Historical time concerns itself with the major dimensions of time contained in the past, the present and the future. This is time made of unrecoverable moments which never happen again. Cyclical time concerns itself with natural occurences which happen again and again. These repeating cycles function in stories through the places represented by the seasons of the year and the daily cycles of day and night.
The most familiar and recognizable cycle is that of yearly time which is marked by the revolution of the earth around the sun. This yearly cyclic time is divided into four seasons corresponding to the four phases of the sun's orbit and the four phases of the moon. There is a close corrrespondence between the seasons and the stages of life from birth to death. In this sense, Spring represents birth while summer represents youth, autumn adulthood and winter old age and death.
Related to birth and death symbolism is light and darkness symbolism and the two yearly solstices associated with light and dark symbolism. The Winter Solstice of December is the heart of winter when darkness rules over the day longer than any other time of the year. It is similar to the midnight part of the daily cycle when night is the strongest. The Summer Solstice in June is the heart of summer when light rules over the day longer than any other time in the year. It is similar to the noon (mid-day) part of the daily cycle when day is stongest.
The Winter Solstice symbolizes the growing power of the sun and the declining power of darkness in the world while the Summer Solstice symbolizes the declining power of the sun and the growing power of darkness. As J.C. Cooper points out in An Illustrated Encyclopaedia Of Traditional Symbols:
"At the Winter Solstice the Great Mother, Queen of Heaven, gives birth to the Son of Light...The full moon is seen at its nadir and Virgo rises in the East. The Janua coeli, the Winter Solstice in Capricorn, is the 'door of the gods' and symbolizes ascent and the growing power of the sun. The Summer Solstice in Cancer, the Janua inferni, is the 'door of men' and is descent and the waning power of the sun."
Interestingly, the birth of Christ on Christmas Day falls only a few days after the Winter Solstice symbolizing the growing power of the sun and light.
In addition to the correspondences of seasons with birth and death and life stages, there is also a correspondence of the seasons with various story forms and modes. This point is well made by the critic Northrop Frye who brought forth the relationship between seasons and dramatic modes in his Anatomy of Criticism. In this groundbreaking book he argued that Spring relates to life and the mode of comedy, summer to infinite potential and the mode of romance, autumn to mortality and melancholy and the mode of tragedy and winter to death and old age and the mode of satire.
In the following we will briefly survey the major cyclical aspects of time embodied in the various yearly cycles of seasons and the daily cycles of day and night.
Throughout history there have been a number of symbols of Spring. It has been depicted as a child bearing garlands of flowers or carrying leaves and as a woman wearing a floral crown and standing beside a shrub in blossom. The animal of Spring is symbolized by the lamb and the zodiac signs of Spring are Aries, Taurus and Gemini.
Spring is the time when the world awakens from the death of winter. It is therefore a transition period, between the past of winter and the hope of summer, between memory and desire. In the famous poem The Wasteland, T.S. Eliot catches this period of transition:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
In the Spring, life moves from inside to outside space and temperatures move from cold to mild. The color green fills the world after the grey and white colors of winter. It is a season of the celebration of life and of marriage and this is evident in the many spring weddings.
The season of Spring serves as the setting for many stories where birth and life are important themes. One of the most famous uses of the Spring setting is in The Great Gatsby. At the beginning of the book Nick says:
"I came East...in the spring of twenty-two. The practical thing was to find rooms in the city, but it was a warm season...And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees...I had the familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer."
The Great Gatsby would have been a very different book indeed if Fitzgerald had placed it against a winter setting. He chose the spring and summer because these two seasons have the greatest association with the time of romance.
This magical time of Spring is also described by Thomas Wolfe in the short story "The Train And The City":
"Spring came that year like magic and like music and like song. One day its breath was in the air, a haunting premonition of its spirit filled the hearts of men with its transforming loveliness, wreaking its sudden and incredible sorcery upon gray streets, gray pavements, and on gray faceless tides of manswarm ciphers. It came like music faint and far, it came with triumph and a sound of singing in the air, with lutings of sweet bird-cries at the break of day and the high swift passing of a wing, and one day it was there upon the city streets with a strange and sudden cry of green, its sharp knife of wordless joy and pain."
Here it is given a number of qualities and is compared to "magic", "music" and "song" which moves in against the gray landscape of winter.
Summer has been symbolized as a child or a woman wearing a crown of corn ears and bearing a sheaf in one hand and a sickle in the other. The symbolic animal of summer is a lion or a dragon and the zodical signs are Cancer, Leo and Virgo.
The summer is the time of romance and infinte potential. The color of summer is yellow and temperatures move from mild to warm. If Spring is the time of birth, then summer is the time of youth where one moves through the world with godlike ease and comfort. Summer is the background for Mark Twaine's Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer stories, for it is in the summer that young boys escape from the civilizing influences of school and are free to explore. It is also the season of vacations and holidays when man travels away from the cities and back into nature.
Autumn is symbolized as a woman carrying bunches of grapes and a basket full of fruit. The symbolic animal of autumn is the hare and the zodical signs are Libra, Scorpio and Sagittarius.
With the coming of autumn, the days grow shorter and the nights longer and the temperatures move from warm to cool. The colors of orange and red represent the changing, brilliant colors of autumn foilage. If summer is the period of youth in one's life, then autumn is the adult period. As Northrop Frye notes, autumn is associated with mortality and melancholy. A retreat is started from the wild wanderings in open natural space to inside, enclosed man-made spaces.
Common symbols for Winter are a child wrapped in a cloak, an old man with white frosty hair, holding a sickle, or with leafless trees. The animal symbolizing winter is the salamander and the zodiacal signs are Capricorn, Aquarius and Pisces.
Winter completes the yearly cycle of the seasons and ushers in the coldest and darkest time of the year. The color blue represents winter and old age is the stage of life it represents. Winter is discussed as "old man" winter. Death and not life is the image contained with winter and the dramatic mode associated with it, as Frye notes, is satire.
In addition to the above imagery, the seasons have a close relationship to the major forms of drama and other central aspects of place. The relationship to psychology is very close and in fact the seasons represent various stages in the life of an individual.