The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 522

Opening with a reference to music, a garden, and grief, the first of the poem’s sixteen lines places a man and a woman in a romantic setting, as seen from the woman’s point of view. She is recollecting a meeting with a friend, and the mood is sorrowful, perhaps because of the music, which provides an emotional context as well. By mentioning the music, the poet hints at unspoken suffering. It is suggested by the music, or the music prompts sad memories, here unexpressed, in her own past. Abruptly, another detail is remembered. The second pair of lines uses the image of “oysters in ice,” whose smell reminded the poet of the sea. The couple is at dinner at a seaside restaurant—the title suggests a romantic time of day—and the memory is rich in sensory detail: the sound of sad music, the smell of the sea brought in by the oysters. The mood is bittersweet.

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The second stanza continues the romantic moment, the poet recalling what her friend said and his simple gesture of touching her dress. The next two lines dwell on the peculiar quality of his touch, which the poet remembers as “unlike a caress.” The negative comparison interrupts the romantic mood that has so far been sustained. Its significance captures her attention for the moment as she begins stanza three. She compares the man’s touch to stroking a small, delicate creature—a cat, for example, or even a bird. Leaping further in an imaginative comparison, the next line compares the gesture to watching young ladies ride horses. A distance between the two people is suggested. His avowal—“I am your true friend”—is not that of an ardent lover. Love is not mentioned or hinted at, and his gesture, “unlike a caress,” is like the kind one uses on other creatures—a cat, a bird—not a lover. It reminds her of watching slender women ride, not of the passionate gaze of a lover. She remembers the smallest details, the slightest movement, subtle shades of expression and color, as the next two lines demonstrate, describing “the light gold lashes” and “the laughter in his tranquil eyes.” A true friend he may be, but his eyes are tranquil, not lovesick or fiery with passion.

The final stanza returns to the music, which is still dolorous, but now the violins “sing,” and their “voices” are remembered through a visual image—that of drifting smoke. Perhaps they are expressing the poet’s own sorrow. The vision prompts her to express sudden emotion, gratitude for the time when “You’re alone with the man you love.” The poem ends on an ambiguous note: The poet may be addressing heaven on the reader’s behalf or she may be inviting the reader to join her in thanking heaven. The poem addresses the reader throughout in standard lyrical fashion, but the final address, “You’re alone with the man you love,” suggests that the poet, knowing what it is like not to enjoy such moments, is telling the reader to praise heaven for such time as the reader will have.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 526

The primary devices of the poem are somewhat unconventional to the lyric. As the poem opens, it appears to be a love poem focusing on a fond recollection of a meeting between two lovers, but after the speaker mentions “Oysters in ice,” music ringing out with “inexpressible grief,” she focuses on the man’s seemingly casual gesture for five of the poem’s sixteen lines. The man’s comment that he is the poet’s “true friend” suggests that something other than love is in question or on his mind, perhaps only loyalty, not the passion of a lover. The poem’s drama, then, unfolds in a series of details that hint at something other than what is directly expressed in the poem. Juxtaposing images, the poem invites inference while seeming to deliver a simple recollection of a meeting between two friends, if not lovers. The poet remembers signs of emotions—sorrowful music, tranquil eyes—without appearing to feel any herself. Her attention seems to be deflected from any direct recognition of her own emotions toward more distant elements, letting the reader surmise rather than see.

The poem develops in a way that is reminiscent of the haiku, using juxtaposed images that create, by means of their interaction, a significant perception. The poem surprises the reader with its placement of detail and imaginative leaps. The third stanza illustrates these effects most clearly as the poet associates the man’s touch with stroking a cat, or a bird, or—making a dramatic leap to a sensory image of a very different kind—the act of watching slender horseback riders. The poet seems to be searching for an objective correlative to that momentous gesture, a trifle that merits unusual attention because it seems to have extraordinary meaning. To find the right evocative correlative is to discover and reveal the significance of a poem. The image also suggests the nature of the poem itself—a performance watched by the poet as she recollects; as she performs, the reader watches her, a slender equestrienne.

The weight given to minute matters in this poem is evident in the little that happens between the beginning and ending references to sad music: The man says he is a true friend and touches her dress. The moment is fixed in a nest of details, the way one remembers a first kiss, a birth, a death. The poem challenges the reader to find that significant event—is it the man’s remark, the peculiar gesture, the music, or all together? The whole may be greater than the aggregate of parts, or else the parts do not make a significant whole. The colon setting off the poet’s final words in line 14 suggests a summary comment, perhaps an ironic moral: Thank heaven for a time like this one—or unlike it. The instability at which the ambiguities hint corresponds to a changing rhyming pattern in the final stanza. In the original, the first three stanzas rhyme abba, cddc, effe, but the final stanza rhymes ghgh. It may be that the final alteration in rhyme scheme parallels the poet’s own changing attitude toward the preceding situation.

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Themes