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Featured Poem: Time Long Past by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Written by Rachael Norris, 30th December 2019

This week's Featured Poem is Time Long Past by Thomas Hardy, chosen by The Reader's Learning and Quality Coordinator, Lisa Spurgin.

I find that it’s inevitable at this time of year to think about the past. The recent past, most certainly, as there are lists upon lists of summaries of world events from the year gone by broadcast in newspapers and on television. These can also lead us to reflect upon our own personal successes, as well as the things we didn’t get the chance to get round to - perhaps too many of those well-meaning resolutions we had twelve months previous, like learning a foreign language or useless but entertaining skill.

The nostalgia that the festive period brings can often take us further back in time, which can be both celebratory but also a cause for sorrow and bittersweet feelings. Reading this poem through for the first time, I definitely get a sense of the melancholy. Indeed, something deeper than that. Each line seems to dig deeper, unearthing more sadness, regret and longing for this time long past. It makes me wonder how long ‘long past’ is – it feels like we’re talking about years and perhaps even decades, rather than weeks or months. It seems important that ‘forever’ is mentioned, although in the negative sense that the ‘tone’ and the ‘hope’ of the time long past can never be recaptured. Why might this be?

I’m particularly struck by ‘a love so sweet it could not last’ – immediately, it makes me think this must be a romantic love, one which was perhaps idealised by one or the other people experiencing it, or only right for that moment in time. But of course, it could be another kind of love. Whatever kind it is, it makes me sad that it was unable to endure. Skipping ahead towards the end of the poem, I wasn’t sure what ‘a child’s beloved corse’ meant. Having a quick google it seems to refer to a corpse, which puts an entirely different spin on the poem.

I’m really intrigued, and a bit puzzled, by the following lines:

And, was it sadness or delight,
Each day a shadow onward cast
Which made us wish it yet might last –

I get the sense of hopping between sadness and delight – at least from the point of looking back retrospectively. We can savour good memories and use them as a source of happiness as much as we can mourn the fact that they are no longer happening in the present, and exist in both emotions simultaneously. It’s the ‘shadow onward cast’ that I’m not quite sure about. I’m viewing the past as a shadow upon the present and the future – certainly, this time long past appears to be a happier, more settled time, so it’s understandable that the fact that it hasn’t lasted would make the times to come seem like a darker place to live through, if we are to keep thinking back and fixating on times that can’t be brought back.

Regret, remorse – yes, I’ve certainly felt that, especially about those ‘what ifs’ which all of us experience, some more than others on looking back and reminiscing. I love those three closing lines, which offer a chink of light on what can be read as quite a despairing, or at least deeply reflective poem:

A father watches, till at last
Beauty is like remembrance, cast
From Time long past.

Beauty as like remembrance, and in turn remembrance providing beauty – what a lovely way to think about the past and especially about aspects of it which might give us pain, as well as making space for it in the future.

I hope that during the passage of one year into another we can all embrace the past and celebrate its beauty alongside paying respects, and looking forward to what is yet to come.

Time Long Past

Like the ghost of a dear friend dead
Is Time long past.
A tone which is now forever fled,
A hope which is now forever past,
A love so sweet it could not last,
Was Time long past.

There were sweet dreams in the night
Of Time long past:
And, was it sadness or delight,
Each day a shadow onward cast
Which made us wish it yet might last-
That Time long past.

There is regret, almost remorse,
For Time long past.
'Tis like a child's belovèd corse
A father watches, till at last
Beauty is like remembrance, cast
From Time long past.

Percy Bysshe Shelley 

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