The Poem

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 348

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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.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 742

“Time and Music” follows the sonnet form in that it is composed of fourteen lines; however, the lines are iambic tetrameter rather than the more usual pentameter. The rhyme scheme suggests but does not follow both the Italian pattern of octave and sestet and the Shakespearean scheme of four quatrains and a concluding couplet. The first two stanzas rhyme in couplets. The third stanza has the chiasmic rhyme scheme abba characteristic of the octave of the Italian sonnet, and like Shakespeare’s sonnets, the poem concludes with a couplet. Rhyme is conventional throughout most of the poem, the only exception being the off-rhyme of “us” and “is” in the concluding couplet. The poet makes extremely sparing but effective use of alliteration. The m of “music” in the first line is repeated in “measuring” and “motion” in the second, further emphasizing the heavily marked rhythm of these opening lines. In the penultimate line, the alliteration of the quoted phrase “trapped in Time” is reemphasized in the repetition of the word “Time,” opening the speaker’s capping rebuttal to the implications in the epigraph.

The handling of meter is unostentatious, a characteristic of Lewis’s poems. The first three lines of the poem are headless iambs, meaning that the lines begin with stressed syllables and contain seven rather than the full eight syllables of the usual tetrameter line. The effect is to mark the rhythm heavily, since the stressed syllables at the ends and beginnings of lines occur next to each other; the rhythmic emphasis is in keeping with the subject of the lines, which is the meaning of measure and tempo—literally, time. Beginning with the mention of melody in the poem’s fourth line and continuing to the end, the lines are fully iambic, the rhythm less heavily marked, and the effect more subtle and melodic; again, the aural effects are appropriate to the subject as the poet turns to melody in its passage through time.

Like many other of Lewis’s poems, “Time and Music” is an example of the plain style identified in Renaissance poets such as Ben Jonson and continuing through the tradition of English poetry down to twentieth century exemplars such as Louise Bogan and Thom Gunn. The style is characterized by controlled emotion—which may nevertheless be extremely intense—by precision of diction, and by the infrequent use of figurative language and rhetorical ornamentation. The poet makes sparing but apt use of similes, beginning in the second stanza, with the comparison of melody to a boat and bird. The boat is a “fisher’s” boat: The image suggests not only that melody floats and moves, like a boat, but also that it moves toward some end and actually seeks to capture something, as the fisher does. The implicit image of the fisherman with his line prepares for the metaphor of the snare in the poem’s concluding couplet. The second simile, comparing melody to a swallow flying through the air, emphasizes the synesthetic quality of the imagery by comparing a disembodied and invisible melody not to the song of the bird, but to the sight of it. The disappearance of the bird is not a function of its flight but of the ability of the watcher to see, in the same way that the existence and disappearance of melody is dependent on the presence of a listener. This contingent nature of music is also taken up more explicitly in the conclusion, where the poet asserts the contingency of existence in time.

In the third stanza, the poem’s third simile compares human life to music, and this comparison forms the major argument of the poem. “We” humans are like music in that our existence, like that of music, is a passage through time. Thus time, like air, is the medium of human existence, even as it is also the process that inexorably brings everyone to the end of life. There is a pun in this stanza on the notion of “keeping” or “losing” time: If one is “lost” to time, the poet says, one becomes undifferentiated, losing character and identity in the same way that the musician who fails to “keep” time loses the contours of a piece—the music disappears into mere undifferentiated noise. The simile is elaborated and brought into focus in the last line of the stanza, which notes that the person, like the melody, “lost to time” has neither form (“design”) nor “beauty.”