Last Updated on February 1, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 757
Henry Timrod’s “The Past” is a meditation on life and death that urges the listener or reader to treasure even the smallest detail of life on earth because of the certainty that it will one day disappear and exist only as memory. The message and tone betray a Romantic preoccupation with death and reflect Timrod’s deep admiration for the English poet William Wordsworth. The poem’s fascination with the interplay between present and past—and how the former is forever transforming into the latter—places it in conversation with Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality.”
Although this poem predates the Civil War, it anticipates the emphasis on loss that dominates post-war Southern literature, including Timrod’s own later poetry. During the war, Timrod wrote verse and prose that championed the Confederate cause, and for these efforts Timrod has been referred to as the “poet laureate of the Confederacy.”
“The Past,” which consists of twenty-four lines in six stanzas, is written in iambic pentameter in a regular ABAB rhyme scheme. Using second person, the speaker encourages the unnamed addressee to appreciate what has gone before: “The value and the beauty of the Past.” This appreciation will encompass even actions that seem merely trivial. “The simplest record” is likely to slip by unnoticed, the speaker cautions, but the addressee will find a need to rely on such small memories when times grow difficult. When death overcomes life, and the addressee suffers the “pain and woe” of grief, then they will appreciate what went before. At a straightforward level, the poem offers a word of caution: take nothing for granted, for it will quickly be taken away. At a deeper level, it offers more abstract and unsettling intimations: the present is already past, and the past forever present.
The tone of the poem is serious, even reverential, but not somber, as the attitude of the speaker towards the addressee is one of care. The speaker seems to be drawing on his own experiences to provide useful counsel. The poem moves from the concrete and earthly toward more abstract and metaphysical considerations. This progression is emphasized through the metaphors deployed. The first stanza begins with a fertility metaphor, emphasizing the immediate, earthly, and small: “the seed of future fruitfulness….” By the fourth stanza, the speaker is using an atmospheric metaphor to indicate how the past, though seemingly distant, enshrouds us:
Not as a distant and a darkened sky,
Through which the stars peep, and the moonbeams glow;
But a surrounding atmosphere, whereby
We live and breathe, sustained in pain and woe.
In the penultimate stanza, the speaker compares the past to “a shadowy land, where joy and sorrow kiss,” evoking the way memory can enclose past joys and sorrows alike. He then refers to the past as a place where “nothing wholly perishes but Grief,” only to swiftly correct himself in the final stanza:
Ah, me!—not dies—no more than spirit dies;
But in a change like death is clothed with wings;
A serious angel, with entranced eyes,
Looking to far-off and celestial things.
This sudden shift represents both the natural desire for grief to fade as well as the clear-eyed recognition that it does not. Moreover, the final stanza underscores grief’s intractability by figuring it as an angel presiding over the pervading domain of the past.
In this final stanza it becomes clear that the poem’s movement from the small and concrete (“seed”) to the vast and metaphysical (“celestial things”) is connected by word choice. In sound, the “trivial” of the poem’s first line is echoed in “celestial” in the very last line. In meaning, however, distinction is emphasized, with “trivial” contrasted to “serious” in the penultimate line.
Other literary devices include several types of sound repetition—namely alliteration and consonance—often used together to create a sonorous flow. Alliteration is the repetition of an initial letter sound, whereas consonance is the repetition of a consonant sound, regardless of its place. In the first stanza, the poet begins with t sounds at the beginning and end of words. “To-day’s most trivial act….” The second line uses alliteration of f sounds, together with a consonance of t sounds: “future fruitfulness, or future dearth….” In the second stanza, alliteration can be found in the s and p sounds: “sounding to the strife” and “part and parcel of thy present life”; the s is picked up again, via consonance, in “parcel” and “present.” Altogether, such techniques give the poem a sonic fullness and an authoritative tone.