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Analysis of Poem 'Time's Fool' by Ruth Pitter

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Ruth Pitter

Ruth Pitter

Ruth Pitter Poems: 'Time's Fool'

'Time's Fool' is a rhyming poem that concentrates on the idea of living in the here and now and being satisfied with what we have. It contrasts the needs of the natural environment with the throwaway human world.

The speaker may be tricked by time, confesses so, and appears foolish - but as long as she is happy with her lot, like many animals in the natural world, and knows her place, then this is spiritually rewarding enough.

As such it is a traditional and eloquent poem, typical of Ruth Pitter, with full rhyme and strong iambic rhythms.

The themes are:

  • Contrasting the demands of time with those of contentedness
  • Material life versus spiritual
  • A sense of happiness, a sense of place
  • Time and its effect on life

Ruth Pitter isn't a prominent name in modern poetry. Born in Essex, England, in 1897, her poems received scant attention until she was encouraged by Hilaire Belloc, editor, poet and man of letters, publishing her first book in 1920.

Her correspondence and friendship with C.S.Lewis the author during and after the second world war directly influenced her decision to become a Christian. Much of her later poetry is religious in nature.

She went on to publish 18 books over 70 years, before passing away in 1992. Her poems are admired by many but she chose to take the traditional route in poetry, preferring rhyme and steady metre as opposed to free verse and radical line.

'Time's Fool' is a reflective, quietly observant poem that highlights nature and the ordinary things in a rural domestic existence, putting them all into perspective. The speaker repeatedly gives the impression that she is happy with little: her upbringing at home taught her this.

The title of the poem is taken from one of Shakespeare's love sonnets, number 116, lines nine and ten:

Love's not time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle's compass come;

So could it be that the speaker in Ruth Pitter's poem is reinforcing the idea that love and comfort are not subject or slaves to time?

Check out the biblical reference too, from 2 Corinthians 1 - 3 :

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.

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'Time's Fool' reflects and enhances both allusions.

'Time's Fool'

Time's fool, but not heaven's: yet hope not for any return.
The rabbit-eaten dry branch and the halfpenny candle
Are lost with the other treasure: the sooty kettle
Thrown away, become redbreast's home in the hedge, where the nettle
Shoots up, and bad bindweed wreathes rust-fretted handle.
Under that broken thing no more shall the dry branch burn.

Poor comfort all comfort: once what the mouse had spared
Was enough, was delight, there where the heart was at home:
The hard cankered apple holed by the wasp and the bird,
The damp bed, with the beetle's tap in the headboard heard,
The dim bit of mirror, three inches of comb:
Dear enough, when with youth and with fancy shared.

I knew that the roots were creeping under the floor,
That the toad was safe in his hole, the poor cat by the fire,
The starling snug in the roof, each slept in his place:
The lily in splendour, the vine in her grace,
The fox in the forest, all had their desire,
As then I had mine, in the place that was happy and poor.

Stanza By Stanza Analysis

First Stanza

The first line sets the scene - the speaker may be foolish when it comes to time, but feels that over time they've succumbed in some way to time's demands. But in another sense - a spiritual sense perhaps - they've retained something pure and good.

By introducing heaven the poet suggests religiousness or Christianity specifically (Ruth Pitter did write religious poetry and was a 'reformed' Christian).

But the speaker doesn't ask for favours (return), she is content.

The lines that follow deal with nature and certain domestic items, which points to the speaker's past. There is the idea of waste want not - that things that are thrown out, that is, subject to time and decay can still be useful to wild creatures, a robin redbreast for example.

Domestic items affect the natural world which will eventually take over again.

Second Stanza

The emphasis is on comfort - what makes life proper and good and whole and sound - and the little need for a quality or contented existence.

There are references to nature and domesticity again, a mouse at home, an apple as food for wasps and birds, and a damp bed. The speaker is going back in time, to her youth, when she was happy with less. She may have been poor but she felt at home despite the poverty.

