On January 1st, as we move from one calendar year to the next, the familiar figure of Old Father Time is often used to represent the year just gone. He is depicted as the robed figure of an old man with a flowing beard, carrying an hourglass and invariably a scythe. His origins are thought to date back to ancient myths, in which Saturn (known to the Greeks as Kronos) was the Deity of Time and closely associated with the agricultural year; he was armed with a sickle or scythe, which was the tool he used to reap the crops at harvest time.
It is clear that George Herbert's imaginary encounter is not with a benevolent old man, but with a very different character. A standard religious representation of the period was the dark-cloaked and hooded skeletal figure representing mortality, but there is little doubt that this mythical being was descended from the Saturn of old, and of course he too carries an hourglass (the sands of time) and a scythe. But his function had evolved from being the gatherer of the harvest to the harvester of souls. In other words, for Herbert and his contemporaries, Time was the personification of Death.
Life's brief span was a popular subject with poets of the period. This is thought to be one of Herbert's later poems, and despite its sombre subject matter its tone is playful and even philosophical. It might well have been written after a bout of illness, or at a time when he knew his life was drawing to a close - 'Meeting with Time' could be interpreted as a brush with death. It is one of his many conversational poems, but for once the other party is not God but the Grim Reaper.
Herbert begins by charging Time with being inefficient, and failing to harvest his soul - his scythe is blunt and needs sharpening. That's hardly surprising, says Time, because most people ('Twentie for one') believe that an encounter with my scythe is best avoided. Well, responds Herbert, that may have been true for the ancients, but we Christians hold the more enlightened view that death is something to be welcomed. The scythe's role is not to cull but to prune, whereby mankind grows stronger.
Here Herbert is applying his knowledge of horticulture. Judging by The Country Parson, he was well versed in the growing of fruit and knew that judicious pruning was the key to a strong and healthy plant or tree. The whole of his poem 'Paradise', in which he prunes successive lines, is built around this conceit. So Time, he says, is now a gardener rather than an 'executioner at best'; his job is to see man safely through the transition to eternal life.
And now Herbert turns philosopher. Little wonder, he muses, that life seems interminable because all it does is prevent us from going to heaven. What's more, the greater our enjoyment of earthly 'pleasures' the worse the situation gets; Herbert is a great believer in 'heav'nly joyes'. And then a thought seems to strike him - actually, time iteslf is interminable and reaches beyond eternity. In the early 17th century the mathematical concept of infinity would not have been understood, but Herbert senses that the universe extends 'beyond the starres' - a phrase familiar to all who know and love one of his best-known poems, the sonnet 'Prayer (I)'.
In a typical Herbertian conclusion to the poem, Time has had enough of this whimsy. This man doesn't really want me, he complains irritably, completely (and perhaps deliberately, Herbert implies) misunderstanding the poet's expressed desire for eternal life. He's wasting my time!
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