Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 444

“Time and the Garden” is about time and growth, a growth that paradoxically leads to death. The speaker, contemplating his garden in early spring, is impatient to seize the season’s rich promise in a single sensuous moment. In an analogous way, he desires to possess the greatness that the five poets have achieved, but this he cannot do, for it is the task of a lifetime. As the trees grow and mature slowly, so do tough, unsentimental poets. The task of discerning the wisdom necessary for this creative task is slow, arduous work, as the one emotional outburst in lines 12 and 13 indicates. This growth brings the poet gain, but it also brings the final dissolution of death, just as the ripeness of the garden’s fruits is the prelude to decay.

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Suspicious of mere inspiration and sheer expressiveness, Winters rejected the romantic notion of poetry as an outpouring of powerful emotions. Poetry was for him, as it had been for the five Renaissance poets he names, a “vision of permanent” truth. This poetic truth, as the summary of the scholar’s quest makes clear, is the knowledge—tough, sobering, and skeptical—which undermines the illusory hopes and promises of unlimited possibilities that spring and youth can inspire. Only the greatest poets and minds can discern this truth, and once formulated with precision, it is absolute, unchanging. A poem is a moral act—a responsible, rational evaluation of experience. Such tough wisdom, however, has to be earned: Only growing older in “duress”—in suffering, in the exhausting work of study—brings the necessary clarity of vision for recognizing this knowledge. That is why few are attracted to this kind of poetry: To appreciate it, one must share the poet’s hard-earned certitude. It is also a limited certitude, however, for knowledge is complete and perfectly fixed only in death, which is both the starting point and the conclusion of the quest for meaning.

Poet and scholar are trapped in time; only the mind and the limited absolute knowledge it can achieve transcends time and the individual. Yet despite this melancholy awareness, scholar and poet cultivate their minds, as one cultivates a garden, in order to reach a tranquil maturity and gain the meaningful knowledge available to them. As in real gardening, one must cut and prune, subdue and discipline, in order to reap the greatest gain. The “garden” is little, carved out of the vast area that lies beyond and cannot be tamed or known. Working within this manageable space, however, brings order to chaotic nature; cultivating the knowable garden of the mind brings precision and order to the confusing flux of raw experience.

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