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Lyric, Time, Beauty

In Lyric Philosophy, Jan Zwicky presents a way of thinking that challenges the model that currently prevails in academic philosophy. In this essay I deal primarily with one aspect of lyric thought: its relation to time. I examine whether beauty’s relationship to time is like that of lyric thought, for Zwicky tells us that the “experience of beauty is the experience of some form (or other) of relief from time.” She also describes lyric thought as being more spatial than temporal in structure. I question whether the style of timelessness of beauty is like the style of timelessness of lyric thought.

In Lyric Philosophy, Jan Zwicky presents a way of thinking that challenges the model that currently prevails in academic philosophy and many other thinking practices. Philosophy as it stands generally begins from a desire for and reliance on “systematicity,” which Zwicky describes as characteristic of a kind of thinking that “assumes intelligibility is correctly and exhaustively characterized as a commitment to analytic structure and/or specifiable criteria of justification as the test[s] of clarity, and/or meaningfulness, and/or truth.”1 Systematic thought is linear, it’s logical, it’s analytic. The alternative Zwicky offers is what she calls “lyric thought,” a kind of thought that belongs to poetry, among other practices. Its eros is one of coherence, and it relies on attunement to resonances among particulars. Where systematic thought is linear, lyric thought is polydimensional: rather than saying “x then y then z” as logical thought does, it says “here and there and there.” It is structured spatially rather than temporally. An example: [End Page 202]

The sky has left usand the corn that bent and glitteredin the invisible wind is now itselfinvisible. Our headlightsscoop a tunnel in the dark,and we drive into it.

This is the first stanza of Zwicky’s poem “Night Driving.”2 Though the poem is incomplete, resonant patterns already make themselves felt. The short i’s of “glittered,” “in,” “invisible,” “wind,” “is,” “itself” and “it” set each other ringing. It’s a quick sound, quick as the glittering of the corn and quick as its vanishing as the car passes on. Other resonances are more dependent on visual images: the bent corn and the scooped tunnel of darkness mirror each other. The poem also points to different versions of departure that sing to each other across the stanza: the sky leaves, the corn becomes invisible, and we ourselves are already half-absent by virtue of being inside the car rather than in the field. In these various ways, the sense of the poem, its thought, depends on the ways in which sounds, images, and the meanings they offer resonate, both within a single word (“glittered”) and across the breadth of the poem.

In what follows I concern myself primarily with one aspect of lyric thought, namely its relation to time. My interest in this matter stems from a broader interest in the question of the relation of beauty to lyric thought. If, like me, you find the stanza from “Night Driving” beautiful, we have reason to think that, at least sometimes, lyric thought is an experience of beauty. And I suspect that many experiences of beauty are moments of lyric insight. I wonder, though, how closely beauty is bound up with lyric experience. In this case I will examine whether beauty’s relation to time is like that of lyric thought. For Zwicky tells us that the “experience of beauty is the experience of some form (or other) of relief from time.”3 She also describes lyric thought as being more spatial than temporal in structure. So both experiences of beauty and experience of lyric thought would seem to carry us outside of time somehow. My question is about the “somehow.” Is the style of timelessness of beauty like the style of timelessness of lyric thought? How closely do these experiences map onto one another?

With these questions in mind, I will further explore Zwicky’s discussion of the relationship between lyric thought and time. I will then look at the experience of beauty and think about how it may offer relief from time in a similar way. And I will finish by delving into the matter of mortality, [End Page 203] for mortality ghosts both lyric thought and some experiences of beauty, and we must answer the question of how either beauty or lyric thought offers us relief from time if both also suggest mortality.


As I have said, Zwicky contrasts a systematic style of thought, which, she argues, is organized in accordance with (Newtonian) time, with a lyric style of thought that is spatially organized. “Arguments are a species of logico-linguistic analysis. Analysis in general has Newtonian chronic form; that is, it is unidimensional.”4 Lyric thought, by contrast, is polydimensional and might be pictured, says Zwicky, as “dependent upon a spray of possible axes of connectedness” (LP, L5). This spray of axes makes for a meaning that is understood spatially, in several dimensions, rather than temporally, along a single axis. Temporality is unidimensional, at least if we look to the Newtonian sense of time that Zwicky believes to underlie systematic thought.

