Time’s sea: Language, tone and structure

Language and tone of Time’s sea 

Time has passed slowly since Keats caught sight ('for some few moments') of the lady and this is suggested by the series of long vowel sounds which set the tone of the opening two lines: ‘time's’, ‘sea’, ‘five’, ‘slow’, ‘long’, ‘hours’, ‘to’, ‘fro’, ‘creep’.

Considering the momentary nature of the encounter, Keats' use of hyperbole is almost comic: he is like a fly entangled in the spider's web, 'snared' not by some cruel, predatory creature but by the unconscious 'ungloving' of the lady's hand. The proximity of 'ungloving' to 'unloving' emphasises the fragility of human experience: something so brief and unintended has had an intense and lasting effect on the poet's emotions. The words of entrapment all testify to passivity and a lack of will on the speaker’s part, whilst it is the woman who actively entraps (though doubtless she was unaware of her impact), bringing grief to the man’s joys.

The hyperbole continues as the poet claims that he can 'never' look on the stars or a rose without thinking of the young woman's eyes or lips. Indeed rose buds seem so like the woman's mouth that he listens 'hearkening for a love-sound'. The speaker listens to a rose rather than smelling its perfume. Indeed he ‘doth devour / Its sweets in the wrong sense’. The word ‘devour’ suggests hunger and even violence; moreover ‘the wrong sense’ implies an unnatural way of experiencing reality.

Simply to remember his fleeting glimpse of the woman is enough to put all other delights in the shade, bringing 'grief' to his 'darling joys'. Thus the tone of the poem shifts from frustration, to delight in the woman’s beauty, to fear that enjoyment of life has been perverted.

Investigating language and tone of Time's sea...

  • How does Keats use language to suggest the slow passing of time?
  • What is the effect of Keats’ use of hyperbole?
  • Apart from ‘Tangled’ and ‘snared’ how else does Keats convey the sense of unwilling stasis?
  • Explain how the tone shifts in this sonnet.

Structure and versification of Time’s sea 

Keats’ Shakespearean inspiration is demonstrated in his use of the Shakespearean sonnet form, as opposed to his usual choice of the Petrarchan style. The regular abab quatrains each encapsulate a thought, but the dominance of the lady in the writer’s imagination is demonstrated by the way in which she ‘breaks in’ to the third quatrain and disrupts it: line 12 has a strong break in the middle then the word 'Thou' begins the culminating statement about the woman's power to turn joy into grief.

Similarly, the power of the beloved overrides the regularity of end-stopped lines (where punctuation clearly marks a break of sense or some sort of syntactical structure). The energy and urgency (perhaps even obsessiveness) of the verb ‘devour’ in line 11 is conveyed by its overflowing into the following line (enjambement). There is a similar charge applied to the verb ‘eclipse’ at the end of line 12, especially as ‘every’ begins the next line with its emphatic statement that there are no exceptions to the woman’s effect.

Investigating structure and versification of Time's sea...

  • Sum up the effect of the final sentence beginning in the middle of line 12.
  • What does the contrast of lines that are end-stopped with those employing enjambement convey about the ‘I’ of the poem?
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