Study Guide

The Passing of the Year Quotes

  • Appearances

    Your mien is sad, your step is slow;
         You falter as a Sage in pain; (lines 13-14)

    Here's where we start to really get to know the Old Year as a character.  Our speaker focuses carefully on his appearance, maybe to help us get used to this transformation of an idea into a person.  When we read these lines, we think of an old man, doubled over, leaning on a cane, and grimacing a little as he walks.  We think the speaker really wants to emphasize this feeling of age and wear and tiredness, because that's what he's trying to shake off as the year changes.

    That sphinx-like face, remote, austere,
         Let us all read, whate'er the cost: (lines 17-18)

    The "Old Year" is a character, for sure, since he walks around, and has a face and an expression.  Maybe he's not exactly like a person, though.  Or at least not like someone you could just hang out and have a good time with.  In a way, the more we learn about his appearance, the less we know.   In this moment, we really have a sense of him being far away and hard to read.  It's a bit of a paradox, since usually personification like this is used to make abstract ideas like the year seem closer and more relatable.  In this case, it's hard to tell who this guy is, and how exactly we're supposed to feel about him.

    O sweet girl-face, so sad, so wan
         What hath the Old Year meant to you?  (lines 23-4)

    Again, it's hard for us not to feel like these people the speaker is seeing are somehow not quite real, not quite fully human.  We don't get their names, or any sense of what they do or where they come from.  In this case, the young Maiden is reduced to one aspect of her appearance – her face.  She's not called "Suzie," or "young woman."  She is "girl-face."  Guys, try calling your female friends that, and see how far you get.  It's a little weird, right?  Even as we look more closely at these people, there's still a strong sense of distance.  We can't get past the surface.

    That makes your smile so gay and glad? (line 28)

    This is a different kind of appearance, a happy face at last.  Still, notice that we don't get past the front door – we are left to guess and judge based on the face and the clothes alone.  We've said this before, but it's worth repeating.  This poem is all about faces, about staring at them intently and trying to decipher them, even though they seem kind of mysterious and strange.

    And You, deep shrinking in the gloom,
         What find you in that filmy gaze? (lines 33-4)

    This one's pretty intense, isn't it?  We thought it was worth pointing out the kind of back-and-forth mirror action that's going on here.  The speaker is looking at these people, trying to guess things based on their appearances, while they are looking at the face of the Old Year, trying to "find" something in his "filmy gaze."  See why we think this poem is a little strange and mysterious?  Service is a pretty down to earth guy for the most part.  In this case, though, all this confusing, tantalizing stuff about appearances makes him seem like he's got some kind of secret, which is sort of fun.

  • Time

    And wait to feel the old year go. (line 4)

    This is kind of a cool idea.  We like the thought of a guy sitting in his room, waiting to feel something like the changing of the year.  If you really paid attention, do you think you could feel a thing like that?  Maybe this poem is designed to get you close to that, to zero you in on a moment, to heighten your senses so that you can feel the passage of time.

    Old Year! upon the Stage of Time (line 9)

    See how this whole "life is a theater" idea works?  Service is going to make sure you do, because he's about to go nuts with this metaphor.  Still, let's take a second and think about how it fits together.  In this line, he's comparing time to a stage where the action of life happens.  Time is the platform, the base for everything.  We actually think it matters a lot that the speaker uses the word "time" here.  He could have said the "Stage of Life" or something like that, but what he really wants us to focus on it the feeling of time rolling by us.

    A moment, and the prompter's chime
         Will ring the curtain down on you. (lines 11-12)

    "Moment" is another important time word.  We're just a moment away from the end of the year – in an instant it will disappear forever.  Still, what the poet can do is freeze that moment, stretch it out for as long as he wants.  He basically stops time. In saving this stretched-out moment in time, he prevents it from getting swept away.  It's actually one of the neat super-powers of poetry, this ability to play with time.  OK, so we don't think Poetry-Man is going to be the next big Marvel Comics franchise, although if they go that way, we've got some ideas for costumes…

    What dark, condemning yesterdays? (line 36)

    This poor guy, who our speaker thinks is a criminal, really seems to have the weight of the past pressing down on him.  Luckily, the poem doesn't spend too much time on this, or it could get depressing.  Still, we think that the idea that time can be a burden, that it can "condemn" you, is an important theme in this poem.  Maybe things haven't gotten that bad for the speaker yet, but he seems to be leaning that way.

    Old weary year! it's time to go. (line 48)

    We don't want to get too spacey on you, but there are at least a couple different kinds of time working in this poem.  There's the clock time of the world, which is moving along.  There's also poem-time (you like that? we just made it up) because every poem has to have a beginning middle and end.  In this line, the poem time and the clock time are coming together.  It's "time" for the "weary year" to go, because it's getting near midnight, but also because the poem is ending.

  • Sadness

    This sober moment, sadly fraught
         With much of blame, with little praise. (line 7-8)

    This is a little bit of a downer, huh?  Check out all the negative words: "sober…sadly…blame…little praise."  Sounds like someone's been having a bad time.  We're not sure what's up with the speaker here, and he never really tells us, but it seems like looking back on the year is bumming him out.  We can kind of relate to this.  You know that feeling, when you think about all the crummy stuff that happens in the world and it's sort of hard to feel good about things?  Maybe that's all that's going on here, since by the end of the poem it's pretty clear that our speaker isn't a super-depressed guy.

