Time might be one of the most confusing topics in the world to think about. The differences between the past and the present, the constant unknown that is the future, and the way memory distorts our view of times gone by makes for an interesting, if highly abstract view of reality. As it happens, nothing suits abstraction quite like art does, and poetry is one of the best ways to examine a concept that is utterly impossible to explain through simple definitions. Instead, a skilled poet might turn to imagery and metaphor to try and describe an abstract concept with deep meaning to them.
For Emily Brontë, time was evidently one such topic. Her work, Past, Present, Future, approaches this topic with images and metaphors that are easily relatable and almost childlike in their simplicity. Despite this, they are thought-provoking, meaningful, and convey far more than the simple words that form them. For many poets, this can be a difficult balance to achieve, but Emily Brontë is able to strike it nicely here.
Past, Present, Future Analysis
Past, Present, Future is divided into three verses, each one being of thematic importance to one of the titular words. Each of the three verses is a quatrain; four lines long, and uses a simple ABAB rhyming pattern. The shortest line is six syllables long and the longest is eight — this gives the poem a consistent rhythm that makes it easy to read aloud and follow along. The final verse breaks this mould only slightly, preferring an AABB rhyming pattern to the one established in the previous two verses. This is done to invoke a particular effect better explored within the specific context of the verse.
Tell me, tell me, smiling child,
What the past is like to thee?
‘An Autumn evening soft and mild
With a wind that sighs mournfully.’
In the first verse, the concept of the past is discussed, and the basic structure of the poem’s content is made clear. The narrator of the poem appears to be speaking with a “smiling child,” and asking them about the nature of time and reality. Despite the context of being asked to a child, the answer is not particularly childish, invoking an image of autumn, which is often viewed as a wistful kind of time because of its close relationship with cold and dark winters. The wind, personified to have a mournful sigh, is portrayed as being a sad figure, and this Autumn is ultimately described as something pleasant. The descriptions “soft and mild” suggest ideal weather, and the idea of a sad wind is distinct from that of a cold wind.
The choice to use the Fall season as a focus for the past is an interesting one, because it implies an impending winter. This would suggest that the present is going to be described as a wintry season, but it is also possible that the child is suggesting that when a person looks back into the past, they tend to see the mild autumn over the cold winter. This, then, could be a metaphor for the concept of nostalgia, of preferring to remember the past as (or even modify the memories to be) something calm and wonderful, to be missed, and to want to experience again.
Tell me, what is the present hour?
‘A green and flowery spray
Where a young bird sits gathering its power
To mount and fly away.’
In very much the same theme as the first verse, the speaker asks the child what they think about the present day. The child’s answer is very similar in structure to their answer about the past; they describe the present through natural imagery, suggesting that the present is like the springtime. This image focuses heavily on the image of a young bird preparing to fly, presumably for the first time, as it gathers its strength to make the attempt. The metaphors invoked are noticeably more pleasant than those in the last verse. The use of colour in the form of green suggests a particularly pleasant atmosphere, and the “flowery spray” is difficult to interpret as anything negative.
The principal image of the verse, however, appears to be the young bird, who cannot fly but is preparing to. In this way, the speaker is suggesting that the present has a closer relationship with the future than the past, and that being in the present is preparing for something that is coming up ahead. Like the bird waiting to fly, most people are looking ahead to something that will fulfill them, give their lives additional meaning, or simply make them happier. The child, like the bird, spends the present waiting for the future — an odd concept to think about, considering that, by definition, it is impossible for a thing to exist “in the future” (but there’s really no need to get into that discussion!).
And what is the future, happy one?
‘A sea beneath a cloudless sun;
A mighty, glorious, dazzling sea
Stretching into infinity.’
Finally, the poem concludes by considering the future. This image is perhaps the most straightforward one — the still-happy child explains that the future is a sunny, cloudless sky overlooking a sea that stretches straight into the horizon. It is an image that suggests anything, in image that could mean anything, because it creates a theme of discovery and of excitement to its viewer. The adjectives used — “mighty, glorious, dazzling” — are all the description needed to understand this view on the future. That it is unknowable makes it exciting, something to approach with an open mind and a readiness to embrace. At one point in history, an open sea and a clear sky meant that anything was possible, that you might end up in unimaginable places. This makes it a highly effective metaphor to convey this idea that the future is something that — to borrow an earlier metaphor — should be eagerly embraced with both wings outstretched.
That the speaker of the poem is discussing these concepts with a child is an interesting narrative choice on Brontë’s part, but the perspective of a child is often different than the perspective of an adult. The child responds to the speaker in a highly poetic fashion, but at its core, the images described are fairly simple — the past is something to be longed for, the present is something to plan in, and the future is something to look forward to. The natural imageries used are phenomena that a child might observe all the time while growing up. The childlike simplicity of the metaphors combined with their more thorough inner meanings is what makes them so effective. Describing time is not ever going to be easy, but in her own unique way, Emily Brontë is able to effectively convey a powerful means of doing so.