Time appears here as a humble servant wanting only gainful employment, perhaps something Francis himself enacted during the Depression. And we are reminded in the second last verse of time’s lowly status, as insignificant a devourer as a weevil.
The poem investigates why our society gives this Time such lordly status. In verse 2 we are told instead of accepting him we ‘rebuff’ him. We fear mutability and this makes the illusion that pleasures and pains, nods and rods, are dispensed by him.
The ancient and the new schools of learning are still on the floor of the sea, they have not begun the journey back to the shore, where taverns dispense actual draughts from the Beloved. ‘Sea-rods’ may mean hardships of the journey but is more likely a misprint for ‘sea-roads’.
The ‘schools’ study only a limited learning, analysis of past and present illusions, and are contrasted with the taverns where what is taught is given a great summary in verse 5 – service, song and forgetting.
But we make time the emperor of illusion and try all sorts of contortions to accommodate him. The message from the taverns is that this is all so unnecessary. ‘Knee-drill’ was the name of a special Salvation Army service where most of the time was spent on the knees, hence means prayer.
Time’s a poor fellow, hat in hand, begging extension of service;
Yet, inexplicably, at the sight of him we become nervous.
We rebuff him, then enthrone him King of Kings and God of Gods
And submit our souls and backs to His Nods and Rods.
In caverns on the sea-floor are the ancient seats and the new schools of learning.
The taverns of the beloved are dotted along the sea-rods of returning.
In the schools are studied the histories of illusion
And the analysis and cure of bubble-confusion.
In the taverns are found the apprentices to floor-sweeping, verse-making and tune-setting,
And the students of the higher studies of Beloved-pleasing and knowledge-forgetting.
Time’s a poor fellow looking for a home like any honest weevil;
But we make him King and God, and soon find we’ve enthroned the devil.
So we do knee-drill to try to influence the Nods
And double back-somersaults trying to avoid the Rods.