Time is a thief who leaves his tools behind him;
He comes by night, he vanishes at dawn;
We track his footsteps, but we never find him
Strong locks are broken, massive bolts are drawn,
And all around are left the bars and borers,
The splitting wedges and the prying keys,
Such aids as serve the soft-shod vault-explorers
To crack, wrench open, rifle as they please.
Ah, these are tools which Heaven in mercy lends us
When gathering rust has clenched our shackles fast,
Time is the angel-thief that Nature sends us
To break the cramping fetters of our past.
Mourn as we may for treasures he has taken,
Poor as we feel of hoarded wealth bereft,
More precious are those implements forsaken,
Found in the wreck his ruthless hands have left.
Some lever that a casket’s hinge has broken
Pries off a bolt, and lo! our souls are free;
Each year some Open Sesame is spoken,
And every decade drops its master-key.
So as from year to year we count our treasure,
Our loss seems less, and larger look our gains;
Time’s wrongs repaid in more than even measure, –
We lose our jewels, but we break our chains.
Text via Public Domain Poetry
I memorized this poem as an adolescent because I loved it that much. I used to do that, a long time ago.
Back in the days of Jimmy Carter and the rotary phone, a trip to the library was an outing in small Southern towns. We’d go and stack our books up, then browse. I’d browse poetry anthologies and memorize the short ones, standing right there in the library. Just memorize it and put the book back on the shelf. No need to carry that big thick thing home. The poem was in my head, and the book would be there when I needed another one, because no one ever checked them out. I just assumed it was there so everybody could memorize the ones they liked. The cover was red.
As I was shutting down and preparing to go to sleep last Thursday, something made the first line bubble up to the top of my mind. I had to recite the first three stanzas to find the title, and then I used that to search for it and when I found it I said, “Oh, yes, Holmes!”
“The soft-shod vault explorers” is truly an unforgettable image.
I like this poem because it’s about time. We only have so much of it. It takes away everything, eventually, even our lives. But the poem invites us to think about what would happen if we had all the time in the world. What then? Would we still live every moment to its fullest? Would we accomplish things? Be productive?
This is a quintessential American poem. I am not sure I agree with it. But I love it.