Structural Analysis: Six Categories
Cherry blossoms - Shelley and Tagore on time - Historical ages and periods
This includes any type of real or theoretical time frame: a momentary encounter, an hour, a day, a year, or any amount of time in the past or the future — from the Big Bang (or Creation) till the end of the universe (or Day of Judgment). This includes manipulations of linear time.
The following poem is by Ariwara Narihira, from the 10th C. collection The Kokinshu. Note how space and time intertwine: the falling of the blossoms suggests the progression of time; the randomness of their falling suggests the hazards of time and chance; the mention of clouds suggests some greater, later destination; and the path hidden by the falling blossoms suggests the more difficult movement of time which leads toward old age and death. The poet suggests that he wants the blossoms of the moment to cover up the future so that he doesn’t have to think about it.
Scatter at random, / O blossoms of the cherry, / and cloud the heavens, / so that you conceal the path / old age is said to follow.
Shelley and Tagore on Time
In the following poem, Shelley sees time in terms of the large spaces of the sea and in terms of the horrific power of a sea-monster. The ocean is linked to the monster by the brackish depths and by the powerful ebb and flow of the tides:
Unfathomable Sea! whose waves are years,
Ocean of Time, whose waters of deep woe
Are brackish with the salt of human tears!
Thou shoreless flood, which in thy ebb and flow
Claspest the limits of mortality,
And sick of prey, yet howling on for more,
Vomitest thy wrecks on its inhospitable shore;
Treacherous in calm, and terrible in storm,
Who shall put forth on thee,
Shelley’s view of time is a grim one, unlike the positive view taken by the Bengali author and poet Rabindranath Tagore:
Time is endless in thy hands, my lord.
There is none to count thy minutes.
Days and nights pass and ages bloom and fade like flowers.
Thou knowest how to wait.
Thy centuries follow each other perfecting a small wild flower.
We have no time to lose,
and having no time we must scramble for a chance.
We are too poor to be late.
And thus it is that time goes by
while I give it to every querulous man who claims it,
and thine altar is empty of all offerings to the last.
At the end of the day I hasten in fear lest thy gate be shut;
but I find that yet there is time.
In writing about time, ask yourself why a writer sets up a particular time frame, and how this time frame affects character, conflict, theme, etc. For instance, imagine a film starting with a Wall Street executive about to put a bullet into her head. The director then takes the audience back to a beautiful summer day when the character was younger, happier, and lying on a lawn with her boyfriend. By manipulating linear time in this way the director is urging the viewer to examine the intervening time-frame with a clear purpose: to detect the causes which lead her to suicide. If she was once so happy, what made her want to kill herself? The director’s use of time might lead the viewer to examine her character (3), her relations with others (4), and her struggle with a particular problem or issue (5).
Other uses of time include flash-backs, historical references, moments where time seems to expand or contract, biography charting the course of a person’s life, jumping back and forth from the present to the past to set up a parallel between the two, comparing aspects of the present to a future time which is perfect (a utopia) or imperfect (a dystopia).
In his anti-war book Slaughterhouse-Five (1968), Kurt Vonnegut’s protagonist Billy is traumatized by war. As a result, his mind jumps around in the fourth dimension of time. Thus “unstuck in time,” Billy sees a war movie backwards, which allows Vonnegut to make his reader think about the causes of war, the destructive direction in which humans take technology, and the possibility of doing things differently:
[Billy] went into the living room, swinging the [champagne] bottle like a dinner bell, turned on the television. He came slightly unstuck in time, saw the late movie backwards, then forwards again. It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this:
American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.
The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.
When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.
Historical Ages and Periods
Because we’ll be touching on ancient history and reading Shakespeare, Romantic poets, and Modern poets, you should be familiar with basic time periods. In the broadest sense, there are four historical Ages: 1. Ancient 3000 BC – 1000 BC; 2. Classical 1000 BC – 500 AD; 3. Medieval 500 AD – 1500 AD; 4. Modern 500 AD - present. Within the Modern Age, the following ages and periods are likely to crop up:
Renaissance: c. 15th - 16th C. — characterized as breaking from the religious and feudal systems of the Middle Ages; rise of humanism, science, and global European empires.
Enlightenment or Age of Reason: roughly the mid 17th C. to the late 18th C. — characterized by the exploration of science and rational thinking.
Romantic: late 18th and early 19th C. — characterized by a re-integration of emotion into the rational frameworks explored in the Age of Reason.
The two images below suggest the 18th C. spirit of rationalism and the emotional spirit of Romanticism which followed:
Victorian: 1832 (passage of the Great Reform Act) to 1901 (death of Queen Victoria) — characterized by democratic reform (abolition of slavery, voting rights), scientific advances and discoveries (especially of evolution, but also electricity, photography, telegraphy, decipherment of hieroglyphs and cuneiform, etc.).
Modern Period: 1900-1950 or 1900 to the present.
Post-modern Period: 1950 to the present.