Time’s sea: Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism of Time’s sea 

The woman’s power

The object of Keats’ devotion is compared with a spider and something significant enough to obliterate the sun, both metaphors of dominance.

The speaker feels that he was ‘tangled’ in the beloved’s web, like a fly about to be devoured by a spider. The more the fly endeavours to escape each strand of web, the more it is ‘snared’ (associated with the tightening of a noose of wire or cord).  The word ‘eclipse’ sees the woman as some sort of celestial body obscuring the light (most generally used in relation to the sun). Her beauty stands between the speaker and ‘every delight’ he experiences in his life, which he needs to thrive.


The impact of the beloved is great enough to overwhelm the poet’s appreciation of the night sky in all its vastness. She is reflected in other natural images. The red rose irresistibly reminds the speaker of the woman’s cheek. A flower in bud reminds the speaker of the woman’s lips and seems to invite him to listen for ‘a love-sound’.


Time is described through the image of the tide moving away from the land (as opposed to the more positive incoming of the tide) and the almost unobservable shifting of the sand ‘to and fro’ by every wave, with little actual distance travelled. The words ‘slow’, ‘long’, and ‘creep’ suggest just how tedious the years have been since the beauty of the beloved was first revealed to the speaker.

Painful pleasure

The woman symbolises the simultaneous pleasures and pains of love/sexual attraction. Against its dangers and restrictions are uplifting images of ‘light’, ‘flight’, fondness and sweetness.

Investigating imagery and symbolism of Time's sea...

  • Explain how the woman symbolises the pleasures and pains of love at the same time?
  • Why do you think Keats uses the image of the sea when describing the effect of time?
  • Do you think the ‘eclipse’ image is appropriate for the context? Explain your reasons carefully.

Themes in Time’s sea 

Keats plays with a tradition of love sonnets which sees lovers as constituting a separate and superior world - a better place compared to mundane reality. In one brief moment the unwitting woman and Keats have formed an ideal love-bond which makes anything else seem pale and insignificant. Keats crafts a poem from this rather far-fetched idea, creating a sonnet which is both intense and playful at the same time.

The speaker regards love as a danger to his autonomy and independence as a writer. Love is intoxicating and all-consuming but it is also a ‘snare’ in which Keats’ poetic vocation can become entangled. To remember the woman is the poet’s greatest ‘delight’, but she also brings ‘grief unto my darling joys’.

And so another theme is one found throughout Keats’ poems: that of the simultaneity of pleasure and pain, the two emotional states being mutually dependent.

Investigating themes in Time's sea...

  • Do you think Keats is being serious or playful in this sonnet?
  • Is he writing about serious emotion or is he playing with poetic ideas?
  • To what extent are the risks of sexual attraction a theme in this poem?
  • Keats frequently writes about the simultaneity of pleasure and pain in his poems. To what extent does this poem pursue a similar theme?
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