“Time” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

J.M.W. Turner,  Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth  (1842)

J.M.W. Turner, Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842)


“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, 
Unfathomable Sea?”

John Kerr comments:

In his life and writings, Shelley was fascinated with the element—water—that would one day take his life. In the above poem, Shelley explores another subject, “time,” by linking it to the great waterways of the world. Like time, the “unfathomable sea” wields great power over human life, and its unknowability makes it sublime—that is, both captivating and terrifying. 

The ocean, whose space appears to stretch on infinitely, would seem to be the best symbol we have for thinking about time. But for Shelley, the ocean also says something about human limitations. Readers of the second-generation Romantics might recognize this convention: as the primary setting of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, for instance, the sea illustrates the confusion and turmoil—you might say adriftness—both of the Byronic hero and the British society he comes from. There is also Keats’ famous epitaph, “here lies one whose name was writ in water,” which shares with Shelley’s poem a fear that our lives might be as transient and unremembered as a wave breaking on the shore. For these writers, the great waterways are both majestic illustrations of the world’s hidden power, and ever-present reminders of our vulnerability as mortal beings.

Jon Kerr is a recently graduated from the University of Toronto with his PhD in English literature with a specialization in the Romantics. He is currently at Mount Alison University in New Brunswick, Canada on a post doctoral fellowship.