Only once has Josh Ritter put two versions of the same song on one album. Well, almost the same song: One has a parenthetical in the title; the other does not.
The lyrics rely very heavily on repetition—one single phrase is sung nineteen times. Sometimes it’s a declaration, sometimes a wistful reminder for the listener. Others a coarse command. Sometimes—perhaps always—a mantra to focus and soothe the speaker himself.
When both the track and the selfsame nineteen phrases roll around again to conclude the Historical Conquests album . . . all the repetition makes one thing crystal clear.
Somebody doesn’t want to wait anymore. Click below to listen.
There are lots of mysterious pronouns in this song. There is liberal—one might even say grammatically irresponsible—use of she and someone and babe and you, and it’s unclear who is who. This is intended, I suspect, for the song is a meditation on some intertwined Big Ideas, under which the sands have shifted for centuries, and whose identities have fired the imaginations of many.
We can clearly identify three characters: There is Love, there is Time, and there is the Speaker. The speaker is waiting for and deeply desires Love, but what he’s got is Time. Time, as we know, waits for no man (or woman): Time is constant, loyal, and steady. Time holds him all the time and is the someone on [his] mind. Time is Miss Right Now, though perhaps he wishes she weren’t.
Love is what and who our Speaker wants—she holds him the best—but Love is maddeningly absent. Love is fickle; she makes him wait. Love is the you he’s waiting on in both versus. Nobody makes the speaker wait the way [Love does]. Love is Miss Right, and “Can I get an ETA?” the speaker wonders.
He’s tired of waiting. He’s worried about time.
So, he uses the refrains to take matters into his own hands. Perhaps he aims to bait Love, to goad her, to see if he can intervene and speed things up.
He says . . .
I got someone on my mind
. . . to give Love a prod, to see whether she has a jealous side. He takes what he has in sweet, devoted abundance—Time—and he bluffs a little. He tells Love another is vying for his attention, and she’s great. She’s . . . well, pretty great.
and she holds me pretty much the way you do
Despite his vulnerability, he claims strength and tries to turn the tables on the very thing he wants most..
The versions are very different, and in this way they illuminate the alternating attitudes of those who find themselves in a universal waiting game.
Track 8 opens with a celestial cacophony: a stuck car horn, a whirring siren, lazy guitar strums, audible shooting stars. The tempo is plodding, the chords wooden. This is the gentle, wistful, monotonous stage of waiting. There’s a lot of hope, for out from a void stretch endless possibilities. For some—the romantics, perhaps—waiting in this state might even be pleasant. A little pleasure in the pain.
Track 14 isn’t in such an expansive mood: it opens with dark, urgent, sultry chords. The tempo is rushed. Track 8 may drift heavenward; this one has dirt caked in its boots. The speaker’s gathered some supporters: there are raucous harmonies, new instruments, and some errant sounds—knocking, giggling—that feel defiant. Emboldened, he ups the ante, saying Time doesn’t just hold him: She loves him all the time.
Track 8 sighs; track 14 sneers. Track 8 is ethereal; track 14 is real. Track 8 is patient, passive, magnanimous, solitary, sing-song. Track 14 is impatient, active, manipulative, communal, and a sing-along.
So which track are you? How do (or did) you wait for Love?
Did you have gentle, patient times, or restless, boisterous ones . . . or both? And what terms are you on with Time? This notion of time holding us is a rich one; Hold is the sort of bounteous word that Josh seems to favor. You can hold someone in an embrace—the primary meaning in this song, I think—but then you can also hold someone or something captive, or back, or still. In music, hold is used to denote the act of sustaining—a chord, a note. A rest.
I think our lifelong symbiosis with time enlivens all those meanings along the way.
Which way does Time hold you? Do or did you let the passage of time sustain you . . . love you . . . worry you . . . while you wait(ed) for Love? When has Time summoned your gratitude? . . . Your ire?
So opens the 2004 introduction to a book of poems from the fourteenth century.
While the problem of living in time is a long-standing preoccupation among philosophers, theologians, and storytellers, in some respects the exploration of temporality [i.e. time] might be seen as the special province of _[fill in the blank]_ poetry. (PP, ix)
Well, here comes Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374), an Italian who spent forty-seven years writing a collection that other poets titled Il Canzoniere (e.g. “Song Book”), a book of 366 poems. He began writing them when he was 23 and stopped in the final year of his life, at age 69.
