The bittersweet beauty, envy of the gods, that “all good things come to an end.”
Chronos, the specter Father Time, begins haunting most people in late childhood, from the day they first discover they are growing old. Time is a hindrance, time is one of our tragedies. We may dose up on the drug of routine so that we forget time’s passage, until the bruising hand of death, change, and missed opportunities wakes us again. Nothing hurts like the ache of those might-have-beens: the ruined love, the words you meant to say but didn’t, the flower that wilted. The pain stings just as sharply every time that we, who desire the eternal, re-discover that we are shut out.
Plenty of writers have wrestled with and sought to come to terms with time and mortality. Many of them found that devotion to the arts—writing, reading novels and poetry, listening to music, dancing—is an important means of learning to embrace the world of time, with all the sorrows and glories that follow along with it.
In her story “Circe,” the southern writer Eudora Welty describes time as a gift. I have always loved Welty for the gentle, compassionate way she writes about the world and its people. It is not good, she says, for mortal creatures to look into eternity for long. The deathless isle of the goddess Circe was not for Odysseus, and it is not for us. We were made to live in a world of time, to discover truth by wending its long and twisting paths.
Mortal life is a bittersweet gift. We must grow old and die, we must love knowing we will lose, and we must experience heart-breaking grief. But we also have pleasures that immortal Circe will never know—the joy of reunions, the poignancy of happy moments cherished in memory, and above all, the delight of storytelling, music-making, and art. In “Circe,” the pen and brush are gifts the gods long for but can never possess.
These treasures are unique to the time world, but they constantly remind us of what lies beyond time. By blocking out distractions and settling down in an easy chair to listen to a piece of music—feeling the tempo, hearing the sequences of melody and silence, and following the themes as they are developed and resolved—you accept and enter into time for the duration of the piece. In writing a poem or immersing yourself in a good novel, you work through and in time, in hopes of finding something unchangingly lovely—a timeless beauty.
As you experience or wrestle with art, you are no longer skimming purposelessly over minutes and hours, nor are you letting yourself be undone by the bitterness of change. You are striving to discover the gem hidden within time’s maze, what T.S. Eliot calls the “still center”—the timeless moment, the place of beauty, where time and eternity intersect.
For both Eliot and Welty, art seems to be a means by which humans can know and share timeless moments within time. But both also recognize that humility, as well as a kind of vision, are necessary to embrace time. One might call it faith. In his “Four Quartets,”Eliot calls it “A condition of complete simplicity/(Costing not less than everything),” allowing us to see that “All shall be well and /All manner of thing shall be well.”