On a Sun-Dial by William Hazlitt Summary
William Hazlitt, the Romantic essayist, thinker and the writer of this masterpiece essay “On a Sun-Dial” was one day riding along the river Brenta near Venice on a depressed mind. It was day time and the sun was shining brightly on the slowly flowing dark water of river Brenta, but since the mind of the author was not at ease, he had no eye on the shining water. He was riding on a disinterested mood. Suddenly his eye fell upon a sundial and the motto engraved upon it. The motto was written in Latin words “Horas non numero nisi serenas” which meant-“I count only the hours that are serene or peaceful.” The motto instantly inspired the writer and it appeared to him that in the words and thought of the motto it had matchless softness and harmony. He firmly believed that the motto not only soothes our feelings but also drives away all our anxieties and cares. Life has a lesson to take from the sundial. The sundial or a special clock measures the day’s nights and hours only when the sky is fresh, blue and brightening. It cannot count the hours or days when the sky is dark with cloud. In short it counts only the happy hours of the day. And here from we get a lesson. It teaches us to think of our happiness only and to pay no heed to the unhappy moments and left that aside in oblivion. It gives us another lesson, that we are to make our life happy and peaceful. We must try to forget the unhappy moments of our life and remember the sweet, happy ones only. It is indeed a lesson that is radically different from the one taught us by the preachers of self-torture. When Hazlitt saw the motto engraved on the sundial he was moved and enchanted. The inner philosophy of the motto simply overwhelmed him and the much needed tranquillity of his mind. Since then, whenever he thought of the motto t elevated his heart to a pure and happy region where he found himself detached from this world of sorrows and sufferings. As a matter of fact, the motto on the sundial-‘Horas non numero nisi serenas,’ had an everlasting effect on Hazlitt, the author of this essay.
Naturally William Hazlitt was inspired to think of who could have invented such wonderful philosophical motto and his sermisation was that the motto might have been invented by some saints of the ancient days. That was in the age of the saints and hermits-who were pure, simple and pious in their thoughts, ideas and standard of living. Possibly, one day, such a hermit was walking about in a beautiful, nicely arranged lonely garden when he possibly watched the silent passage of time. This passage of time was reflected on the fruits and flowers of the garden and he had seen that. The garden was shining bright in the sunlight. The sweet but scorching ray of the sunlight had ripen the fruits. The sweet fragrance of the flower had filled the atmosphere. Absolute peace and calm reigned everywhere that overwhelmed the saint. Possibly he was feeling a typical sense of dullness. Perhaps he had nothing to do at that time and was free from all cares, worries and anxieties. In case, he had some worries he might have followed the example of sundial to drive them out from his mind or to forget them for sometime. By doing so possibly he had made his life peaceful and happy. Probably it was at that time when he had said to himself-“I count only the hours that are peaceful.” Possibly that was the time when the sky was covered with cloud making the light shaded and in that darkness a fierce storm had scattered the falling leaves all around him. He no longer could remain outside and went in to get himself absorbed in studying books to enrich him with unknown knowledge and the hidden truth of the universe. He was in a fine, refined, thoughtful and lazy mood and perhaps in such a calm, resourceful mood he had invented the motto- “Horas non numero nisi serenas” or “I count only the hours that are serene.”
Hazlitt told us that though there are many methods of counting hours and minutes, the sundial is the most suitable method. Of course, it is not very convenient method because it does not interfere in observing the passage of time, though it expresses moral thoughts about time. As it always remains at one place it is a contrast to all those things which last for a short period and disappears after some time. It stands firmly in the air and never goes down to it. As such, it shows that there always remains a connection between vastness and everlasting durations. However, Hazlitt wanted that a sunflower should grow near it with bees flying and circling over it. He also said that the sundial should be made of iron and its appearance should always be dull and not bright. He disliked a wooden sundial because a sundial is appropriate only to show the change of seasons. It is not appropriate to show the change of time or its forward march. Time passes on silently and we cannot see it.