Petrarch, like a lot of men we run into around here, was quite a character.
He [was] distracted, playful, eclectic, and many-minded. (PP, x)
And multi-talented, I would add. He was a lawyer, a priest (for a time), a biographer, an international scholar, an ambassador to Europe, a poet-diplomat, perhaps the world’s first mountaineer—he climbed Mount Ventoux (6273 ft) for pleasure in 1336—some say the first documented tourist.
He found time to be the Father of Humanism and to reflect deeply on his place in time, revering and reviving classical antiquity, and conceiving of the notion of the Dark Ages. When he couldn’t find enough like-minded souls in his own age, he wrote letters to long-dead ones from the one he most admired.
In The Canzoniere, Petrarch ponders time mightily; he personifies and addresses love by name. In fact, Love speaks. Love is also male, and sometimes friend, but more often foe. Here’s the one major difference with regard to the Ritter discussion above: We know the identity of Petrarch’s love and desire. Her name is Laura, and—**spoiler alert**—she will never be his.
In fact, she dies around twenty years into this particular writing project, and he just goes on musing on her virtues and his pain for another quarter century. By the end he’s got his desire in check, has been awakened spiritually, and so focuses his attention on the Virgin Mary.
This is the long view—a lifelong meditation on time—indeed. Let’s try one.
Love sends me that sweet thought, the one which is
a confidant of old between us two,
and comforts me, says I was never closer
to having what I yearn for than right now.
His words, I’ve found, are sometimes true and then
are sometimes false; I don’t know what to think,
and so I live somewhere between the two:
no yes or no rings honest to my heart.
Meantime the days go by, and in my mirror
I watch myself approximate that season
that contradicts his promise and my hope.
Well, let it come. I’m not the only one
who’s aging. My desire doesn’t age,
but how much time, I wonder, have I left?
What’s that I said before?
He’s tired of waiting. And he’s worried about time.
Laura, Petrarch’s beloved, is that sweet thought in line 1, and the object of Petrarch’s yearning in line 4. I don’t know what to think and I live somewhere between attests to his uncertainty, to his transient and anticipatory state. Love is fickle for Josh’s speaker and he’s fickle here too: Petrarch doesn’t really trust him. Petrarch wants to believe he will join with Laura, but there is no guarantee—Love’s promises are sometimes true and sometimes false.
Laura de Noves — possible identity of “Laura”
Petrarch is desperate, and there’s no genuine comfort to be had. Worst of all, soon he’s going to die. Death, or perhaps advanced age, is the season that contradicts [Love’s] promise and [Petrarch’s] hope.
Meantime the days go by speaks to the constancy of time. Josh’s speaker is held by time, and so, too, Petrarch. Time’s passage is inevitable for both. Love and time seem to be in conflict for both.
What to do?
If only he could stop time. Well, take a look. Is there a line in #168 that steals the show? A tone-shifter, a time-stopper?
. . .
. . .
. . .
. . .
. . .
. . .
. . .
. . .
The line Well, let it come seizes control back and transforms the poem for a moment. In form it does stop time: It’s the shortest and most accented sentence in the piece—four punctuated words with a full stop in the middle of a line. The reader pauses.
And what of the sentiment? Well, let it come. In a sea of anxiety and distrust, we get a brief, courageous interlude. Petrarch himself stops Time’s intimidation right in its tracks by submitting to it willfully. Everyone’s in my boat, he decides. My desire doesn’t age, he declares bravely and triumphantly. (Yes, mine either! We cheer.)
If only it ended there.
Petrarch turns back to look over his shoulder.
“But,” he frets, stealing any triumph from the last line…
how much time, I wonder, have I left?
And so both Ritter’s speaker and Francesco Petrarca put up a good fight, but anxiety over time in the absence of Love shines through.
. Consider The Lyrics
Again to David Young’s Introduction to Petrarch’s Canzoniere:
In some respects the exploration of temporality [i.e. time] might be seen as the special province of lyric poetry.(PP, ix)
Lyric poetry . . . the lyrics. Excellent!
Lyric poetry both submits to temporality and resists it.