We have already examined some of the axes of connection in the first stanza of “Night Driving”: the short i’s, the long i’s, the bowed shapes of the corn and the tunnel, the various forms of departure. Together these multiple connections form a single resonant structure that is the poem. It doesn’t matter what image or sound follows what other image or sound—except insofar as this affects where sounds and images are located with respect to one another, and in this regard it’s all important. That one thing follows another matters because different sequences create distances and intersections that allow for different resonances. That the short i’s are clustered together is partly important because it allows them to glitter, which they wouldn’t if they were further apart. In a lyric structure such resonant distances matter more than sequence as such. Analytic thought, by contrast, begins and ends with sequence, with logical ordering. Resonances across space are of no account.

There is a palpable stillness about the stanza we have been considering—I feel this, and I hope you do too. I feel stillness despite the fact that there is a sequence of events (the glittering, then the darkness). Despite the fact that a car is zooming down a road. Despite the fact that one word, one line, follows another. It seems to me that such stillness is felt when one becomes lyrically aware of relations the perception of which draws one away from time and toward being, i.e., toward the placement of things in the world in relation to each other.5 [End Page 204]

Robert Hass describes a similar effect in discussion of a poem by Walt Whitman. The poem begins “A glimpse through an interstice caught,” and Hass picks out the word “interstice,” a spatial term. He says that it’s exactly the right word because “one of the things it refers to is that moment of hesitation when the train of signification stops, when, suspended outside it and outside the world’s law of one-thing-leads-to-another, seeing and the thing seen have stillness and weight for a brief moment and are circumscribed by silence.”6

“The world’s law of one-thing-leads-to-another” is the temporal law that guides systematic thought. “Stillness and weight for a brief moment, circumscribed by silence,” is the effect of lyric thought’s orientation toward being. Though Hass perhaps undercuts this suggestion of a draw toward being and away from time by referring to “a brief moment” of stillness and weight, I suggest that this “moment” is best understood as a space in which time is held at bay, a “moment” that is not determined by the passage of time. From a temporal point of view this moment may be described as “brief” because although what we experience defies measurement in terms of time, its dimensionality exceeding and therefore eluding such measurement, the moment is nevertheless part of our experience. As part of our experience, it does have a temporal character. In calling it “brief,” however, we gesture toward the lapse in temporal focus.

Zwicky herself recognizes the temporal element of lyric thought. Though she sees lyric thought as hearkening more to being than to time, she acknowledges that a lyric work, lyric thought, does exist in time insofar as everything in human experience exists in time (LP, L8). It takes a poem or a piece of music some time to lay out this and this and that and that—but those resonant elements come together as a whole in a way that has the singleness of the single moment about it. As Zwicky describes it, “an instant of time opens to embrace all that is; time is present but suspended—held in the balance” (W&M, L67). A musical composition, she says, unfolds

in the way a flower—that closes for the night—unfolds. Arguments are of time; they cannot be unfolded, in this sense, any more than a sheet of glass can be folded, or unfolded, in space.

A ship depends on water differently from the way a girder depends on steel.

(LP, L8) [End Page 205]

Zwicky’s claim is that the composition unfolds in time but that it is not fundamentally temporal in structure. It reveals its spatial structure in time as a flower unfolds in time, but it remains spatially organized. Temporality is but a way of establishing various distances—spaces—between the elements of the musical composition. An argument, by contrast, is of time; time isn’t a setting but provides the internal structure of the argument, as indicated by the image of the girder. Parts of an argument are connected along a single line that passes from x to y to z; an argument lacks the dimensionality necessary to unfold like a flower. And as the image of the glass pane suggests, it also lacks the flexibility and responsiveness required for resonance.

Because lyric experience, as part of human experience, must unfold in time, it is dependent on time, though differently than an argument is. Zwicky, however, suggests a further sense in which lyric experience bears a relation to time. She tells us that lyric vision is “rooted in the preciousness, the losability, of the world” (LP, L70). This reference to losability suggests a deep connection to time, for loss is an effect of time’s passage. In a moment I will say more about this losability and will consider how exactly lyric relates to the time that is part of its context. But let’s pause for a moment and turn to the relationship of beauty and time, for we can continue to think about lyric and time in this setting.


Beauty is a complex phenomenon and, as Kant says, appears to evade the mind’s attempts to capture it in a concept. The fine-grained particularity of those beings we find beautiful is difficult to do justice to via concepts. Further complicating matters is the wide range of beings said to be beautiful: things, events, people, places, ecologies, arguments, ideas. One characteristic that may often be noted in such beings, however, is the revelation of an apt relation between aspects of the world, which is to say that aspects of the world appear to be well coordinated somehow. Of course, apt relation or sound coordination is not necessarily smooth—think of your relationships with loved ones. Elements may be related in a difficult, even resistant, way, yet still be in sound relation.

