Ever since I read Rilke’s “Autumn Day,” I had long wanted to own a sundial. The poem’s first stanza had left a mark on me — “Lord, it is time. Let the great summer go, / Lay your long shadows on the sundials, / And over harvest piles let the winds blow.”
I have timepieces in the house of which I have lost count — among them an erratic cuckoo clock with a devoted bird. Still, I yearned for a sundial. Perhaps, as a number of my poems might suggest, I am obsessed by time, and deep down seek to fathom the meaning of St. Augustine’s words: “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.”
At first I toyed with the idea of making my own sundial. But the instructions given in references prescribe the use of cardboard or some other equally ephemeral thing, whereas I contemplated an all-weather device, whether or not lastingly attached to the ground. Somehow the matter called for quick action when the wife and I acquired a rocking chair for the balcony, which rises barely four feet from the ground, and so gives access to four rose bushes, which in due course thrust their yellow flowers through the metal grille and dangled them near the arms of the rocking chair. I felt that only one thing remained to complete the scene — a sundial.
I checked eBay and found a sundial that fit the bill. The seller described it as a garden sundial, and I bought it.
It arrived after a month or so, and looked every bit as advertised — cast iron, of sprayed verdigris finish, about ten inches in diameter, the gnomon in the form of a dragonfly, the stand about a foot in height.
As if performing a ritual, I laid the sundial in front of the rocking chair.
Daily I checked the sundial, and daily I saw the roses inching towards it and eventually touching it. I thought of Yeats’ “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time” (“Red Rose, proud Rose, sad Rose of all my days”) — he meant the rose as symbol for Maud Gonne as well Ireland, but I am digressing.
The hours on the sundial’s face are marked with Roman numerals. At first I asked myself why they began with six and ended with six, and realized that these were the daylight hours, the time of day the sundial is concerned with, the hours between sunrise and sunset. Outside of them is darkness.
If we only had the sundial, if there was no way to tell time other than by the sun, that part excluded from the sundial’s calibration would somehow correspond to what Jesus said, which Matthew recounted in his Gospel — “Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”
That hour will take people by surprise, Jesus said, just as the flood in the days of Noah came in medias res, while one and all were in the thick of the good life —eating, drinking, marrying — only knowing about the deluge when it was actually sweeping them away. There is a need to be prepared at all times. “But know this, that if the householder had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have watched and would not have let his house be broken into.”
“Lord, it is time. Let the great summer go, / Lay your long shadows on the sundials,” Rilke wrote in his poem. He was contemplating autumn, when life moves from the fields into the parlor and the rooms, from the outer into the inner. The long shadows on the sundial suggest the lengthening of memory enough to help one through the longueurs of the winter months. Broadly this time coincides with Advent, the first season of the ecclesiastical year. Of this, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) wrote: “Advent is concerned with that very connection between memory and hope which is so necessary to man. Advent’s intention is to awaken the most profound and basic emotional memory within us, namely, the memory of the God who became a child.”
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