Essays and Criticism
Language Chosen to Show Different Attitudes
Donald Justice is often referred to as the poet’s poet. This title refers to the fact that many poets know and respect his work, many of them having had him as their teacher, but few critics pay much attention to his work because he does not draw the attention of a large, general audience. Although they have won many prestigious awards, his published works are few. He is, in other words, a poet who cherishes quality over quantity. He concentrates on the specifics, carefully choosing his words, filling each one with as much meaning as possible, and then saying no more. And although his words carry much weight, they do not feel heavy. They feel quite ordinary, as a matter of fact. They feel so ordinary that the art behind them, the carefully constructed picture they display, the economy with which the few words say so much in so little time is almost lost if the poem is read only once. To do justice to Justice’s work, his poems should be read several times. They should be as read as slowly as the slow, sure pace of Death in Justice’s poem “Incident in a Rose Garden.” In “Incident in a Rose Garden,” Justice has placed three voices: the Gardener, the Master, and Death, in juxtaposition with one another. The Gardener, the most humble of the three voices, begins the poem with the word “Sir.” He is addressing his Master, although the reader does not know this until later. But, by the use of the word “Sir,” the reader is immediately confronted with the concept of hierarchy. The Gardener is using very polite language, and he is probably talking to someone he considers of higher rank than himself. He quickly moves past this first word, having completed the required social convention, and by the end of the first line, the Gardener’s heart is beating fast out of fear. He has, after all, just encountered Death. Justice writes this first line in language that is clear and simple. He grabs the attention of his readers just as Death has grabbed the attention of the Gardener. Justice is not writing in obscure metaphor or allusion. There is no mistaking that the Gardener has “encountered Death.” This being said, the poem moves on. The second line of this poem conjures up memories of one of the most often quoted first stanzas of poetry ever written. The stanza comes from Robert Herrick (1591–1674). The poem is titled “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.” The lines go like this:
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may Old Time is still a-flying And this same flower that smiles today Tomorrow will be dying.
Justice appears to have been thinking about Herrick’s poem, for he has set his own poem in a rose garden. By doing this and without having to say anything more, Justice puts this well-established image of the rose as the symbol of life right in the face of his readers. He has stated the entire theme of his poem in two lines: the fear of death and the transitory nature of life. But the poem, of course, does not end here. Justice has much more to say. Next, the poem goes into a description of death. It is through the description that the reader feels the racing heart of the Gardener. He is excited by the experience but not to the point of wordlessness. The phrase “Thin as a scythe” is as sharp and as threatening as a well-honed butcher’s blade. But it is interesting to note that the Gardener recognizes Death not through a personal reference but rather through a picture he has seen. This removes the Gardener, at least by one step, from personal knowing. By distancing the Gardener in this way, Justice makes the Gardener somewhat less mesmerized by Death. He creates the idea, in a very well-planned way, that the Gardener has not known anyone who has died. The Gardener has not really witnessed mortality. As a matter of fact, Justice makes it sound as if this might be the Gardener’s first encounter, and although it frightens him, it does not immobilize him. Instead, the Gardener’s confrontation with Death has given him an instant epiphany of understanding: he does not want to waste any more time. The difference between the picture of Death that the Gardener has seen and the image that stands before him is that Death has opened his mouth. And it is in the opening of his mouth that the Gardener sees something he had not seen in the picture: Death’s mouth is big “with white teeth.” Because Death is dressed all in black, these white teeth must stand out. Having Death open his big mouth and show his teeth is reminiscent of the wolf in “Little Red Riding...
(The entire section is 1835 words.)