Let Nature tell the Time

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Avoiding clocks and calendars in fiction

The morning after their wedding night, Romeo has to leave Juliet, as his life is in danger. Juliet, not wanting to admit the night is over, assures her new husband:

…it is not yet near day:
It was the nightingale, and not the lark,
That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear;
Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate-tree:
Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.

A modern character might look at their Roliflex or switch on their iphone, but it’s much more poetic and elemental to have Juliet use references to birdsong to determine the time. Although Shakespeare was in many ways ahead of his time, even he couldn’t have predicted modern technology, so of course it wasn’t an option, but even so, he, like all good writers, realised readers and audiences like to work things out for themselves, so the nature references are a lot more subtle. Romeo, more alert to danger, and acutely aware of his own vulnerability, proclaims:

It was the lark, the herald of the morn,
No nightingale: look, love, what envious streaks
Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east:
Night's candles are burnt out, and jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.
I must be gone and live, or stay and die.

Personally, I love it when writers use nature to convey time. As we’ve seen, Shakespeare refers to birdsong, but also clouds, stars and weather. Romeo uses plenty of evidence to convince his new wife it really is daytime.

We can take a leaf from Shakespeare’s book. We can convey time through: the position of the sun, the direction of shadow, the appearance (or disappearance) of stars, the quality of light etc. We can use nature to show seasons too. References to snowdrops suggest early spring for example, whereas Michelmas Daisies would represent autumn.

It’s worth looking carefully at signs of the time and seasons in the natural world (and checking our observations) as readers love these references and they are a lot more subtle than using clocks and calendars.

StyleGill ThompsonComment