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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s corner

14 July 2017

Malcolm Guite takes issue with a Chronophage

WE HAVE come again to that time of year when the banks and shoals of visitors to Cambridge swirl and veer down King’s Parade, and brave tour guides, bearing flags on long poles above the swaying heads, wade through the thick of them, trying to gather their respective groups around them and hustle them from one college to the next.

An extra hazard for the last of the students riding through on their cycles is the knots and clusters of tourists who gather in the middle of the road at the junction of King’s Parade and Bene’t Street to stare at Corpus Christi’s weirdly beautiful Chronophage clock and, in particular, at the hideous locust perched above it, which is constantly, as its name suggests, eating time.

REPT0N1X/WIKIMEDIA COMMONSEating time: the Cambridge Chronophage, at Corpus Christi CollegeI was there in 2008 when it was unveiled by the man who has penetrated the mystery of time more deeply than most, Stephen Hawking. I remember when the veil came away and I first saw the golden circles turning, and, above them, the dark locust, which appears to devour the minutes but is in fact the clock’s escapement mechanism, displayed and functioning on the outside rather than the interior.

For the Chronophage, time is constantly consumed. It sees “our minutes hasten to their end”. It measures only “the years that the locust hath eaten”. And I suppose, recollecting it now, I should think fearfully of all the minutes that it has consumed since I stood there nine years ago, sipping a glass of wine whose richness and depth was also the gift of time, and trying, in vain, to understand Professor Hawking’s opening remarks.

But I beg to differ with the Chronophage. Yes, time is fleeting, but it is also constantly renewed, and, for every moment that is taken from us, another is given, pristine and beautiful.

So, in my mind’s eye, I have set up another timepiece, a counter-clock to Corpus Christi’s Chronophage. Like the Chronophage, my imaginary clock turns in beautiful golden circles; like the Chronophage, it takes its motion from a point beyond itself; but, in my clock, time is not being clawed back and consumed: it is being poured out liberally and constantly renewed; for the figure above the golden circles in my clock is not a ravenous locust, but an angel of God, taking the riches of eternity and pouring them out moment by moment into the circles of time.

Such was the vision of Dante, who saw time and motion as ultimately given and renewed by Divine Love, by what he called, in the last line of his great poem, “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars”.

We might christen my clock a Chronodor, a time-giver. It would witness to God’s promise, in the book of Joel: “I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten.”

The Corpus Chronophage cost a cool million; my Chronodor, like the gift of time which it celebrates, is completely free.

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