Hazlitt was against a peaceful life because if our life remains peaceful we will know nothing about the importance of time just as the sundial gives no weight to time or never can assess its importance, especially when the sky remains cloudy and dark. In fact a sundial acts when the sky remains clean and the sunshine is bright because at that time the shadow falls on the date plate and the shadows only tell us that the time is passing out quickly. This is very much real in the human life too. There are the shadows of grief and troubles, sorrows and sufferings in our daily life too. In reality these are the salt of life. Without these sorrows and sufferings life becomes dull, monotonous and boring. Without this salt we could hardly know how we are living in this material world. Absolute peace is, in fact, a curse, a disgusting thing. Without sorrows, tears and care, anxieties and worries, life seems to lose its charm, meaning and worth. Of course there are some people who remain in absolute peace, free from all cares and anxieties. But to find this enjoyable life these people have to look to their future with a coloured vision of hope and fear. He believed that most of these methods of measuring time and its passage might have been the inventions of the monks and hermits who had practically no work to do, hence, had to spend their time with great difficulty. To get rid of this difficulty he found out the methods of measuring the onward march of time.
Then the author told us about the merits and defects of the hour glass. The hour-glass is another instrument to measure the passage of time. Here time is measured with the help of sand. The instrument is filled with sand. There are two chambers in this instrument and from one chamber the sand goes down to another chamber through a narrow passage. By the quantity of sand that goes down, hours are measured with the particles of sand. The hour-glass tells us one things. It reminds us that in our life there are countless minutes like the innumerable sand particles. Just as these particles of sand go on diminishing likewise the years of our life go on becoming short day by day. The hours-glass reminds us that in every minute our time is getting short and we are aheading to death. The greatest defect of a hour-glass was, perhaps, that one has to pay constant attention to the sand in it. As soon as the one end of the glass becomes empty we have to turn the glass round otherwise of which the sand will not fall, neither will we be able to count time. This will simply mean our entire labour. Yet the hour-glass has its good sides, too. It is a good companion for the philosophers who study in their rooms and the poor women who spend on the spinning-wheel. Due to it they never feel lonely. With its help they come to know how their time is passing. It does not let a man become dull and meaninglessly inactive because he can well see and read how much sands still remain in the glass chamber. A slightest mistake will simply ditch him and he will never come to know what the time exactly is. He thus becomes cautious of time, realises its worth because he knows time once gone will not come back again. Like the constant falling of the sand life too coming nearer to it’s end day by day, when it will turn into mere ashes and dust. As such, Hazlitt said that the following motto could rightly be written on the glass of the hour-glass-“Dust to dust and ashes to ashes.” The hour-glass in generally “Connected with the sickle of time and skull of a human skeleton. These two things tell us to remember that we must die one day. The hour-glass, thus, has given many silent hint to an intelligent dreamer that here is another life after death.” The hour-glass thus speaks the harder reality of life.
The French has given a different interpretation to time – rather in a less serious and less elevating manner. They never cared to tie any spiritual meaning to time. The most common figure that is always engraved on a clock of Paris, is the time–sitting in a boat which is rowed by the Roman God of love-Cupid. “Love makes the time pass” is the very common motto that we often find in a French clock. Some realistic intelligent men of France, however, has changed the motto humoroursly as “Time makes love pass. Both the mottos carry deep philosophical meaning. Hazlitt said that the French are very intelligent people no doubt, but the motto shows they have no feelings, nor the heart. The motto speaks us nothing—neither love nor hate. It simply expresses an indifferent attitude, as if to say all things are alike, no difference does anywhere exists. There are people who are indifferent and always on a move to get rid of one feeling and get into another. They look to all things as separate things having no connection with one another. They lack depth and Hazlitt does not like such people. They cannot think of writing a motto on the sundial like the one in Venice for at least one million years. Only after such a long time a Frenchman can think and say-“yes, I count only the hours that are serene.” Hazlitt was not pleased with the French people. He says that the Frenchmen can never understand properly the philosophy and ideal of peace and pleasure lying hidden in this motto. Nor they can understand the poetical quality of Shakespeare’s famous line “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank.” The French are the happiness-seekers in vanity, fashion and all sorts of sensual pleasures but lack the ability to understand the finest and fantastic things. They are devoid of the quality to gain or use knowledge to elivate their standard or develop good taste. feelings and manners and give them permanence.” Hazlitt thinks that the character of the French lack good foundation and on a bad foundation no good building can be built. In short Hazlitt does not expect any good thing or good idea from the French men since they are fickle minded showy and whimsical persons. When they became Serious about some great things that simply becomes foolish and absurd. They thus, can be compared only with such matters that are left after the distillation of a substance.