    Your mien is sad, your step is slow; (line 13)

    More glum stuff.  It seems like the "Old Year" is bummed out, too.  Now, we get that he's old and worn out, but that doesn't have to mean sad, too, right?  Even if he was old and slow, he could feel "content" or "cheerful" as well.  We think this is all part of the slightly downbeat feel of this poem.  It's not like that all the time, but we think a lot of it has a kind of blue feeling.

    O Maiden! why that bitter tear? (line 19)

    Sorry to keep pointing this out, but these folks really don't seem all that happy.  We don't know what happened to this poor girl, but she's clearly going through it.  In a way, though, you have to respect Service for acknowledging how painful and difficult life can be.  The poem isn't exactly grim, but it does really take a clear, honest look at the rough side of things.  Instead of sounding like something you'd read on a Happy New Year greeting card, this poem recognizes that in every life and every year, there's a lot of pain.  Maybe, in a way, reading about it in a poem can make it better.

    O haggard, haunted, hidden One (line 39)

    We sort of like the way that the speaker goes after this lonely, frightened guy and pulls him out into the light a little.  Even with all the sadness, there's something kind of sweet about this.  Basically, the speaker is pausing to think of those around him and to share in their emotions, whether they are beautiful and happy or ugly and sad.  That's kind of a cool thing to do on New Year's Eve, to imagine what life is like and has been like for other people in the world.  Even though this guy may have done bad things and might feel terrible, the speaker doesn't condemn him or try to make him feel worse.

    And some are shadowed with despair. (line 44)

    Here's just one last sad quote as a kicker.  Line for line and pound for pound, the sad stuff really does seem to outweigh the happier material.  In the end, we can't tell you exactly why that is.  Still, it seems pretty clear that thinking about sadness and dealing with its consequences is a big part of this poem.

  • Art and Culture

    Old Year! upon the Stage of Time
         You stand to bow your last adieu;     (lines 9-10)

    This kicks off the big theater metaphor.  We feel like we have to make a big deal out of it, because it takes over so much of the poem.  Right here it just looks like a toss-off, something he's going to mention and then move past.  Ha! Service has much bigger plans.  He's going to put us in that theater.  He's going to make us look at the people sitting around us.  This is a metaphor on steroids, and it really turns into the life of the poem.

    A moment, and the prompter's chime
         Will ring the curtain down on you. (lines 11-12)

    In the past, theaters used a person called a prompter to help run things backstage.  Apparently it was his job to ring a bell to signal the lowering of the curtain at the very end.  This is important, because it really enriches the theater metaphor, giving us a stronger sense of really being there in this spooky, imaginary audience.

    And face your audience again. (line 16)

    Now it seems like the Old Year is coming back out for an encore – our speaker really just can't let him go.  This whole idea of facing the audience is interesting.  When you come out for a bow, you're giving the audience a chance to thank you, to make you feel good.  Here, though, it sounds like he's going to face a firing squad.  In fact, the audience doesn't seem all that thrilled – two thirds of them are crying or hiding in the shadows.  In any case, combining poetry and theater in this metaphor helps to dramatize this moment.  It lets us visualize the abstract idea of the passing of the year.

    Enough!  Oh, ring the curtain down! (line 47)

    This brings the theater metaphor to an end with another reference to the curtain.  We think that's a neat image, as if a curtain was coming down on the poem – it makes the ending feel dramatic and meaningful.  It also closes off this particular section of the poem, and lets us know we're headed back to the "real" world, where our guy is waiting with his glass and his pipe.

  • Memory and the Past

    Yet turn, Old Year, before you go,   
         And face your audience again. (line 15)

    This "turn" matters a lot.  This poem is about looking backward way more than it's about the future, so this turn back toward the audience is also a turn back into the past.  In a way, it reverses time, because the year is supposed to march off without stopping.  The speaker, who wants to hang onto the past for some reason, forces him to turn back. For just a moment he reverses the flow of time.

    What hath the Old Year meant to you? (line 24)

    Here the speaker is asking the people in the audience (and his own audience – that's us) to look backwards.  He doesn't want to know what the new year "will mean."  He's stuck in the world of memory, wanting to know what has come before.  No judgment – that's not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a pretty distinctive feature of this poem.

    What dark, condemning yesterdays?
    What urge to crime, what evil done? (line 36-7)

    In this case, memory and the past aren't just a kind of wistful thing to muse about.  They're really scary.  The past is tormenting this poor guy.  He can't get past it, can't think about the future.  Things aren't nearly so bad for the rest of the folks in the audience, but still, the danger is there.  The past can be a real trap, if we let it get that way.

    But once again, before you go, (line 51)

    You feel that backward pull again?  The Old Year has been trying to get out of here for the whole poem, but our speaker just won't let him!  It's like being stuck in a conversation where the other person keeps saying: "Oh, and one more thing…"  It's as if he doesn't really want the year to be over at all.  The focus remains on the past the entire time.