Life, Time, and Oblivion in Swinburne’s “The Triumph of Time”
In Algernon Charles Swinburne’s lamentation of lost love, “The Triumph of Time,” he explores many sprawling symbols. Three images in particular spoke a great deal to me and complicated this already intricate poem. In Greek mythology, the world began with a void, with oblivion, and all else was born out of it. Everything came from oblivion, and Swinburne symbolizes this through the sea as he frequently refers to the sea as “mother.” Time and life were not created until much later. Swinburne introduces these two elements of his poem as “the sands of life” and “the straits of time” (82). The strait is a narrow flow and a short distance of awareness of time between one oblivion and another. Time is the “straits” and the “streams” which trickle from the oblivion of the sea. Dirt, sand, the sprouts of earth, are embodiments of life. Time is “swift to fasten and swift to sever” (3), just as smaller bodies of water connect masses of land but, at the same time, cut through them. The image of a stream as time focuses on the eroding nature of flowing water. If the land is life, then the rivers and straits are time gouging their marks on and through life.
Unlike the stillness of the deep sea, streams and bays are shallow, aggressive forces that pull and push through dirt and sand. The current of life is “rapid . . . and dumb as a dream” (59). Dreams seem to begin and end in the blink of an eye as one is unconscious, and Swinburne compares this experience to the brief whims of life. “When men are dead” (130), the love they experienced becomes futile as time washes away their efforts and passions. The condition of living is fundamentally to endure a loss of vitality as time inexorably passes. The speaker of the poem finds the solution in oblivion. Leaving behind “the woven raiment of nights and days” (281), the confines of time, the speaker would become submerged in the “mother and lover of men, the sea” (258). They would return to the amniotic fluid that bore all elements before time or life took form. “Wrecked and whirled” gives a distinct image of a shipwreck (179), with its pieces floating “in the gulf of the sea” (180). In choosing unawareness, their thoughts would become one with oblivion. However, in “the straining stream” of time, pieces of those “dead things” make their way into the wandering veins of water (181, 179)—the way that the sea wanders away from its full body into smaller parts. Although the speaker’s desire is to be lost in oblivion, fragments of them still wander through time where the subject of the poem remains.
In the latter portion of the poem, Swinburne writes of a woman “in a land of sand and ruin” (323). The man in love with her crosses the sea to meet her on land, but as he “touche[s] land . . . life gr[ows] cold” (327). From the moment the man emerges from oblivion, touches the sand, and touches life, he is dying. He is only granted an aborted instant to see the women he loves. The image, while despairing, is neutralised as Swinburne’s speaker calls out to their “brother” (337). Now dead and re-embraced by oblivion, they tell the man to “sleep, and be glad” of “the gifts [his love] gave” him before he died (338, 343). This marks a significant turn in the poem, as the speaker no longer concentrates on oblivion but, rather, the gifts of life that can only be granted within time, such as the “passion of wonder” and “loves that thunder” (361, 363). The thoughts of the speaker grow and connect with one another throughout the poem, and by the end of the poem there comes an almost unwilling reconciliation with time and life. Although “fairer than earth is the sea” (373), they do not decide to “sleep” as they so long to. The gifts of life are “are over, and no more” theirs after their devastating encounter with love (368), but the speaker pronounces that they shall endure the tread of life and time’s “triumph” over it. Overall, through entangled metaphors and musings, this poem creates a vivid and even relatable reflection of sorrow and acceptance of that sorrow that evaluates, expands upon, and re-evaluates all sentiments relating to it to draw a conclusion of one’s feelings through (sometimes morbid) introspection.