Many theorists have connected beauty and order: Aquinas did, and Simone Weil went so far as to equate the world’s beauty with its order.7 Zwicky also suggests a strong relation between beauty and order when she says that sensitivity to order allows us to see systematic thought as beautiful (LP, L88). I have no objection to thinking about beauty in [End Page 206] terms of order, so long as such an account is not taken to be the only possible approach and so long as it allows us room to acknowledge the necessity of a first-hand encounter with the particularity of the being described as beautiful. In hearkening to order, we must also be careful not to think of something that is necessarily rigid or static. An order can be changeable, responsive, as in “the protean phusis of what-is” (W&M, L118), the world’s ecological order.

Finally, we would do well to steer clear of equating order with regularity. Order is a way in which things “hang together,” to borrow a phrase from Zwicky (“O,” p. 502). Regularity is a form of order, but not the only kind; indeed, order may require irregularity. The Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi sees as beautiful things that bear the imperfections and irregularities that come of age and use: the crack in the teapot, the warp of antique glass. According to wabi-sabi, these irregularities are beautiful because they are part of and reveal an order: the ever-passing, changeable character of what-is. There is obviously more to be said about what kinds of order we may find beautiful and how, but the idea of the beautiful being as one that reveals some kind of order in the world will suffice for our current discussion.

In her philosophical work Zwicky does not mention beauty often, but she does say that the “experience of beauty is the experience of some form (or other) of relief from time” (W&M, L71). If Zwicky is right, how might this relief from time occur, how might it be felt? If we consider this statement in the nexus of aphorisms of which it is a part, we can see that she suggests two ways in which beauty can relieve us of time. These two styles of relief from time suggest two species of beauty: mathematical and lyric.

The above sentence crops up in a section of text that addresses geometry. Zwicky tells us that understanding a geometric truth includes the realization that one has learned “a gesture that is meaningful in an enormous array of contexts—in fact, all that are available to the spatial imagination” (W&M, L71). The Pythagorean theorem, a2 + b2 = c2, works for any right triangle you can dream up. To grasp the broad possibility of meaning of a mathematical truth, says Zwicky, is to experience its beauty (W&M, L71). Then she tells us that any experience of beauty is the experience of relief from time. The suggestion is that to see the uncanny aptness of mathematical truth to many, many situations is to step outside of time, and that to do this is to experience beauty. As Zwicky says earlier, “geometry is uninflected by temporal awareness. It is thought cut loose from time’s gravity” (W&M, L69). [End Page 207]

Zwicky next contrasts lyric timelessness with geometric timelessness:

Lyric insight—thisness, the whole grasped in the particular—holds mortality in the balance. Thus it, too, is timeless, but in a different way. Lyric insight holds time in abeyance, but as a dike holds back the sea: it shudders under the impact. For geometric thought, time simply does not exist.


Enter mortality. And now we begin to understand geometry’s timelessness a little better. It’s not only that geometry concentrates on space rather than time. It’s that geometry is bereft of an awareness of mortality. It’s that geometry is deathless. Deathless, perhaps, because of the apparently endless situations in which a geometrical truth has currency—and by “currency” I mean presence. A geometrical truth is always a current event; it is ever-present. And its ever-presence is one form of beauty, according to Zwicky.

Lyric thought’s relation to time is a more subtle matter. Because its eros is coherence, it works against time in the sense that it works against the disintegrative effects of distance, loss, and death. It feels out the resonant—i.e., coherent—structure of the world as that structure resounds in particulars. In “Night Driving” resonances are found among headlights and corn and wind and tunnels and among the sounds of the words for these things. But although lyric thought relieves us of time through its style of insight, death is always a pressure upon it, for death works against such wholeness. Death is separation. Time in the form of mortality weighs on lyric thinking. Time does not show up as a sequential ordering that structures the lyric insight; rather, as a whole, it casts its shadow over that insight. Says Zwicky, “The more brilliant the lyric resolution, the more weight it will set in the balance against time, the more we may feel ourselves to be aware of something we might gesture towards with the words ‘time itself’. (Mortality.)” (LP, L201). In light of this description, we can see the difference between lyric timelessness and mathematical timelessness. Lyric thought is timeless but lives under the pressure of mortality. Mathematical thought is immune to this pressure.

