Patterns of Hope and Images of Eternity: Listening to Shakespeare, Blake and T.S. Eliot
It is a human experience to feel uncomfortable with time. Literature is full of complaints about it. Ovid accuses time of being ‘the devourer of everything’,1 and W.H. Auden laments that
One obvious problem with time is that human beings never have enough of it. Time moves towards death, which is felt to be a threat to life and an offence to love. But the discomfort with time runs deeper than this. In some way the human personality is broken by its very passing. Augustine observes that as time flows through the present moment from expectation of the future to memory of the past, it gives ‘extension’ to the mind (distentio animi); 3 but he deliberately uses a word (distentio) whose verbal stem also means ‘to divide’ or ‘to distract’. The mind is extended as it measures time, but it is also broken by it. Like Heidegger much later on,4 Augustine registers the sense of being torn asunder by time (‘I am divided between time gone by and time to come’).5 Nor is the dis-ease with time simply an individual, existential condition. Any society finds it hard to construct a present
identity which takes account of the ideologies established in the past and yet is open to new policies and strategies for the future. Appeals to ‘New Labour’ and ‘Cameron-Conservatives’ put the point for us in the UK today. As Hamlet reflects on the mythical state of Denmark, he observes:
Over against this discomfort/dis-ease with time there arise images of eternity, as a contrast with time. They generate patterns of hope, that lead us to act in appropriate ways in the present. I want to explore various images of eternity, and the types of hope they create, through listening to the work of three poets. My aim is not to force these into a rigid typology, and certainly not to attribute only one kind of image to each writer. Rather, I would like to explore the tension that arises between different images in all of my chosen subjects.