Yes, it is well enough that time be measured
By the hard shadow a pillar casts in summer
Or by the water moving in that river
Where Heraclitus once saw our obsession,
Since both resemble time and destiny:
The deep imponderable daily shadow,
And the cold coursing tendency of water
Continuing irreversibly on its way;
Well enough. But time found in the desert
Another medium, both soft and heavy,
One that seems almost to have been invented
For measuring out the eons of the dead.
And so arose the allegorical instrument
You see in pictures in the dictionaries,
The kind of thing that grey antiquaries
Relegate to the ashen tenements
Of the lone chesspiece, the all but harmless
Old sword, the blurry telescope,
The sandalwood pipe bitten by opium,
And dust—dust, accident, and nothingness.
Who hasn’t taken thought before the severe
And gloomy device held fast in the right
Hand of the god with the long scythe,
Whose withered lines were mirrored once by Dürer?
Through the pierced apex of the inverse
Lower cone the trickling sandstream falls,
Gradual gold that loosens as it fills
The concave crystal of its universe.
It is agreeable to watch the unknown
Sand as it slides and declines and then, just
About to fall, swarms about with a haste
That is entirely and all too human.
The same sand is also the sand of kalpas,
And endless, endless is its history;
And so, beneath your bliss or misery,
Timeproof eternity caves in on itself.
Its falling never pauses, not for a minute.
I will bleed dry, but not the glass. The rite
Of pouring off the sand is infinite
And with the sand our life goes pouring out.
I can believe I sense in sand’s revolving
A cosmic time: immeasurable series,
Which memory thinks to imprison in its mirrors
And Lethe’s magic flood keeps on dissolving.
Both Rome and Carthage with their hard-pressed legions,
The great pillar of cloud and pillar of fire,
Simon Magus, the seven feet of dirt
The Saxon king offers to the Norwegian—
All that is swept away and nullified
By this untiring, subtile thread of sand.
Nor am I fated to save myself, a chance
Creature of time, which is a stuff that slides.
—translated with R. G. Barnes
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 10 Number 4, on page 39
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