The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 521

“Time and the Garden” is a didactic lyric written in rhyming couplets of regular iambic pentameter—that is, in heroic couplets. The speaker is the poet himself, meditating on his craft.

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The poem consists of three parts. In the first part (lines 1-12), the speaker considers the springtime budding in his garden and the “excitement,” the sense of anticipation, that the spectacle arouses in him. In the second part (lines 13 to 20), he realizes that to write great poems, the poet much achieve intellectual maturity and discernment; he then concludes that the great poet’s goal and achievement are the same as those of the wise scholar.

As the poet contemplates his garden, he becomes aware of the newly revived hidden bustle in the vegetation, which manifests itself in the “darkening” tints of unfurling leaves and budding fruit. In “vine, bush, and tree,” the future is slowly ripening and building what in time will be fruits of different sizes, shapes, and tastes—“Persimmon, walnut, loquat, fig, and grape.” They will ripen in gradual stages (they “will advance in their due series”), and this measured growth will create a tranquil, enclosed space that will seem like a peaceful abode.

The poet is excited by this new burgeoning and by what time will bring; he is impatient. He wants to hurry the process of growth; “crowd the little garden”; gather up its harvest in the springtime; and then in a single moment taste the condensed sweetness of all fruits without waiting for the harvest season. He wants the trees to hurry to their great size, trees whose slow but rhythmic growth marks his advancing age. He realizes, however, that his wish goes unheeded: He is slowed down by the determinate march of time.

His impatience to taste the fruits before their appointed time reminds him of another kind of impatience. As a poet, he desires to possess the “greatness” of the “tougher” poets—the five English Renaissance poets George Gascoigne, Ben Jonson, Fulke Greville, Sir Walter Raleigh, and John Donne—before having “fairly earned” the recognition deserved of a mature poet. These poets wrote their poems over a period of many years. Each poetic line was a solid achievement, an enduring statement that few appreciate and bother to think through, but which no one can “retract.” The desire to achieve this enduring poetic knowledge is both the birthright (“heritage”) of scholars as well as the duty placed on them by a frenetic civilization. From the books they study, scholars gather an “unbroken wisdom,” which they compress into a “single look,” a fixed attitude or insight that is the culmination of a long season of intellectual inquiry. Scholars dedicate themselves to this task even though this wisdom is final and fixed only in death: Scholars may be dead, but the mind is “immortal.” The reasoning powers of the mind and what the mind achieves in its quest for knowledge transcend the individual and are thus beyond time: The final knowledge of the poet and scholar is permanent, available to anyone willing to submit his or her mind to the slow, hard task of seeking it.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 547

The opening description of spring arriving in the garden is sparse and, despite the few concrete details, abstract; the reader is thus prepared from the start for the poet’s philosophic conclusions. A suggestive simile occurs in line 6, when the growing garden is compared to a spacious, peaceful dwelling place where serenity stands in contrast to the physical excitement that spring arouses in the poet.

In his later poetry (including this poem), Yvor Winters wished to emulate what he called the “plain style” tradition developed by the English Renaissance poets he admired. Of the five poets whom he names, only Donne often wrote in the other Renaissance style—the ornate style—influenced by the Italian poet Petrarch. The “plain style” is characterized by terse, often unadorned, and even platitudinous, statements rather than by exuberant figurative language characteristic of ornate poetry, and hence suited to the poet’s goal of distilling the hard kernel of knowledge from experience instead of re-creating it.

The “garden” is a traditional metaphor, but it is not developed and remains a hidden resonance. The image of the spring garden is presented not as a metaphor or symbol, but as a direct analogy that provides a concrete context in the manner of an objective correlative to the abstract statements that follow; the setting makes them precise. The experience of returning spring also reminds the speaker of the poet’s and scholar’s quest; the final fruit in both cases comes at the end of a measured period of development. The five fruits he lists are examples of what the tree, bush, and vine will bear; but they are seen abstractly as “Degrees and kinds of color, taste, and shape,” words that the reader can link to the five great poets and their work.

Winters, by means of this analogy, forces the reader’s attention to the levels of meaning that the abstract terms yield within the semantic context created by the spring garden. A key term, for example, is “greatness”: It refers to the size, age, solidity, and texture of the trees in the garden. This meaning reflects the meaning of the abstract “greatness” of the poets and the “great” poems they have written—the poets’ stature in the world of letters and the density, strength, and endurance of their poems. Another key term is “space”: The garden’s growth creates a tranquil enclosed dwelling; the spacing of poems over many years also creates an enclosed poetic garden within the poets’ minds.

The regular meter and rhyme have the effect of giving Winters’s conclusions a tone of firm, unambiguous finality. Nothing is tenuous. The lines move in an iambic meter, which, though regular, is sinuous and subtle, not mechanically rigid; it allows for voiced emphasis at significant points in the poem. Winters achieves this by varying the pauses (caesuras) within the poem, using run-on lines, and placing alternately heavy and light accented syllables in the position of metrical stress, giving the effect of trochee or spondee. In line 18, for example, the stresses on each monosyllabic word are rhythmically so heavy as to almost obliterate the iambic beat: The line is thus given particular emphasis. The last two lines are unambiguously iambic—all but one word being monosyllabic—and provide a confident, magisterial closure.

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Themes