‘The Old Year’ by Henry Kendall is a four stanza poem structured consistently with the rhyme scheme of AABBCCDD… throughout the piece. The choice of this pattern was a purposeful one as it gives the verses a steady, onward beat, just like the passage of time.
The poem begins by describing how a year passes. It moves quietly without disturbing those within it like “the breath of the night-wind.” Before anyone is the wiser another year has been added to the past. The year will have had it’s high points and it’s low points, just as a human life does. Kendall makes a number of comparisons between the passing of a year and the passing of a life. It is like the glow left by the passing of dusk or twilight in the sky. Something is always left behind after the year is over and Kendall describes that “something” as the memories, and their impact, left on the people still living in the present.
Analysis of The Old Year
It passed like the breath of the night-wind away,
It fled like a mist at the dawn of the day;
It lasted its moment, then backward was hurled,
Another increase to the age of the world.
The speaker’s first verse of this stanza, (and those that will follow) relays how he feels about how a year passes on. It passes like the “breath of the nigh-wind away.” Just like a wind at night, one cannot see it passing, but knows it has. It moves on quietly without any fanfare. The speaker elaborates on how a year passes by saying, it “fled,” moved at the pace of mist in the morning.
This line supports the one that it follows, again the year is said to be moving quietly without disturbing anything around it. The personification is only going to continue, becoming more elaborate as the poem progresses.
The second half of this stanza speaks on how the year had its time, but that time is done. Just as a human being will live the span of their life, and then be gone from this world, so too progresses time itself.
The last line describes the end of another year as an addition to “the age of the world.” It is clear at this point in the piece that Kendall is going to treat a year, or time, as if it were a person, living his/her life and then moving on.
It passed with its shadows, its smiles and its tears,
It passed as a stream to the ocean of years;
Years that were coming—were here—and are o’er,
The ages departed to visit no more.
The second stanza begins like the first, another statement starts the first verse beginning with, “It passed…” This time the speaker is describing the year as passing with “its shadows, smiles and its tears.” The year that has come and gone, had its dark points, it’s “shadows,” as well as it’s happy and high points, it’s “smiles.” Nothing can be completely one way or another, not even time.
The year is said to have passed “as a stream,” steadily, without serious interruption, to the history of time, or as Kendall describes it, “the ocean of years.” Kendall’s speaker begins to repeat himself, reiterating how smoothly time has passed, and will “visit no more.” It is clear that this speaker is both mourning the loss of time as well as marveling at it’s intangibility and ethereal nature.
It passed, but the bark on its billowy track
Leaves an impression on waters aback:
The glow of the gloaming remains on the sky,
Unwilling to leave us—unwilling to die.
The third stanza marks a turning point in the poem at which the speaker begins to describe what the year has left behind. It has “passed,” but, it has also left its mark. The “old” year will not be forgotten due to the fact that it has left an “impression” on all it has touched. Just as when a loved one passes on but remains alive through all that they did during life, and all they touched, so too does time remain in human memory. A year will not be forgotten by virtue of all that happened while it was the “current” year.
Even when dusk, or twilight, has passed, it leaves an impression on the sky. The “glow of the gloaming,” the colors that mark the sunset stay in the eyes of onlookers long after they have faded. The “glow” is “Unwilling” to move on, to “leave us” behind.
It fled; but away and away in its wake
There lingers a something that time cannot break.
The past and the future are joined by a chain,
And memories live that must ever remain.
The poem concludes with the fourth stanza and fourth quatrain of the piece. This time, the stanza begins with, “It fled.” The year has fled from the speaker’s life but has left something “in it’s wake.” It is something intangible and untouchable, but also something that will never be destroyed or broken. This “something” is the memories that “must ever remain” in the minds of those that lived them.
Kendall closes the poem with the sanguine statement that one should not mourn the past, as it and the future are “joined by a chain.” They are connected in a way that “time cannot break.”
About Henry Kendall
Henry Kendall was born in Ulladulla, New South Wales, Australia in April of 1839. As a child, he was educated by his parents as they struggled to make a living. The environment in which he grew up would serve as inspiration for many of his future poems. In 1850, the family moved to Sydney and Kendall first began writing for literary journals and newspapers. His first collection, Poems and Songs, was published in 1862. Throughout the early-to-mid 60’s he continued to contribute to different magazines and in 1868 he married Charlotte Rutter and the couple moved to Melbourne. Afterward, he published Australian Forests in 1869. The book met with positive reviews from critics but do not bear commercial success.
Over the next months, Kendall struggled with alcoholism and ill health and over the next years lived on the streets as well as in a mental institution. By the mid-1870s Kendall was able to secure employment and resume writing. In the 1880s Kendall’s last collection, Songs from the Mountains, was published. It is considered to be his most successful volume. In the year after this Kendall’s position as a forest ranger began to take too great a toll on his health and he died in Sydney in August of 1882.