Incident in a Rose Garden by Donald Justice

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Themes

(Poetry for Students)

Death
“Incident in a Rose Garden” underscores the arrogance of human beings and how they mistakenly assume they are beyond the rules and processes of the natural world. The relationship between the Gardener and the Master parallels the relationship between the Master and Death. In the first relationship, the Gardener treats his Master with the deference and civility of an inferior, even though he quits his job. He comes running to the Master after he sees Death in the garden. The Master, believing that Death has come for the Gardener, in his arrogance refuses to recognize Death’s power, calling him a “stranger” and telling him he is not welcome. He assumes that, because he is the owner of the rose garden, he owns death as well and can order him about the same way he orders his servants about. Such hubris is common for many who see themselves as existing separate from the natural world. Many religions warn against making oneself into a god. In the Bible, for example, Proverbs 16.18 says, “Pride goes before destruction, / and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Proud human beings sometimes believe that the world somehow exists for them and not the other way around. Death’s response to the Master, his measured coolness, and his own extension of “friendship” show who the real Master is, and Death, quite literally, puts the Master in his place.

Nature
The fact that Death appears in the rose garden underscores the place of death in the order of the natural world. He not only encounters the Gardener there but the Master as well, emphasizing that death’s dominion is nature itself. A rose garden is a place of great beauty, but that beauty is seasonal. When the season changes, the roses wither and die. So, too, with human beings. Justice, however, shows how death can come unexpectedly and out of season. Although the Gardener is older than his Master and thinks that Death has come for him, in fact, Death has come for the younger man. A rose garden is also a cultivated place, man-made, ordered to human desire. Death’s appearance upsets that order, suggesting that humanity’s attempt to control nature, like the Master’s attempt to order Death out of his garden, is doomed to fail. Death’s confidence in the face of the Master’s impoliteness, highlights this.