It is appropriate that time be measured
by the stark shadow cast by a stake in summer
or by the flow of water in the river
where Heraclitus saw time’s ironies
since, seen as time and fate, they are alike;
the movement of the mindless daytime shadow
and the irrevocable running on
of river water following its flow.
Just so, but time discovered in the deserts
another substance, smooth and of some weight,
that seemed to have been specifically imagined
for measuring out the ages of the dead.
And so appears this instrument of legend
in the engravings in the dictionary,
an object graying antiquarians
will banish to a dusty underworld
of things — a single chessman, a broadsword,
now lifeless, and a clouded telescope,
sandalwood word away by opium,
a world of dust, of chance, of nothingness.
Who has not hesitated, seeing that hourglass,
severe and sombre, in the god’s right hand,
accompanying the scythe he also handles,
the image Durer copied in his drawing?
Through a top opening, the inverted cone
slowly lets fall the wary grains of sand,
a gradual gold that, loosening, fills up
the concave crystal of its universe.
Pleasure there is in watching how the sand
slowly slithers up and makes a slope
then, just about to fall, piles up again
with an insistence that appears quite human.
The sand of every cycle is the same
and infinite is the history of sand;
so, underlying your fortunes and your sorrows,
yawns an invulnerable eternity.
It never stops, the spilling of the sand.
I am the one whyo weakens, not the glass.
The rite of the falling sand is infinite
and, with the sand, our lives are leaving us.
In the timing of the sand, I seem to feel
a cosmic time: all the long history
that memory keeps sealed up in its mirrors
or that has been dissolved by magic Lethe.
All these: the pillar of smoke, the pillar of fire,
Carthage, Rome, and their constricting wars,
Simin Magus, the seven feet of earth
the Saxon offers the Norwegian king —
all are obliterated, all brought down
by the tireless trickle of the endless sand.
I do not have to save myself — I too
am a whim of time, that shify element.
-Jorge Luis Borges, translated (I think) by Alistair Reed