Dennis Scott Poems
A Comparison of “Uncle Time” by Dennis Scott and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 19
The subject of both Dennis Scott’s poem “Uncle Time” and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 19 is time and its erosive quality. Both refer to the concept as a capitalized entity, emphasizing its powerful and often destructive nature primarily by way of vivid imagery. However, they diverge significantly when compared on the basis of tone; Sonnet 19 is arguably more emotive, indicative of the speaker’s psychological insecurities and personal affairs more so than of the general theme of time, while “Uncle Time” is more objective and less revealing about its speaker, focusing to a great extent on time’s sinister quality instead.In “Uncle Time,” time is personified as an “ole, ole man”, who is at first characterized by languorous imagery like “long, lazy years on de wet san’” in the first stanza, but gradually the images attributed to him become more and more menacing, showing him to be “cruel” and encroaching on the reader’s life insidiously. By contrast, Sonnet 19 takes the format of a sonnet, whereby the first seven lines depict a flow of images of time personified: at first he is “devouring” in a series of devastating instances, blunting “the Lion’s paws” and making the “earth devour her own sweet brood.” The next seven lines then qualify this representation with an exhortation for him not to age the speaker’s male lover.The imagery of both poems is vivid, showing how time partakes in particular activities that steadily wear away youth, beauty and power. In Sonnet 19, what are commonly considered to be powerful, mighty beings — such as the lion, tiger, and phoenix — are portrayed to have their strength rendered meaningless in light of time’s ultimate supremacy. Even the phoenix, which is said to be reborn from its ashes, is not quite immortal, being burned “in her blood” (in the prime of her life) — not even the most evocative subjects of mythology exist outside of time. Time’s all-consuming influence also permeates the images of “Uncle Time,” particularly in the second stanza. He moves like a mongoose yet smiles as “black as sorrow”; the narrator suggests to the reader that all of his efforts to escape this are simply exercises in futility, and inevitably culminate in the grief Uncle Time embodies.Despite this similar element of destructiveness in imagery, the transitions within each piece to or from other strands of imagery differ, which is telling of the different tones. The form and structure of Shakespeare’s sonnet direct this movement; he progresses from the initially florid and hyperbolic images of the first seven lines, to the gentler and more subtly evocative ones in the next seven, detailing with poignancy his “love’s fair brow” and “beauty’s pattern.” The shift in diction accentuates this change of tone: while the speaker originally addresses time with imperatives (“blunt thou the Lion’s paws,” “make the earth devour,” “pluck the keen teeth”) as if he were commanding it to do his will, there are revealing words toward the end that indicate the crumbling of his ostensible confidence in instruction. In particular, his exclamation of, “O, carve not with thy hours,” suggests that an imploring quality has been introduced. The inversion of syntax in “carve not” emphasizes the qualifier of “not,” drawing the reader’s attention to the speaker’s growingly desperate plea for time to leave his lover alone. The imperatives are also replaced with words of a more beseeching tone (“do allow”). Disruptions in the rhythmic pattern (initially iambic pentameter with some variations) such as the heavy stress on the first syllable, “O,” also emphasize the speaker’s emerging recognition of time’s unpredictability and dissonance, despite his best efforts to demand certain things from it. The use of “thou” points toward the speaker’s poor regard for time, treating it as inferior — possibly due to resentment of his lack of control over it, which is also suggested by the unflattering adjectives granted (“old Time,” “heinous”). There is, however, yet another change in tone when it comes to the final couplet, hinging on the connector “yet”: while this word calls attention to his underlying insecurity about all that he is asking for, the speaker also finds consolation in how his lover will eternally retain his youth due to his poetry, even if time ignores his previous pleas. Ultimately, this repeated shift in tone — from one of staunch instruction to delicate pleading and to defiant defense — contributes to the poignancy of the piece, highlighting the intensity of the speaker’s love by throwing light on his psychological profile that has been shaken into ambivalence due to the impending threat of his lover’s youth and beauty.In “Uncle Time,” the tone moves in the opposite direction, away from Sonnet 19’s seemingly optimistic conclusion, and toward a growingly menacing image of time looming ominously ahead. Beneath what seems to be a leisurely narration characterized by ellipses and words such as “cunnin’ an’ cool” is the threat of disorder. Uncle Time may “wash ‘im foot in de sea” all year long, but this is simply a façade for his true nature — for “me Uncle cruel.” The first hint is in the last line of the first stanza, where Uncle Time starts “scraping away de lan’” amidst his gentle laughter. This erosive quality grows through a series of images that increase in intensity: Uncle Time turns loved ones “bitter as cassava,” giving cause for mourning (“yu bread is grief”). This culminates in the most sinister image of all: “Watch how ‘im spin web roun’ yu house, an creep / inside; an when ‘im touch yu, weep.” The images are contrasted with each other to great effect: the less obviously menacing ones like, “’im voice is sof’ as bamboo leaf,” follow stronger ones (“’im move like mongoose”), displaying both time’s deceptive quality and the extent of its power. The scope of Scott’s piece is considerably more general than Shakespeare’s; the speaker in the former is directing his message towards the second person, a “you” that might be seen to be universal, addressing all readers equally. On the other hand, Sonnet 19 takes the form of a soliloquy, with the speaker addressing his message to personified Time in particular, thus distancing himself much less and investing personal emotion in the topic to a greater degree than Scott’s speaker does. While it may be said that the scale of reference is initially massive in the sonnet, where the speaker expounds on time’s general relationship with the “seasons” and other such far-ranging concepts, the delicate intimacy of the subsequent lines (“Him in thy course untainted do allow”) hints at the truer scale; the threatened status of the speaker’s lover seems far more important than the more general seasons hanging in the balance. Scott’s speaker, however, maintains a largely impersonal tone, neither imploring nor demanding anything of the target audience of his message — not time, but simply the reader — characterizing time in a more matter-of-fact manner that is constant throughout. The only slip is in the brief exclamation of “Lawd,” the only moment where even the wry, resigned speaker seems to express sorrowful awe at the immensity of time’s cruelty. Still, there is much less doubt about the message here; there are even strong expressions of contempt towards the end (“Huhn!”) at the thought of the reader vainly assuming the possibility of escape from time (“Fe yu yiye no quick enough”). The almost derisive tone of lines such as, “man yu tink ‘im fool?” suggests that he believes the scope of time’s influence is so universal that it would be delusional for any reader to think otherwise. Ultimately, the concluding two lines of each poem are arguably the most telling of their differences. While both lines in each pair rhyme, they end the pieces on distinctly different notes: Shakespeare’s speaker is defiant amidst the insecurity (“despite thy wrong, / My love shall in my verse ever live young”), while Scott is less optimistic and warns of inevitable sorrow (“an’ creep inside; an’ when ‘im touch yu, weep”).