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The meaning and origin of the expression: Time's wingèd chariot

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Time's wingèd chariot

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Time's wingèd chariot'?

This metaphorical expression refers to the relentless an inevitable march of time.

Winged is often pronounced with two syllables, as 'wing ed'.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Time's wingèd chariot'?

It's usually the case with phrases which, as this one does, refer back to Greek mythology that no specific origin is known. This time though we can be precise. Time's wingèd chariot has a poetic source and like no man is an island or an albatross around your neck it was the invention of an individual. In this case the individual was the 17th century English politician and poet Andrew Marvell.

The meaning and origin of the phrase 'Time's wingèd chariot'In his lifetime Marvell was best known for his role in Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth government, where he joined his friend John Milton as an administrator. During this time he wrote the metaphysical love poem To His Coy Mistress, although the work wasn't published until 1681, three years after his death. In that poem he coined the phrase 'time's wingèd chariot'.

Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust;
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

This poem, which is one of the most popular poems in English, appears on the face of it to be an attempt to seduce the 'coy mistress'. It argues that the lovers should seize the day as they won't long be in their youthful and healthy state and that the grave, where 'none do there enbrace', beckons. At a deeper level it is a metaphysical examination of the relentlessness of time's march and of inevitability and horror of death.

The 'time's wingèd chariot' that Marvell refers to is an allusion to the chariot of ancient Greek myth which marked the daily progress of the sun.

The meaning and origin of the phrase 'Time's wingèd chariot'
Note that this image, which is one of the best-known
representations of Helios' chariot, is taken from a Greek
vase in the British Museum. It ought really to be pointing the
other way as it shows Helios travelling from West to East.

Helios was the Greek god of the sun. He emerged from his palace each morning and steered a chariot drawn by four winged horses, across the sky from East to West. When he reached the far West he descended into a golden cup which took him underground to his palace in the East.