In the first of three four-line stanzas, the speaker of “Time and Music” establishes that Time, which medieval scholastic philosophers defined as the measure of motion, both permits music to exist and creates the silence into which it disappears: Thus, although time enables music to exist, every piece of music must come to an end and be overtaken by silence. In an article on Janet Lewis’s poetry published in Southern Review (1987), Helen Trimpi offers an extended paraphrase of “Time and Music.” In the poem, time is said to give being to music, according to Trimpi, even as it provides an end for melody, the ordering principle of music. Unlike a picture, a song is not a static, concrete object but always a temporal and temporary phenomenon.
The second stanza goes on to compare a melody, “riding” upon time, to a boat riding upon the waves; the comparison is continued in a second image of a bird flying through air until it disappears from sight. In the third stanza, the speaker says that “we,” like music, also move through time, or else we are lost from it. Being lost from time, the speaker goes on to say, means being “unqualitied,” undifferentiated by the “strife” or particularities mentioned in the first stanza as the very character of “motion”—that is, life. To be lost from time is to be lost from life and death, the speaker says, and therefore to permit of no identity or interpretation: Such a condition would be featureless and formless, lacking “design” and “beauty.”
The poem’s concluding two lines repeat the epigraph with which it begins, “Here, trapped in Time,” and then go on to qualify the phrase with a “but.” The poet asserts that while time is a kind of trap (“snare”), it is also life (“breath and motion”). The snare or trap of time may be construed, to cite Trimpi again, as consciousness cut off from reality and imprisoned in its own ideality; the mind lives only in a world of ideas, not in the “real” world of things as they are.