Incident in a Rose Garden

by Donald Justice

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The title of the poem makes use of understatement in the same way as the poem. By titling the poem “Incident in a Rose Garden” instead of, for example, “Death Visits the Master,” Justice creates a sense of mystery, of suspense. Readers are never told directly the significance of what is happening but must make the connections themselves. Setting the poem in a rose garden underscores the relationships among death, nature, and human beings and shows the folly of human beings in thinking that they are somehow not a part of the natural world, which includes death.

In the first stanza of “Incident in a Rose Garden,” the Gardener addresses his Master, telling him that he “encountered Death” in the garden. The Gardener recognized him “through his pictures,” meaning the stereotypical ways that death has been personified in painting and illustrations: all in black and “thin as a scythe.” This description evokes death’s identity as the grim reaper. A scythe is an instrument with a long blade used to cut crops or grass. It belongs in a garden. The personification of death, however, is as old as humankind and forms a part of every culture. The image of Death’s wide-open mouth evokes the devouring void, the very nothingness that comes with the cessation of consciousness. His teeth are predatory, and the end rhymes of “open / spoken” have a hypnotic effect. The formality of the Gardener’s language belies his experience. Readers wouldn’t expect someone who just encountered death to respond with such a restrained tone. It is this restraint, however, helped by the formal restraint of three-line stanzas and three-beat lines, that gives the poem its shape.

The Gardener relates his fear that Death had come for him. Readers can infer that he is quitting because he believes that he has only a short time to live. It is common for people, when told they are going to die, to put their affairs in order and to prioritize what is important to them. The Gardener wants to see his sons and to see California before he dies, which are understandable desires. The introduction of California, however, seems anachronistic for this poem, whose word choice and setting seem to predate the discovery of the New World. In this instance, California is a promised land, an exotic place of fantasy, which readers can assume the Gardener has thought about visiting before.

In between dialogue, readers can assume that the Master went to the rose garden to see Death, from whom his Gardener had run. Although the Master addresses Death as “Sir,” as his Gardener had addressed him, his words suggest a restrained anger. He accuses Death, whom he refers to as a “stranger,” of “threatening” his Gardener, and warns him off his property, which is ironic since Death has the final say over who and what gets to live in the rose garden. The Master assumes an adversarial stance towards Death, treating him as an intruder when he tells him, “I welcome only friends here.” The Master’s restraint is heightened by the end rhyme of all of his lines.

Death responds to the Master, telling him, ironically, that he was a friend of his father. Readers can deduce from this that the Master’s father is dead. Again, the use of such understatement, a feature of the poem as a whole, is part of the formal speech of the characters and belies the significance of what is actually happening. When Death tells the Master that the reason the Gardener was afraid was that “Old men mistake my gestures,” he means that older people live closer to death, believing that it may come at any moment.

In the last three lines of the poem, readers learn that Death’s intention for coming to the rose garden was not to take the Gardener but to take the Master. This reversal is an example of situational irony, in which there is a contradiction between expectation and reality.

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