Time, Real and Imaginary

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

‘Time, Real and Imaginary’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is concerned with how time progresses. The speaker uses the narrative of two children to discuss it.


Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was an English poet.

He was one of the most influential writers of the Romanticism movement.

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In the first lines of ‘Time, Real and Imaginary,’ the speaker sets the scene. He states that there are two children running on the top of a mountain. The ground is fairly level, but as one finds out later, it is sometimes “smooth” and sometimes “rough”. The sister leads the boy but, because he’s blind, he doesn’t realize. He’s unaware if he’s ahead or behind. He runs blissfully and carelessly. She continually turns around the check on him, but despite his blindness, he doesn’t stumble. 

Time, Real and Imaginary by Samuel Taylor Coleridge


Poetic Techniques

Time, Real and Imaginary’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is an eleven line poem that is contained within one stanza of text. The lines follow a very consistent rhyme scheme of ABABCCBDDEE.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge utilizes a number of poetic techniques within ‘Time, Real and Imaginary’. These include alliteration, internal rhyme, half-rhyme, and metaphor.  The first occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “ostrich-like” and “out-spread” in line three. Then, “looks” and “listens” in line eight. 

Internal rhyme is a kind of rhyme that is not constrained to the end of the lines but can appear anywhere. For instance, “sister,” “brother” and “other” in lines five and six. Half, or slant, rhyme is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. An example includes “alas” in the ninth line and “passed” in the tenth. 

Coleridge also makes use of metaphor or comparison that does not utilize “like” or “as”. In this case, he compares the children to birds and their arms to both wings and sails. This is in order to emphasize the way they move across the landscape. 


Analysis of Time, Real and Imaginary

Lines 1-5

On the wide level of a mountain’s head,

(I knew not where, but ’twas some faery place)

Their pinions, ostrich-like, for sails out-spread,

Two lovely children run an endless race,

A sister and a brother !

In the first lines of ‘Time, Real and Imaginary’ the speaker describes an imaginary scene. There are two children, playing on the “wide level” top of a mountain. Coleridge personifies the mountain, referring to its uppermost regions as its “head”. It’s interesting to note that the mountain’s head is “level” or flat. This allows the children to move freely, without encountering any major obstacles one might associate with the peak of a mountain. 

The second line is in parentheses, noting that the speaker lacks a very specific piece of knowledge. He knows the children were playing, but he doesn’t know where. The mystery inherent in his lack of knowledge is intriguing. One is left to wonder about the larger features of the landscape and what it means to live and play in “some faery place”. 

In the next lines of ‘Time, Real and Imaginary’, Coleridge compares the children’s arms to “pinions” or the outer part of a bird’s wing. Continuing this metaphor, the children are said to be “ostrich-like”. They move as large birds, with arms cast out. Another metaphor comes into play when the speaker compares their arms to “out-spread” sails. This speaks to the power in their movements and the ways that the “faery place” is helping to propel them forward. 

Their progress through the world is described as “an endless race”. Together, brother and sister, move through time without stopping. There is a clear joy in this fact portrayed through Coleridge’s use of exclamations. 


Lines 6-11 

This far outstripp’d the other ;

Yet ever runs she with reverted face,

And looks and listens for the boy behind :

For he, alas ! is blind !

O’er rough and smooth with even step he passed,

And knows not whether he be first or last. 

In the next lines of ‘Time, Real and Imaginary’ the speaker states that one sibling, the sister, “outstripp’d” the other. But, despite her head start or her faster pace, she continues to look behind her. She runs “with reverted face”. This isn’t out of fear or distraction, instead she “looks and listens for the boy behind her”. She knows she has to keep an eye on her brother for, as the ninth line states, he “is blind!” 

There’s nothing she or the speaker can do about this, but it does not stop the two from running. No matter what the landscape throws at them, whether its “rough” or “smooth” the boy makes it through. His step remains “even”. In the last line, the boy’s ignorance in his own potion in “first or last” is outlined. He doesn’t know if he’s running in front of his sister or behind her. This fact provides the reader with a little more information. It’s clear that the sister makes no noise as she runs, nor does she call back to him. 

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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