The time period of “Incident in a Rose Garden” isn’t explicit, though its themes, structure, and diction suggest the Middle Ages. Justice’s poem evokes the idea of danse macabre, or the dance of death, a notion that grew out of Western Europe’s response to the bubonic plague, which killed millions of people beginning in the fourteenth century. In paintings and poems, the allegorical concept of danse macabre depicted a procession of people from all walks of life, both living and dead. One of the earliest representations of the dance of death is in a series of paintings (1424–1425) formerly in the Cimetière des Innocents, a cemetery in Paris that was moved in the eighteenth century. These paintings depict a procession of living people from the church and state being led to their graves by corpses and skeletons. The living are arranged according to their rank so as to present an inclusive representation of humanity. This scene is meant to underscore the leveling power of death and the idea that death can come at any time. The earliest use of the term danse macabre occurs in 1376 in a poem by Jean Le Fevre. The obsession with death also found expression during this time in the morality play. Morality plays were allegories in dramatic form, performed to teach viewers the path from sin to salvation and the fragility of earthly life. Justice’s poem does not include a procession like the dance of death, but it does include a personification of death and the character types of Master and Gardener, who stand for social classes, and it does emphasize the idea that death does not discriminate based on social status. A few of the more popular morality plays include Mankind and Everyman.
The rate at which the bubonic plague spread and the fact that no one knew what caused it, created a heightened anxiety and uncertainty. Theories were bandied about, including one put forth by scholars at the University of Paris, who held that a combination of earthquakes and astrological forces were responsible for the plague. Many believed that the plague was God’s punishment for humanity’s sins and that extreme penitence was required to appease God’s wrath. Groups of people known as flagellants paraded through towns whipping themselves and criticizing the Catholic Church for not following God’s law. Jews also became the scapegoat for the disease, as people frantically sought someone to blame for the epidemic. Thousands of Jews were persecuted and slaughtered by hysterical mobs during this time.
In the mid-1960s, when this poem was written, the United States was becoming more deeply involved with the war in Vietnam. Televised images of the war, including footage of dead soldiers, became a staple of the nightly news. In 1968, shortly after the Tet offensive, American photographer Eddie Adams caught a South Vietnamese security official on film executing a Viet Cong pris- oner. For Vietnam War protestors, this photograph served as evidence of the brutalities of the war and undermined American assumptions about the South Vietnamese themselves.
The presence of death and mortality is evidenced throughout Night Light. In 1965, Justice himself turned forty years old. “Men at Forty,” one of the heavily anthologized poems from the collection, describes Justice’s sentiment about this milestone, and other poems in the collection address the idea of mortality and aging and of regret for a life unlived.
“Incident in a Rose Garden” is a dramatized narrative poem. Narrative poems are stories, with characters, a plot, and action, as opposed to lyric poems, which are the utterance of one speaker, often describing or explaining an emotion or thought. This poem is all dialogue and is presented from an objective point of view. This means that the narrator never intrudes to...
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