Poet Mary Jo Salter discovers a museum that encapsulates timeless Vienna

Clocks keep time and clock-watchers lose it: the traveler knows this more keenly than anyone. My first trip to Vienna was only two days long, a dizzy orgy of strudel and schnitzel and beer and Brueghels; but what haunted me most was its Clock Museum. More than a thousand timepieces, many of them centuries old and still running — how could I run through them in the 45 minutes before closing time?

A recent return visit to Vienna gave me another crack at the old building at 2 Schulhof. Narrow, four stories high, the museum is shaped a bit like a grandfather clock, with an iron-banistered spiral staircase for gears. It's a little-known treasure, though just a short walk from St. Stephen's Cathedral, whose spire marks the physical and psychological center of Vienna like the pin in a clockface.

Spend a few days in this orderly but fanciful city, and everything begins to look like a clock. If St. Stephen's is its center, the great looped boulevard of the Ringstrasse describes its circumference, and the "clip-clop" of horses' hooves might as well be "tick-tock," as tourists make their rounds in carriages. Then there's the real outdoor clock called Ankeruhr, named after the Anker Insurance Co., which commissioned it in 1914. Just before noon every day, people empty out of the stores and cafés as dependably as automatons and gather in the square at Hoher Markt to watch larger-than-life automatons materialize from the clock overhead. Each of 12 famous Viennese, from Marcus Aurelius (who qualifies because he died here) to Joseph Haydn, has a minute to traverse the passageway between two buildings, and through the glass to the left you can see them patiently queuing for their 60 seconds in the sun.

Meanwhile, all day long inside the Clock Museum, several cabinet clocks the size of kitchen pantries are on view, as well as huge stone pendulum weights of the sort that periodically get dropped on people's heads in Monty Python skits. Many of the museum's offerings, though, are marvels of delicacy. There's the world's smallest pendulum clock, tiny enough to fit in a thimble; and a 1568 pocket sundial of carved ivory that opens like a woman's compact, with a compass for a powder puff. Certain watches pretend to be something else entirely, like a bell or a seashell or — in enameled gold, two inches high — a hinged violin.

What is it about decorative clocks that appeals so deeply to some of us?Partly it's that they're toys, as became clear to me when my eight-year-old daughter stared open-jawed at a mantel clock from 1880, with a bronze girl perpetually her own age still soaring and falling on a pendulum swing. (An elephant-shaped clock with metronomically swaying trunk and tail was also a favorite.) But in another sense, such clocks aren't toys at all. The clockmaker is part scientist (if you measure the intangible finely enough, you can understand it) and part social dreamer (if you're moving forward, you must be making progress). In acknowledging our common fate — that time runs out — but defying it with imagination, the clockmaker even has a touch of the Greek tragic hero.

The paradox turns delectably silly in the museum's Bilderuhren, or "clock paintings." Most are labeled "about 1830," an era when canvases with real clocks inserted in them captured Europe's fancy. The typical example is a crudely rendered scene of wooden leisure: well-dressed ladies and gents strolling down a village street; peasants in Tyrolean garb smelling flowers. Nobody remembers what labor is — except for the working clock in the church steeple or in the tower across the river, literally keeping time in the distance. One artist places his clock tower next to an executioner's block: in this case, the hour is near.

What does one make of the next development ("about 1850")?The clock has risen like a beating sun to the top of the gilded frame, leaving the painted peasants to become clockwork figures. They're sawing wood and wringing out laundry with jointed mechanical arms, like assembly-line workers who never break for lunch.Ascending the spiral staircase of the Clock Museum, you climb chronologically, approaching the modern age. The delay is just as well, since most contemporary watches are dull enough to make you consult your own. On the way down I paused before a Parisian confection of 1860. Three bronze bacchantes are dancing with abandon — or not quite. The one holding the infant wine god's hand seems to be peering at the clock she tiptoes on, nervous it's going to turn into a pumpkin.

She has the soul of us travelers, I reflected with a little pang. I was grateful I had a child to please. We left our toy clocks and stepped next door for more toys at the Doll and Toy Museum. Outdoors again, we gazed at the nobly proportioned square where the Kunsthistorisches Museum and Natural History Museum face each other steadily, asserting the equal claims (as clocks do) of art and science. We swung back to St. Stephen's Cathedral, in front of which a bewigged young man dressed up like Mozart stood sipping McDonald's coffee from a paper cup. The bells were ringing; they were saying we had to go.

MARY JO SALTER has published three collections of poetry and co-edited the 1996 edition of the Norton Anthology of Poetry. She is spending a year in Paris as the Amy Lowell Poetry fellow.