“Words move, music moves,” writes T.S. Eliot in Four Quartets, “only in time.” The poet links words and music through temporality. Each relies on time to be expressed, to live. “But,” T.S. Eliot warns, “that which is only living/ Can only die.”
Time makes art possible. Art takes place in motion – always in motion. We tend to think of art as if it were a photograph of the past. As if it caught and froze a moment in time. In fact, however, art is always reaching forward and backward. It does not capture an age so much as it captures the imagination of an age – and an imagination reaches to the future using the past. So, while it is true to say, “Titian is an artist of the Italian Renaissance,” we should be careful not to forget that the Italian Renaissance has a complex relationship with its past and future.
What is more, the art of the past speaks to us in the present. It does not speak to us only as something past, but as a vital voice in our present. Art would not be capable of this if it were not already so closely linked with time as to retain a continued dynamism. The past always speaks to us. Because we are always in time.
The art that is most strongly temporal, most invested in time, is music. It relies wholly on time – in fact, on varying times in a single thread of time – for its expression. Music rises up to us clothed in the moment.
This is, perhaps, lost to us now. Recorded music conceals some of its temporality. I can sit down and hear Mozart or the Beatles any time I please, at my command. The meters and tempos are there, always relating back to time’s multiplicity, but the experience of music’s fragile reliance on time is deadened. Before music could be recorded, it only persisted in live performances. Only someone present in the moment could hear it. This magnifies music’s relationship to time.
It also makes more obvious the other correlate to time, which Eliot already mentioned: that which occurs in time also dies. Time inexorably pulls away at our every expression, especially art. Temporality means life, and it also means death. And art is caught up in this, music most of all. The thrill of a live performance necessarily becomes a thrill of the past, a memory. It no longer lives save in a half-measure. As long as we remember it.
Music’s force is in its vulnerability to time.
In many ways, poetry relies on music to make sense of itself. Music is – from the perspective of poetry – the more elemental art. It is capable of expressing without words. Poetry depends almost entirely on words. Words have a weakness about them – as Eliot continues:
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.
Words, which also rely in time for their meaning, experience a weakness akin to music’s. Poetry relies on words, but words shift. The art is always building on sand.
But the link between music and poetry is stronger than this, stronger than a simple mutual vulnerability to time. Poetry deliberately imitates music: with its meter, its assonance, its alliteration, etc. Poetry has a sound. It stresses its meaning according to specific sounds. Listen, for example, to the poet-musician G.M. Hopkins as he asks who can prevent beauty from fading:
How to kéep—is there ány any, is there none such, nowhere known some, bow or brooch or braid or brace, láce, latch or catch or key to keep
Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty, … from vanishing away?
Read it out loud. Hear the way the words fall against each other, rush together, as if they were all disintegrating from a great height. The sound itself reinforces the meaning.
Because art is always related to time, and music most of all. Poetry, itself temporal, clings to time more forcefully the more it clings to musical sound. This makes expression more fragile, but also more effective. (And more affective.) We are ourselves creatures of time, creatures bound in time. We speak in and through time. Art, which is our expression, reflects time back to us.