Owing to his disliking for the Frenchmen, Hazlitt dislikes the French clocks and watches too. These people have made many kinds of watches and clocks, some being gold repeaters, watches with metal covers and clocks with hands to indicate second. These clocks and watches show the whims and fancies of these people but they never tell the time and this shows the foolishness of the Frenchmen though they pretend to be wise and clever enough. They cannot understand that when we try to know the hours and minutes by their clocks and watches we simply spoil or waste our time, but time is always precious. Here he finds not only the hours and minutes but also the years that are passing on quickly. To Hazlitt, this is simply unbearable. He never wants to know the hours or minutes from a French clock or watch.
Neither he liked watches that are kept in the cases. Such a watch appears to him as a robber appears before us with a covered face. A watch is just like our friend. It should come openly and freely with no cover in its face. We always like to see the real sweet and pleasing face of our friend. Our uncovered watch-friend tells us the time whenever we look at it. We need not to waste time and feel disgusted for uncovering its face first and then see the exact time. Of course, some people like to have a watch case because it keeps the glass of the watch safe, undamaged and because it keeps the watch free from dust or air so that the movement of the watch is not disturbed. Hazlitt however, is unwilling to accept these reasons. Rather the opening and shutting of the case simply wastes time and causes troubles. People keep cases only to show their importance. He compared these people with them who carry an oracle or divine answers to questions in thier pocket. They can easily ask anyone to know the answer, but without doing that they consult the oracle, just to show their vanity and self-importance.
Hazlitt also disliked the presence of two clocks in his room. When he visited some places he often found the presence of two clocks in his room. They strike the same hour and that was Hazlitt’s greatest objection. He dislikes to be reminded twice that the time is passing. He compared the stroke of the second clock as the tap of an impertinent servant at someone’s door. The second tap at the door is virtually a mandate to open the door though someone may not like to do that. Moreover the striking of the two clocks indicate the difference of time they maintain. It appears as a difference of opinion that provokes discussion. Hazlitt never liked it. Time moves in its own way, be that slow and fast. It is like a true fame and only a true fame can be compared with this passage of time. Critics may object to this but they cannot discard it. The clocks like those critics, speaks of time and its difference but they cannot enhance or decrease its speed and that makes their every discussion meaningless.
Hazlitt has equal disregard for the repeating watches. A repeating watch has a spring which once and when pressed strikes like a wall clock to pronounce the time. The great French scholar writer Jean Jacque Rousseau gave picture of a lady who was once reading a book “New Eloise.” The book was just published and the lady found interest in it. So she asked her maid to press the repeater to make her aware of time. When the repeater sounded she found that it was too late for her bed time and hence she continued till morning. Hazlitt refers to this story. Rousseau said another story as well that made him feel a different kind of interest. Rousseau as a boy used to read romances with his father at night and knowing nothing about time continued their reading till the early morning. When the swallows twittered in their nests then only they came to know about the time. This made his father embarrassed and angry and ashamed because he too had kept his son awaken for the whole night. “I am more of a child than you,” he said. Repeating watches were generally used in the horse carriage at night when one traveller suddenly awaken from his sleep wanted to know the time and the fellow traveller pressed the spring of his repeater to sound the time. The light stroke of the watch tell the time. Hazlitt compared that sound with the puncture of a wheel of the car because it sounded alike. The puncture obviously caused great distress for the passenger because it meant obvious delay in journey. For Hazlitt the stroke of the repeater was alike because that reminded him the dull and monotonous period he had passed and yet to pass till the coming of the day.
