So little time we live in Time, And we learn all so painfully, That we may spare this hour's term To practice for Eternity.
These lines swell with grand gestures. This "we" feels bigger than the "we" of the lovers under the oak tree. This seems like the "we" of us all—humanity, to whom a lesson will now be imparted: Life's a downer and then you die. It's okay to take just one little hour out of the whole crazy rat race just to be quiet and still in order to get a sense of the big picture.
Let's back up and unpack that message a bit, though. Line 37 gives us "Time," with a capital T. The thing is: we don't live in Time very often. Huh? Here the speaker is thinking big, as in the cosmic sense of time, not just the time that you get by checking your watch or iPhone. Nope—if you revisit stanza 4, you'll recall that our speaker is thinking about the entirety of creation here. It stands to reason, then, that "Time" is that larger span of millennia, that abstract idea that traces the development of the universe (tripping yet?). It's not something we tend to think about, because, paradoxically enough, we're too focused on our local, relative sense of time ("I need to hurry up and finish this paper that's due in an hour") to worry about that bigger, cosmic time (the progression of the universe and the development of our existence and consciousness).
Sure, that kind of thinking might make our head hurt. And, to be fair, our puny little human minds can't really comprehend the vast scope of our surroundings—either in terms of space or of time. Things are just too big and too old. But that's precisely what the speaker's asking us to do here. Otherwise, the only other way we get a sense of what life is all about is when it gives us a good kick swift in the pants ("we learn all so painfully").
For example, you may remember the first time you were dumped by a significant other (we sure do, but you don't want to hear about that homecoming dance from hell, Shmoopers). If you do, you can recall that it probably felt like the world would end, like nothing would ever be right, or happy, or safe again. But then what happened? That's right: after time, and with the help of lots of ice cream, you got over it. You learned a painful lesson that gave you sense of the bigger picture, a certain wisdom that might (or might not) help you out in future dumpings. Sure, your heart might feel like somebody Riverdanced all over it, but life goes on. The world is a big place, filled with people and possibilities, and so you shouldn't dwell too much on your troubles.
That's the kind of wise reflection that our speaker is all about here. Just ponder the immensity of life, the universe, and everything. Still worried about that Algebra test now? We didn't think so. So take this hour to just… chill. It's cool. It's allowed. Better than that, it's a chance to rehearse, "To practice for Eternity," a timeless time, a time without end.
Hmm—so that's what all that voicelessness and lethargy and stillness was about. It was just for practice. The couple is lying there underwater (in a sense), letting the night come down around them in preparation for… their own death. And what else is death but the ultimate way to get out of your own narrow understanding of the world and, at long last, become part of the broader passage of cosmic time?
At least, that's one way to read "for Eternity," as if the couple is practicing to embrace Eternity (death). Another is to take this phrase more literally: if you really, truly are able to grasp of sense of the universe's vastness, then time would likely cease to have meaning for you. Once you connect up to that broader perspective, you might truly be able to dwell there forever—in cosmic time, not local time. You'd be walking around with such an appreciation of the universe that the importance of time—measured out on this planet in 24-hour days—would seem way less important to you. Far out, right?
To sum up, then: our lovers are chilling under those bearded oaks, but they're also chilling in the vastness of Time and Space.
This is a chance for them to truly wrap their head around the ginormous history of the universe and its development, of human creation, of everything, really. Importantly, it's through their love that they can lay back and ponder these giant ideas. And we think that's pretty cool, Shmoopers. After all, nobody can fault a pair of lovers who step out of time for just one hour, who lie down under these moss-draped oaks, in order to taste eternity in one another's arms.