuang Tzu dreamed he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know he was Chuang Tzu. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Chuang Tzu. But he didn't know if he was Chuang Tzu who had dreamed he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Tzu.

In Korea, this has been given popular expression in a song, made familiar to a new generation in the recent movie 천년학 (Thousand-year crane):

꿈이로다 꿈이로다. 모두가 다 꿈이로다.
너도나도 꿈속이요. 이것저것이 꿈이로다.
꿈깨이니 또 꿈이요. 깨인꿈도 꿈이련만
꿈에 나서 꿈에 살고 꿈에 죽어가는 인생
부질없다. 깨라는 꿈 꿈을 깨어서 무엇을 하리 . . .

All’s a dream, all’s a dream. Everything is all a dream.
You and I are within a dream. This and that are all a dream.
Waking from dream is also a dream. The wakened dream is still a dream.
Born in dream, living in dream, dying in dream, our human life
is vanity. Commanded by dream to wake, once we awake from dream, what then? . . .

Yet despite these dominant notions of time’s unreality, in the poems of Maninbo Ko Un attempts to pay tribute to every least dead child’s most transient existence, giving some of them as much space as the famous political and spiritual leaders of our times. So far he has published 23 volumes, containing thousands of poems, and still he continues to write, to the greater despair of his publisher, since few readers seem inclined to need so much memory. But in our context, it is important to focus on this project, which Ko Un sees as a most sacred obligation to which he is engaged by vow. One way of seeing it is as a reminder that even when there is no professed belief in any restoration at the end of time and history, there remains a humanism. known in Buddhism as compassion, that refuses the temptations of nihilism and despair.

In the compassion of Buddha, as in the love of Christ, no human life is insignificant, especially no life that is marked by pain and injustice; to both of them, the reality of each human existence in time and history is essentially a summons to distinguish between the illusions and the essential realities. Each affirms that the value of a human life must never be subject to the oblivion which unconcerned Time brings in its train, if we can prevent it. It is a matter of truth, which is not a conceptual thing but an authenticity of vision. I once had a school teacher whose favorite maxim was, “Time is your enemy.” He was right, of course, in that Time is very often a pseudonym for Death. Death is humanity’s ultimate enemy, if Time is the absolute scale of value, for nothing can resist his reaping scythe. To be “forgotten as if they had never been, wiped without trace from the books of memory,” is the ultimate punishment with which Time threatens our human identities.

That is why there is no human person who does not recognize the sense implicit in the last words spoken to Hamlet by his Father’s ghost: “Remember me!” Our ultimate duty to the dead, their last request and all that we can do to offer them justice and consolation, is the act of memory. The poets have always been the guardians of memory for that very reason. Time may bring transience and mortality, that is its right, but it must not be allowed to obliterate any human life as if it had never been. That was put most dramatically into words by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

So the poets of East and West are united in the greatest of humanity’s battles, the battle against the oblivion brought by the flow of time. They tell us that we should keep striving by all means to affirm that every least moment of life deserves our acts of memory, for by them we overcome time and affirm the value and meaning of what it is to be human.