Hazlitt, however, preferred clocks to watches because the clocks tell time by striking the hours loudly and not silently as the watches do. They thus represent the time and make us hear their announcements. We need not to look to a clock to know what time it is. We can hear its bells ringing the hours. Of course, we can see it too to know what time it is. A clock thus has an audio-visual effect. It tells us that time possesses the power of understanding as well as the power of speaking. Its loud sound warns us that time is passing out quickly. One should not let it go uncared for or waste it. Hazlitt told us that heard things are far better than the things we merely see. By seeing things we not only make differences between them but think deeply on them. Yet they are no match to the heard things. It produces different kinds of sounds at certain intervals which appeal more to our imaginations and make us feel different kinds of feelings. Of course, these things are possible only when the sounds are produced unknowingly and suddenly. The sound must not be like the one produced by the repeating watch. The sound should not be an artificial one having a relation with any man. Rather they should be natural and beyond the human ability to resist it’s being produced.
Hazlitt reminded us that time is eternal and independent of all things. It is supreme and none can resist its passage. It is useless for human being to show vanity or importance concerning this eternal time. The clocks tell us this passage of time as it strikes the hours. As time is independent and supreme why should we try to make it our subordinate and confine it within the narrow limits of different types of watches? If we do that, the warning that the time gives us about our future would simply become meaningless. Our artificial spring pressed warnings are unreal and unnatural. Times real warning is that which comes through the natural way and these types of warnings can only be given by the clock, the castle bell and the curfew bell.
To Hazlitt the curfew bells are of great importance. He loved this sort of bells, because it reminded him of the old age. In early England of the feudal age, the ringing of the curfew bell was a signal for the people to put out their lights and fire. In many parts of England that old system and custom still continue. Hazlitt heard this in his boyhood. In his childhood Hazlitt used to hear it with great pleasure and awe. Even in his grown up days he still remembers the days of his past. The curfew bell told him the tales of the past. Those days are gone and will never come again. The people of those days will not come back too. That open spaces in the forests, the brown coloured villages of England the well-armed Norman soldiers, the preparation for battle field, the merriment of the Norman soldiers in a large, wonderfully decorated hall, their leader the mighty conqueror -all are the common scenes very closely associated with the curfew bell. Hearing the curfew bell the farmer used to put out the lamp out of fear. Hearing the bell the same fear and surprise fill our mind.
Hazlitt is a lover of the past. Memories of the past always make him happy. He remembers the events happened long long ago and wishes that let the things of the present echo the happenings of the past. Past always remains a mystery to him. He wants to read it out make it open. But he cannot unveil it. Of course, he sometimes wants that let the pleasure of the past come to an end and that is what he finds absolutely impossible. He is so much drunk with the memories and love of the past that the future carries no value to him. And that is the case with all of us. He reminds us that as we do not care to know about the planets, in the same way we do not care to know about the world in the year 2300. We may think of going on a journey to the moon. We may even think of moving quietly ahead of time. Thus the same reasoning appeals to the things that do not appear as to things that do not exist. Some people will live after us when we will not be in this world. We have no regard for them. We think of them as upstarts and pretenders. We think that they do not really exist. If we ever think so, we regard them full of vanity and self-importance. In other words we think of them as untrue persons, who cannot be relied upon. In contrast to them the people of the past were true and trustworthy. We are connected with them by all the knowledge that we have received from them. Moreover, we are their descendants. When we see them in the true light of history, we tell that our life has been lengthened and our pride in ourselves has been subdued. But people generally do not think so. They do not think indifferently about the future. They do not try to understand what will happen to them and what will be their part in the busy world. Hazlitt is an exception to them. His only wish is that he should live some of his past years over again. These years should be those in which he enjoyed and suffered most.”
