Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The epigraph of “Time and Music” comes from the last lines of “The Vigil,” a poem by Yvor Winters, Janet Lewis’s husband. “The Vigil” is an intense and anguished expression of terror in the face of madness and infinity; the speaker expresses willingness to undergo the experience of madness—an unmediated encounter with infinity—in an unsupported expectation that such a leap will permit return to sanity, like a pendulum: “Here. Trapped in Time.” This phrase provides both epigraph and counterargument for Lewis’s “Time and Music.”

As a poet’s response to another poet, “Time and Music” resembles poems such as Sir Walter Raleigh’s “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,” written in answer to Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.” In such poetic dialogues, the participants further, rebut, modify, or enlarge the discourse initiated by the original poem. Here, Lewis offers an alternative vision of the human predicament of being “trapped in time.” Trimpi’s reading of the poem suggests that “the figure of time—temporal existence—as a ‘trap’ or ’snare’ suggests the Gnostic symbolism of the world as ‘prison’ and of the soul as longing to ‘escape’ the world,” and that certain aspects of Gnosticism are juxtaposed with Lewis’s perception that “time is, in fact, both ‘breath and motion,’ i.e., a condition of existence.” The Gnostics held that the person’s true life resided only in the spirit’s existence, and denied value to the body. If “Time and Music” answers Gnosticism, it is by asserting that the body is valuable both in and because of its temporality, as contrasted with the Gnostic exaltation of the eternal life ascribed to the soul. The metaphor of the poem that equates human life with music asserts the value of temporal being: The abstract beauty of music, which is perceived by the spirit (psyche or mind), can be apprehended only by the body, the ear, which alone encounters the finite, ever-vanishing melodic line. Only by means of the temporal body can the everlasting soul confront the divine beauty of form and design in music, as in life.