The loss of one's beloved and the passage of time are central ideas that intermingle with and reflect off of one another in Algernon Charles Swinburne's "The Triumph of Time." Unlike in poems in which a lover mourns the death of his beloved, the narrator of "The Triumph of Time" has apparently been deserted by his lover, and he is struggling to cope with this loss — a loss that he views as more painful than if death had separated them, because at least then they would have still loved each other.
But none shall triumph a whole life through:
For death is one, and the fates are three.
At the door of life, by the gate of breath,
There are worse things waiting for men than death;
Death could not sever my soul and you,
As these have severed your soul from me.
You have chosen and clung to the chance they sent you,
Life sweet as perfume and pure as prayer. [lines 155-162]
The narrator acknowledges that the likelihood of his love having been ended by an ill twist of fate was greater than by the death of himself or his lover, since there are three Fates and just one death. However the other agent blamed with separating the narrator and his love is time, and many images that seemingly relate to the Fates are attributed to time. The idea that time can "sever" two things comes up repeatedly, for example in the lines "Time, swift to hasten and swift to sever" (line 3) and "Time shall not sever us wholly in twain" (line 14). These allusions evoke the cutting of a thread, an image commonly associated with the Fates. What are the metaphysical forces separating the narrator and his love (as opposed to the earthly force, seemingly the lover's choice to abandon the narrator)? Are the Fates responsible for the initial break, or are the narrator and his love separated by the inevitable passage of time that makes eternal love impossible? (see Professor Landow's essay "Swinburne and the Imagery of Shipwreck" for Swinburne's views on the duration of love). What does the narrator see as the connection between the Fates and time?
Two important questions arise in the poem regarding death, love and the passage of time: "Is it worth a tear, is it worth an hour, / To think of things that are well outworn?" (lines 9-10) and "For what shall it profit when men are dead / To have dreamed, to have loved with the whole soul's might, / To have looked for day when the day was fled?" (lines 130-133). By acknowledging in the passage above that all people suffer in life, Swinburne implies an answer to the first question: it is inevitable both that sad things happen and that people dwell on them. Does Swinburne condemn this mourning (in this case of lost love, not death) in the way that Tennyson and Christina Rossetti do? Or does he accept it? The second question raised above is answered immediately after it is posed: to have loved truly is the one of the most worthwhile experiences possible.
Since Swinburne essentially offers answers to both of these questions, what is accomplished by addressing these questions directly at the reader?