Translations by David Young
Petrarch is considered a master lyric poet. Dante Aligheri (also Italian) was another. Dante came before, and he connected his sonnet sequence with explanatory prose passages. Petrarch dropped the prose passages, so we just get 366 consecutive lyric snapshots from his life—or rime sparse (“scattered rhymes”) as he himself called them—standing on their own and wide open to interpretation.
Scholar David Young points out the contradiction in Petrarch’s “particles of experience,” and how in concert together they stitch together a powerful personal narrative without employing the traditional requirements of writing an autobiography. (PP, ix)
Petrarch’s sonnets, Young asserts, reinforce what we have discussed here before:
Petrarch succeeded, we might say, in portraying what theologians call the double motion of the soul, its simultaneous attraction to the earthly and to the heavenly
—attractions audible in Tracks 9 and 14—
[T]o live in time is to experience continually contradictory impulses and responses, gusts and vagaries of emotion and thought.
Petrarch is joyous; Petrarch is despondent. Petrarch is confident and secure; Petrarch is overwrought. Petrarch is flawed and human. Petrarch longs for the divine. It’s all there, sometimes multiple states piling into the same sonnet. Like life. The sonnets move steadily forward in linear lockstep with time, but Petrarch’s musings often turn back to enliven an old memory or jump ahead in anticipation of a future occurrence.
In this way, Young concludes, the poet resists—defeats, even—the constraints of time, while also submitting to it in the recording of regular literary, linear snapshots from his life.
In 2013 we have this mechanism for capturing and collecting particles of experience:
[T]he poems carry on a kind of conversation among themselves, maintaining their discreteness and completeness while contributing, always, to the growth of the whole.(PP, xiv)
Sounds like some fine albums I know.
. A Time to Wait
As for me, I’m back to waiting. Love came and then went, and I have sought comfort in the arms of Time and ears of good friends and family, and yes, celestial sirens of hope. And yes: bits of earth—trail mud and city silt and sidewalk snow—stuck to my worn-down, well-trod shoes. I walk for Love, I smiled to myself the other night, watching the city pass by from my favorite vantage point.
I have also hid from the world, secure in the knowledge that Time held me still and safe, and one day she would heal. Other times Time held me fast and I strained against her chains, begging Love’s hasty return.
What to do while we wait? The uncertainty—the desperation of knowing time is marching on—can prompt a lot of wasteful behaviors and unhealthy emotions. (And it must be said: some very insensitive comments from others.) I’ve encountered them all.
No one wants to squander precious time. And is it even precious when love is absent? My younger, romantic, impatient self didn’t think so. Reality TV and other trappings of modern life shout No. Can or should one rush or encourage—even manipulate—the circumstances surrounding love? Experiments like “The Bachelor” give a resounding answer.
Love is glorious, but time is constant. Forgetting one can live meaningfully through periods without love—yet never without time—can be dangerous. Remember that the speaker swings between declaring I wait for love and instructing Wait for love—the song’s title—repeatedly. Is he actively tamping down that growing anxiety, willing himself to be patient, to befriend Time, not to settle . . . to resist the mirages that rise when Love is not allowed her own time?
There is virtue in working on one’s unavoidable relationship with Time. There is virtue in showing her some loyalty—some trust—when love has gone or not appeared, and time is all you’ve got. Wisdom says, after all, that time can heal you. If you listen, perhaps time will tell. Someday that dream may take shape in the most unimaginable fashion, and what might you thank?
But you have to let Time do her work. You can’t rush her, or stop her, and you certainly can’t resent her. I think you have to love her, or at least embrace—and hold her—back. Time’s still around, after all. If she weren’t, you wouldn’t be either.
So grab Time and take a walk to the park, or sign up for tango lessons, or sip an espresso in Vienna. Pick up your guitar and write her a song. Do whatever you like, because she’s here now, and with luck she’s not going anywhere soon.
And once you’ve found some peace together, you can . . . well, really, you’re going to go right on waiting.
(I know I will.)
.More close readings of incredible songs
Girl meets Mark Twain . . . My discovery of the album The Animal Years leads to a rediscovery of Mark Twain.
Desert radio . . . Line by line through the enigmatic song “Monster Ballads.” My best impression of Sherlock Holmes. Awaiting my Pulitzer.