Time, like the tide, sweeps over the new year

The following poem appears in A Collection of Hymns on the Most Important Subjects of the Gospel, edited by Thomas Humphrys (Bristol, England: Biggs & Cottle, 1798), pp. 14-15, as a meditation on the new year:

My days, my weeks, my months, my years,
Fly rapid like the whirling spheres
Around the steady pole;
Time, like the tide, its motion keeps,
Till I shall launch those boundless deeps
Where endless ages roll.

The grave is near the cradle seen,
How swift the moments pass between
And whisper as they fly;
“Unthinking man remember this,
“Thou midst thy sublunary bliss
“Most groan, and gasp, and die.”

Eternal bliss, eternal woe,
Hangs on this inch of time below,
On this precarious breath:
The God of nature only knows,
Whether another year shall close,
Ere I expire in death.

Long ere the sun shall run its round,
I may be buried under ground,
And there in silence rot;
Alas! one hour may close the scene,
And ere twelve months shall roll between,
My name be quite forgot….

These late-eighteenth century sentiments probably soundm foreign to most early-twenty-first century American minds. Contemporary American culture insists we be optimistic about the future, so this poem may strike you as morbid. Certainly I do not agree with the theology of the poem, which the poet goes on to wonder whether he or she will go to heaven or hell after death, and in the concluding verse prays: “Help me to choose that better way” that will lead to heaven.

Yet though I do not agree with the theology, it’s not a bad idea to remember that death is just around the corner. We needn’t think obsessively about death and dying, but it can be freeing to realize that many small things that loom large in daily life are not that important. What is important is striving to be the best person possible, which in turn should help us realize that self-reflection and self-knowledge take priority over striving to buy consumer goods or striving to get a promotion at work or striving to get your children into Ivy League schools. In this realization lies freedom.

I don’t know who wrote the poem originally. Humphrys does not attribute this poem to a specific author. Another version of this poem was printed in The Poetical Monitor: consisting of pieces select and original for the improvement of the young in virtue and piety: intended to succeed Dr. Watts’ Divine and moral songs, etc., edited by Elizabeth Hill (London: Shakespear’s-Walk Female Charity School, 1796), pp. 64-65. The poem appears under the tile “On the Eve of the New Year,” and Hill lists the author as “Green.” Perhaps an astute reader can track down the author.

The poem was widely used in hymnals through the nineteenth century, and many variants exist. The Hill and Humphrys versions have an almost identical first verse, but the remaining verses are not the same: some of the same verses do appear but altered and in a different order; the Hill version contains verses not found in the Humphrys version, and vice versa.

Caroline Shaw, the Pulitzer-Prize winning composer, used the first verse of this poem for her brilliant choarl composition “Its Motion Keeps,” which you can listen to on Youtube here — but I am not sure which hymnal she took her version from. Another version of the poem appears in the 1991 Denson edition of The Sacred Harp, still used today in some churches, and by shape note singers. The version in The Sacred Harp is closer to the Humphrys version than the Hill version:

My days, my weeks, my months, my years,
Fly rapid as the whirling spheres,
Around the steady pole.
Time, like the tide, its motion keeps,
And I must launch through endless deeps,
Where endless ages roll.

The grave is near the cradle seen,
How swift the moments pass between,
And whisper as they fly.
Unthinking man, remember this,
Though fond of sublunary bliss,
That you must groan and die.

My soul, attend the solemn call,
Thine earthly tent must shortly fall,
And thou must take thy flight.
Beyond the vast expansive blue,
To sing above, as angels do,
Or sing in endless night.

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