Third Stanza

This idea of happiness achieved with little is reinforced. And again nature is the key focus. The speaker was at one with the creatures and plants that lived in her home environment.

So it seems that each stanza holds a key to the speaker's notion of contentment:

  • The first stanza deals with waste thrown away becoming useful
  • The second focuses on a tough domestic life
  • The third mentions splendour and grace, two qualities she now reflects

Analysis of Time's Fool - Literary Devices

'Time's Fool' has three stanzas and a total of eighteen lines. The rhyme scheme is:


This gives the poem both distant echo of rhyme, in lines 1 and 6 and 2 and 5 becoming stronger and direct in lines 3 and 4, a full rhyme couplet.


Or repetition. Stanzas two and three contain lines beginning with:

The hard/The damp/The dim.....The Starling/The lily/The fox....


When two or more words close together begin with the same consonant, bringing textured sound and different effects. For example:

home in the hedge....heart was at home....headboard heard....starling snug


When a line has a break, usually through the use of a comma or other punctuation, the reader has to pause momentarily, which breaks momentum and rhythm. Several lines use caesurae.


When a line continues on into the next without being end-stopped or paused, the reader carrying on with the flow and the sense. There are three lines enjambed in the first stanza and only one line, the first, in the second.

Analysis of Metre

'Time's Fool' has long lines, some with fifteen syllables, others with eleven, and many in between.

The metre is basically iambic, with stretches of anapaests and trochees thrown in to vary the rhythm.

Let's look closely at certain lines:

Time's fool, / but not / heaven's: / yet hope / not for / any / return.

Here we have 14 syllables split into 7 feet, a heptameter. The first foot is a spondee, two stressed syllables to kick-start the line as an announcement. Then there follows an iamb (no stress plus stressed) and a trochee (stressed plus non-stressed) which gives this initial line an odd sink and swim feel. The iamb rises, the trochee falls.

The dim / bit of / mirror, / three inch / es of comb:

Again there is a mix of metrical feet resulting in another unusual unsteady rhythm. There's an iamb to start with, normal enough, then a quiet pyrrhic followed by a trochee, a spondee (assertive) ending with the rising anapaest, two unstressed syllables followed by the stressed, making this line a pentameter.

One more should suffice, further proof that this poem's lines are a real up and down affair, with no dominant steady plodding iambic rhythm - on the contrary:

Thrown a / way, be / come red / breast's home / in the hedge, / where the nett / le

This can be seen as a heptameter (7 feet) or a possible octameter (8 feet). The striking thing about this longest line is the four stressed syllables in the middle, a truly loud foursome followed by the anapaest. The extra beat at the end drops away.

So, all in all, a variety of rhythms, controlled by plenty of punctuation and caesurae, result in a formal rhymed poem that is both reflective and thought-provoking.

More Resources for Poems By Ruth Pitter

  • The Faber Book of 20th Century Women's Poetry, ed. Fleur Adcock (London: Faber & Faber, 1987), where her "The Sparrow's Skull" and "Morning Glory" appear (pp. 77–78).
  • More Poetry Please! 100 Popular Poems from the BBC Radio 4 Programme (London: Everyman, 1988), where her "The Rude Potato" appears (pp. 101–02).
  • The Oxford Book of Garden Verse, ed. John Dixon Hunt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), where her "The Diehards" and "Other People's Glasshouses" appear (pp. 236–41).
  • The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Traditions in English, 2nd edition, eds. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (New York: Norton, 1996 [1985]), where her "The Military Harpist," "The Irish Patriarch," "Old Nelly's Birthday," and "Yorkshire Wife's Saga" appear (pp. 1573–77).
  • The New Penguin Book of English Verse, ed. Paul Keegan (London: Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 2000), where her "But for Lust" appears (p. 962).


The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005

© 2019 Andrew Spacey

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