The passing of time is another immortal human theme, as important to the ancients as it is to us. We tend to think of the industrial world as being the first to experience time as fast moving, and certainly modern technology has sped up many events, such as letter writing, travel, and the construction of buildings. But the Romans coined the phrase tempus fugit, or time flies, and Job in the Bible says movingly, “My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle… oh remember that my life is wind” (Job 7:6−7). The fear of time as fleeting often leads to the personification of Time as the great devourer, as Ovid noted in his phrase tempus edax rerum, or time, consumer of things. Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book 15, has been an important influence on British poets writing about time and change. Ovid uses natural metaphors to describe the swift passing of human time, and the ever-changing nature of human and universal affairs. Time, he says, is like a river in constant flux, or like waves relentlessly flowing toward the shore. He compares the four stages of human life—childhood, maturity, middle age, old age—to the four seasons. Metamorphoses mean transformations, and while most of Ovid's long poem retells the myths in which a human is transformed into something else—Io into a cow, Daphne into a laurel tree, Narcissus into a flower— Book 15 also emphasizes that beneath the ever-present changing of the elements, the natural world, and human life itself there exists a permanence; everything changes into something else and therefore does not die.
The shortness of human life is often understood in terms of the natural world, where the brevity of life for plants and animals is all too obvious. The seventeenth-century poet Robert Herrick is famous for his carpe diem poem “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” (1648) in which he reminds young women that, like roses, they will soon age and wither. He simi-