Study Guide

The Passing of the Year Themes

  • Appearances

    We spend a ton of time in "The Passing of the Year" looking at people and trying to guess what they might be thinking or feeling. Your kindergarten teacher probably always told you not to judge a book by its cover. Still, that's exactly what we're doing here, right? Analyzing appearances, the way people look, is a totally central part of how this poem works.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. Why do you think the speaker of this poem spends so much time making guesses about people based on their appearances? How would things be different if they just told him how they felt?
    2. Do you get a mental picture of what the "Old Year" looks like in this poem?
    3. Do any of the characters in this poem make a really strong impression on you? Does the girl feel more "real" than the criminal, for example?

    Chew on This

    The presence of a crowd of silent, staring, mysterious figures in this poem creates a feeling of deep isolation and loneliness that never quite goes away.

    While we see a number of people in this poem, the dream-like, imaginary feeling makes it impossible to really know anything about them. This is a poem filled with illusions and phantoms, not breathing, living people.

  • Time

    Well, maybe this seems a little obvious for a poem about New Year's, but we just had to get it in here. Without the idea of the passing of time and the feelings that go along with it, this poem just couldn't exist. "The Passing of the Year" is all about change, what it feels like to go from one moment to the other. Time is always flowing past us, but New Year's is one moment where we can pause and think about it. Yes, we know – deep thoughts.

    Questions About Time

    1. Does this poem capture the feeling of the changing year? If so, where do you see that happening?
    2. Do you think poetry can freeze a moment in time? Is that what's happening here, or is there a sense of time passing?
    3. This poem revolves around personification – turning the "old year" into a person. Does that work for you? What happens when time becomes a character?
    4. This poem was written almost a hundred years ago. Does the language or the style make it feel far away from you?

    Chew on This

    "The Passing of the Year" compresses all the emotion of a year into a single moment. In doing so, it allows us to feel many complex, contradictory feelings at the same time.

    Service uses his poem to expand a fleeting thought about the end of the year. His epic metaphor gives that brief idea lasting, substantial power.

  • Sadness

    We think "The Passing of the Year" is kind of a sad poem. OK, not a cry-your-eyes-out bummer from beginning to end, but it's a little blue. Most of the emotions it deals with have to do with regret, loss, and the pain of memory. We here at Shmoop don't want to bring you down, but sadness is a big part of life, and Service dives right into it here.

    Questions About Sadness

    1. Is this a sad poem? If you had to pick one word to describe the main feeling of this poem, what would it be?
    2. Are there different kinds of sadness in the poem? Do the speaker, the young woman, and the criminal feel the same way?
    3. Does the cameo appearance by the happy guy (lines 25-32) make the whole poem seem less sad?
    4. Do you think this poem has a happy ending? If so, is it convincing?

    Chew on This

    Although the final lines appear to end the poem on a happy note, they can't erase the weight of sadness that has built up throughout the poem.

    The poem carefully balances happiness and sadness. This creates a complex, subtle mixture that gives the poem its emotional power.

  • Art and Culture

    So, about that theater metaphor. You know, the one where the speaker pretends that the passing of the year is like the end of a play? The one that basically takes over the entire poem? Well, seems like we have to mention it here. The idea of the theater, of acting and watching plays, pulls the whole poem together and provides its shape.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. Did the theater comparison make sense to you right away? Do you think Service explains it clearly?
    2. Do you feel like you're there in the theater, looking up at the old man on the stage? In other words, does that epic metaphor seem alive to you?
    3. Is watching a play at all like reading a poem? Do they have the same kind of audience? The same sense of drama? How are they different?

    Chew on This

    Service uses the idea of a theater audience, not just to make things more dramatic, but also to make us think about how we read poems. The way we all "watch" the speaker as he delivers his monologue makes us a lot like a theater audience.

    This poem achieves its effect by blending the very private world of the house with the totally public world of the theater. This allows a pretty short poem to say a lot about many kinds of human emotion.

  • Memory and the Past

    Even though "The Passing of the Year" is about the moment when the old year changes into the new one, it doesn't really have that much to say about the future.  For the most part, our speaker seems to be kind of stuck in the past.  He's going over memories from the last year – his own and other people's.  For the most part, things don't seem to have gone all that well.  Let's just say we hope you had a better last year than most of these folks.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Why do you think this poem spends so much time looking back? Isn't New Year's Eve about the future, too?
    2. Does the speaker seem trapped by his past, or do you see it differently?
    3. Have you ever written something about your memories?  A poem?  A story?  A blog?  Did it help you understand them better or see new things?

    Chew on This

    "The Passing of the Year" is about the pain and difficulty of the passage of time. The text is an elaborate cover for the narrator's refusal to let go of the past.

    The poem offers the speaker a chance to process his thoughts about the year. That work then allows him to come to his calm, final farewell to the past.