Hazlitt tells us that the ticking of the clock at night can neither please nor displease us, but a few superstitious men always try to find good and bad omens in it. Persons who are awaken or in poor and sick health, the ticking of the clock at night may make them feel disgusted. But if the sound is sweet and clear it gives relief and pleasure. The church bells in the villages of England remind us many happy moments and its sound is, indeed, sweet. For the villagers rather this sound of the church bell is the only music. In Catholic countries the church bells have no musical effect while in the hilly districts of Italy the Chapel bells bring pleasing effect on mind. But the Cathedral bells of Cologne and Rouen bring a harsh and jarring sound. The Cathedral bells of Holland are so hard ringing all the time that they appear somewhat nuisance. Obviously enough, these bells cannot make the people aware of time or teach them how to spend time properly. This is done only by the village bells in England. They ring after every three hours that marks the different parts of the day. It inspires the lazy people to go out for work. At noon their sound reminds the villagers that the lunch time has come. In the villages with their sound the villagers stop their work and go to get sleep and rest for the next days toil. Bells were generally rung to declare the deaths or executions of the offenders. The very sound of the bell itself is very much fearful as it speaks of the coming of an end for a man. Of course as Hazlitt is preoccupied with the topic of time he was not eager to discuss about death. Yet he wants that these bells should be rang only when a king or some persons of refute dies. Hence, these bells should not be rung to say farewell to the old moribund year and to welcome the new year.
There are people who never keep clock or watch to tell time, yet they know the time or dates. They can well remember these time or dates. The savages do not keep clock or watch, they in fact know nothing about these things. Yet they can remember time well. Their mind works as a kind of natural calendar. Their mind has eyes that see the past and future events of their life. Looking at the sky and stars they say all. People who tell about the future in this way have stores of knowledge no doubt, one cannot say that they know nothing. In fact, they know well about their own affairs and the common events. As their mind is clear and simple, their knowledge is clear, simple and never confused. A shepherd boy knows well the time by looking at the sky. Yet out of his curiosity to see a clock or watch he asks a traveller about time. Robinson Crusoe had to spend many years in a lovely island all alone and without any calendar or watch and hence he had to keep records of dates by making light cut marks on a piece of wood.
Hazlitt himself never kept a watch with him and neither he wished to know how the time is passing. In fact, he wanted an undisturbed ease going life. He finds more pleasure in lying idly on a sunny mound on Salisbury Plain in the morning. Lying there in that sunny morning he wishes to pass his time with idle thoughts. While lying on a sunny mound idle thoughts occur in him and one such thought he has written in this essay. His half shut eyes are floated with such thoughts and just as a contrast to that the images of the past go rushing by him. In images he sees the Greek goddess Diana and ali the pomp, glories and grandeurs of the past days of ancient world. He loves to see the images of the past only and dislikes to pain his heart with images of some other time. This thought brings tears in his eyes and the images of the past disappears, separating him from all of them. He when wakes up from the dream of the past, goes home for dinner but feels proud just thinking that even without thinking anything how wonderfully he has spent his morning with deep thoughts of very high standard. Hazlitt inherited this habit of passing time idly from his father. His father however, was not free from boredom which he is. Neither was his father a deep thinker like him. He had many vacant hours in his life which he could not utilize since he was not a deep thinker. So, at night, he spent his time carefully by winding up his watch, though at day time he used to look at it again and again to know time. In this respect he was like Mr. Shandy who always wind up the clock at regular intervals. Hazlitt wants to write more about his father, but he has already written much in his book “Sketches and Essays.” His critics will be after him if he writes more again. So he stops writing any more.