By the time Algernon Charles Swinburne’s “The Triumph of Time” has concluded, the ongoing monologue has cycled through the elements of time, love, and inevitable death. The stanzas themselves can be reordered and no effect would be lost. This incredibly emotional poem highlights the speaker’s painful grief resulting from the rejection of a loved one. The woman is never revealed but her sealed identity sets the tone for Swinburne’s self-reflection on the perils of love. However, it is the elements of time, love, and death that characterize the ongoing motif of this poem.
The Hollywood film, Collateral Beauty, made famous by Will Smith, presents a modern-day take on these elements albeit with a happier ending. The parallels are complimentary. In both film and poem, we see the bitter sting of love lost and the grief that consumes the title character in each.
T I M E
“I will go back to the great sweet mother,
Mother and lover of men, the sea.” (257-258)
Swinburne makes extensive use of symbols and plays on the dichotomy that is rejection and embrace. The barren sea represents a symbol of welcoming. It’s here that his body will be accepted even after death. As dark as the lines above may seem, they have a nice rhythm, just rolling off the tongue. Swinburne might argue that there is beauty and even comfort in death. In Collateral Beauty, Will Smith’s character has a daughter that tragically dies. The pain that comes from loss lasts forever and there is no cure. The “collateral beauty” is what one chooses to do with the time left on earth. In many ways, it’s an opportunity to reinvent oneself. Swinburne, on the other hand, says:
“There are worse things waiting for men than death;
Death could not sever my soul and you,
As these have severed your soul from me.” (158-160)
Perhaps death, itself, is no match for spurned love. He even says, “Time, swift to hasten and swift to sever” (3). This allusion to time is repeated throughout. Is fate to blame or is it merely the passage of time that makes true love impossible? In Collateral Beauty, time represents an opportunity for healing. In “The Triumph of Time” it represents a continuation of misery.
L O V E
The dark, romantic prose characteristic of the Victorian-era is vivid in “The Triumph of Time”. Every word lingers and you can’t help but say many of the words out loud. The dreary reality depicted is met with words of extreme passion and love.
“We had grown as gods, as gods in heaven,
Souls fair to look upon, goodly to greet,
One splendid spirit, your soul and mine.” (30-32)
The agony the narrator feels is palpable. His words scream of passion but we know they are not reciprocated. Swinburne argues that love met with death is less painful than having not experienced love at all. He goes on to say:
“O all fair lovers about the world,
There is none of you, none, that shall comfort me.” (177-178)
The poem makes several claims that love and life are equal. To never love means one has never lived. In Collateral Beauty, the pain of death is unbearable but the love that existed is undeniable. To have loved once suggests the ability to love again, even after loss. Will Smith’s character, full of pain, begins to understand the purpose for his life and the love that he still wants to share. I’d argue that his character was stuck, immobile, and comfortable doing nothing. His immense love emotionally crippled him but, as we discover, it was also the solution for a hopeful future.
D E A T H
In Collateral Beauty, love, time and death are said to connect everyone. A recurring line throughout the movie says that as humans:
“We long for love.
We wish we had more time.
And we fear death.”
Juxtaposing this movie, Swinburne’s poem notes the longing for love but time and death are, in many ways, a reflection of the style of poem itself. The “Triumph of Time” doesn’t have a beginning, middle, and end. In fact, the poem comes across like a soapbox and we get a look inside the narrator’s grief-stricken mind. I expect that Swinburne views death and time as arbitrary elements in ones’ quest for love. Death is not to be feared, so long as love is found. The symbolic use of the sea is used throughout the poem. Every time the narrator lapses into a depiction of what could have been it circles back to the sea, and the motherly, welcoming invitation it provides. The sea is symbolic of death itself but not in the bleak sense of the word. Being associated with the “mother” and full of embrace it is a symbol of comfort and closure.