Thomas Hardy published this poem in 1917, my clock was also punctuating
the prayers of a decaying day, though inaudibly; one does not hear its
"dilatory knock" until halfway up the steeple. Unlike Hardy's winder, I
have a wife, a past cheerfully open to view, the desire to live long,
and plenty of fragile reasons to believe that I shall. Perhaps because
of this contrast, I am not without some care of the darkness, which
Hardy's bereaved parish clerk had climbed through and beyond.
I drive over to Island Pond on a Thursday night after a well-cooked meal
and a teacher's day of youthful enthusiasms and impertinence, a myriad
of death-defying distractions; after winding the clock, I return to a
place where even the refrigerator has a cozy light within, and four
hands pull the covers up when darkness has at last settled throughout
the house. So in the tower, even in the darkened Gothic church below, I
am in an unfamiliar place, with a somewhat unfamiliar me, and sometimes
I am afraid.
"I twist the old-fashioned turn switch at the foot of the
ladder, and a light visible through a crack in the trap door tells
whatever may be up there that I am coming. The black hatch thuds away
from the hole; my head emerges facing the corner of the first room.
turn around almost immediately, and complete my entrance looking
behind. The light of the one bulb here is quite diffuse in the high
room, but I have enough to see all the rungs of the next ladder, which
makes a dull knocking against the steeple side as I climb it.
Nevertheless, the ladder is steady, its iron rungs firm underfoot and to
the grasp---but so chilling on winter nights that I wear gloves. The
belfry is pitch-dark, except when a little moonlight slips in. It is
here, and above, that I often hear a pattering around the outsides of
the steeple---and perhaps up in the rafters under the apex---what, I do
not know.2 I have looked with a flashlight for bats and seen
none. I have grown somewhat used to the pattering now, but I confess
that the first few times I heard it were unnerving. Once, as I climbed
with a sideways glance at the dark hulk of the bell, dreadfully silent
in the moonlit midst of that pattering, my heart jumped at the sound of a
loud slam, followed by an awful hiss. Several seconds passed before I
came to the logical explanation: two freight cars coupling outside on
the tracks below the church.
"On the uppermost level, with the bright light shining through the clock
house's lone and dirty window, I complete my ascent from superstition
to a sublimer awe.
are the ticking and the light, no longer vague as at the ladder's lower
rungs, but distinct and canny as my breath and heartbeat. Here in the
night, floating almost among the clouds, yet anchored by long, arboreal
bones to the earth, unseen, unthought of, discreet and patiently
relentless, the clock marks time, turns its moon-colored arms each
minute of the sixty in the twenty-fourth part of the earth's rotation in
a darker, infinitely vaster steeple. I am the mystic now, at the top
of his tower, flinging open the door to behold the vision of the
clockworks and the light---as inviting as a snack bar on a dark wooded
road in summer---homely, as more than one of the adepts have described
"Not long ago we reconciled science and what remained of religion in the
"clock model of creation," which saw God as the maker and onetime
winder of the cosmos. We have since outgrown that model---or at least
most of us have. I confess that I find myself rather fond of it lately.
But in my version, the winder is not an eighteenth-century
Intelligence snoozing in a stuffed chair someplace inside the chambers
of a divine Royal Society as the cosmos efficiently ticks on the
mantelpiece. He puts on greasy coveralls and climbs a tower through the
void, past the bones of prehistoric animals, fallen angels, and the
turds of ancient bats, as the Big Bang echoes in his ears like railroad
by rung he rises through the terrible darkness. At the top of his
ascent, he winds up the sun and other stars with a crank-like key,
adjusts for the weathers of unknowable dimensions, and lubricates each
equinox and comet. Then, stooping to a tiny gear amid the wheelwork, he
wipes away the surface dirt of railroads and religious strife and, with
a fresh rag, every human tear.
"And I am one of his ministers; I tend one of his metaphors.
I am the clock-winder of Island Pond."
There is a magical quality to these massive clocks that live in the
steeples of churches, the cupolas of town halls, or on the umpteenth
floor of a skyscraper. I don't know how many times I have sat lost in
thought---literally for hours, thinking long thoughts about those who
first made these clocks centuries ago, about the long-dead maker of the
clock and admiring his handiwork---in a clock room, watching and
listening as a resurrected clock goes about its business of regulating
the cosmos. It is, I think, as Otto Mayr wrote:
"...the magic of the self-moving machine..."
a fascination recorded by the ancient Greeks, and,
"...the clock [was made] unique [in] the unprecedented veneration that it
commanded in the society of that day."3
It is a veneration, or perhaps a fascination (perhaps a fascination with
the realization that this machine is ticking away into your future,
making it your present and your past as you watch) that affects all of
us, from the editor looking at a deadline who rails at and resents the
cruelly swift passage of time, to a priest who winds the clock in his
own church, and finds therein an affirmation of his faith.
As the parish clerk was heard to say:
"So I wipe out one more,
My Dear, of the sore
Sad days that still be,
Like a drying Dead Sea,
Between you and me!"
it is the passage of time, measured by the clock, that seems to heal all
wounds---his will be healed when time for him ceases, the wounds of
others will be healed by the fading of memories as did the overtones of
the bell striking the midnight hour just a bit late, some will be be
healed by a new love, a new life in a new place---a passage
that almost invariably encounters
the winder who "stooping to a tiny gear amid the wheelwork, ...wipes
away the surface dirt of railroads and religious strife and, with a
fresh rag, every human tear."
This, it seems, lies at the root of
the fascination for timekeepers shared by so many of us. They, in all
their permutations since the first clock awoke a religious order that
the brothers could begin their cycle of daily prayers, define our days
and our nights, making them "real," if you will, in their definition of
"time" which is really indefinable.
But these tower clocks also speak to all within sight and hearing as
they have for centuries, they watch over and they regulate our lives,
from the time we draw our first breaths to the time the clock's voice
sounds the passing bell as we are borne to our final resting place.
They give us a reassurance there is a continuity to the cosmos, as well
as the reassurance of which Keith Richard Barney, a fellow historian,
wrote about a sister clock to the one I wound at midnight:
"The sound of the clock striking, especially when heard in
the quiet of the night was a delightful one, and comforting to a small
boy who was awake."
3 For a thorough
discussion of the "clock metaphor" as applied to the workings of the
cosmos by the thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries, see:
Authority, Liberty, and Automatic Machinery in Early Modern Europe
by Otto Mayr. It is a fascinating account of clocks and their effect
on everyone, from the serf huddled in his hovel to royalty disporting
themselves in somewhat more comfortable circumstances.
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