Now think again of Zwicky’s claim that the “experience of beauty is the experience of some form (or other) of relief from time.” When this statement is situated in the context of her distinction between geometrical and lyric timelessness, we begin to hear the phrase “some form (or other)” as hearkening back to this distinction. The experience of beauty, insofar as beauty offers relief from time, appears to have at [End Page 208] least two forms: lyric and mathematical. One form of timeless beauty involves the experience of mortality as a pressure upon the experience of timelessness, the other floats free of this weight.


In closing, I will consider one further aspect of the relation between beauty and time, for the thought that beauty can be timeless in either of the ways Zwicky indicates lays to rest an initial concern I had about her association of beauty and timelessness. I was concerned about experiences of beauty in which what Zwicky calls “the losability of the world” seem to be at the heart of the experience. If we look again to traditional Japanese beauty, we notice that it hinges on the poignancy of ephemerality. The Japanese, says Yuriko Saito,

are known for their appreciation of the transitory aspects of nature. This fact is most significantly reflected in the traditional phrase by which the Japanese refer to nature as an object of appreciation—kachofugetsu, flower, bird, wind and moon. Flowers (most notably cherry blossoms) do not stay in bloom forever, the bird song is always changing and passing; wind is literally passing and transitory by definition; and the moon is constantly changing its appearance and location. Indeed these natural objects and phenomena form the favourite subjects for Japanese art.8

In light of Zwicky’s account of lyric thought, I now wonder if the experience of the beauty of something transitory, like cherry blossoms, can nevertheless be timeless in a lyric sense. When I pay a visit to the cherry trees, which I do every spring, I am stunned by their beauty. Their beauty takes me outside of time in the sense that it stops me in my tracks. Beauty literally puts the brakes on my forward momentum, makes me slow down, become still. Time could still be said to tick, but I don’t feel it that way. The moment opens up to the resonances of the cherry blossoms both within themselves and with other beings such that the moment becomes timeless. A many-branched relatedness takes the place of time. But I am also acutely aware of the blossoms’ ephemerality, the petals so fragile they are premonitions of their own demise. And this sounds like lyric experience: timelessness on which mortality leans its weight. Although for Zwicky, not all forms of beauty have this lyric structure—there being mathematical beauty that floats entirely free of time—it appears that at least some experiences of beauty are lyric experiences. [End Page 209]


In describing lyric thought, Zwicky refers to particulars in which the resonant structure of the whole resounds. When a structure is optimally resonant, the whole that resonates is the world, all of being. It seems to me that there is a temporal analogue to this ontological resonance: the single moment resonates with time itself. This, I think, is what we feel when we are confronted with nonmathematical beauty, beauty of the lyric kind. The beauty of the Pythagorean theorem lacks the ephemerality of the cherry blossoms—it will live as long as the world lives. But ephemerality—“the preciousness, the losability, of the world”—marks lyric beauty. Even as our minds and bodies sense the resonances that draw us away from temporally conditioned thought, we feel the weight of time held at bay: on the edge of darkness, the corn glitters.

Sue Sinclair
University of Toronto


1. Jan Zwicky, “Oracularity,” Metaphilosophy 34, no. 4 (July 2003): 488–509 (490, n. 3); hereafter abbreviated “O.”

2. Jan Zwicky, “Night Driving,” Robinson’s Crossing (London: Brick Books, 2004), p. 70.

3. Jan Zwicky, Wisdom & Metaphor (Kentville: Gaspereau Press, 2003), L71 (“L” and “R,” prefixed to numbers, refer to left- and right-hand pages, respectively, in this and other Zwicky works); hereafter abbreviated W&M.

4. Jan Zwicky, Lyric Philosophy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), L4; hereafter abbreviated LP.

5. As Zwicky says, being “is the interconnectedness, the resonant ecology, of things” (W&M, L86), and lyric thought tunes into this ecology.

6. Robert Hass, “Images,” 20th Century Pleasures (Hopewell: The Ecco Press, 1984), pp. 269–308, (p. 291).

7. Simone Weil, Waiting for God, trans. E. Craufurd (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 100.

8. Yuriko Saito, “The Japanese Appreciation of Nature,” British Journal of Aesthetics 25, no. 3 (1985): 239–51 (245). [End Page 210]