The song is about the effects of wasting one’s life. The reason time passes slowly is that too little is done. Neither bridges nor fountains have their potential exploited. Bridges are not crossed, in the sense perhaps of being used to resolve differences. And fountains – presumably a symbol of spiritual cleansing – are walked beside, but not washed in. The inactivity continues in the second verse where the couple sit and stare while the mother alone is active in cooking. In the final verse there is even less activity – the couple ‘stare straight ahead’ and ‘try … to stay right’. Furthermore the staring has become less aspirational – from having the stars (heaven or salvation) as a focus, to merely staring ahead at nothing in particular. The suggestion is that indolence breeds indolence.
The themes of waste and increasing indolence are reflected in the structure of the song. The first verse, in the present tense, tells us that time passes slowly. But by the second verse, not only is there no progress, but time seems to have gone backwards in that we’re presented with a previous experience. The third verse, back in the present tense, though a less precise present, seems to state the narrator’s misguided outlook on life in general. It’s a bridge between verses but – like the bridges mentioned in the first verse – it doesn’t go anywhere because, by the fourth verse, we’re still in the present.
The regression represented by the move from the first to the second verse is reflected both in the structure and the content of the utterly negative third verse taken by itself. Here the narrator tries to justify his indolence. He begins by denying the value of two specific things – riding in a wagon, and going to town. In the second line there’s just one thing – the fair. In the third, we’re back to two, but they are more vague – going up, and going down. And in the fourth the vagueness continues, but we’re back to one – going anywhere. The overall movement, then, is a regression from duality and the specific, to the single and vague.
That this regression is reflected in the content of the third verse is apparent in that, the narrator has opted out of work (represented by the wagon to town), out of pleasure (the fair), and out of making any sort of progress (going up or down). He ends up with thinking it’s not worth moving at all. Whereas in the second verse there had been an implied longing to reach the stars, this is not only gone by the third verse but by its end the narrator has opted out altogether.
That the narrator’s indolence is misguided from a religious perspective becomes apparent not only from the value represented by the stars, but by the mention of ‘fishes’. This form of the plural has a biblical ring and suggests ordinary people in need of salvation (cf. Matt. 4.19). However the couple do not save people when metaphorically they catch the fish; it’s too late – the fish are already dead (live fish don’t float). Just as the dead fish float through the stream, so the people they represent (like the narrator) float through life. The cost of inactivity – the narrator’s and these people’s – is the loss of salvation.
The up and down mentioned in this verse clearly allude to this theme of salvation. The location of the first and fourth verses is ‘up…in the mountains’ and ‘up…in the daylight’. The couple have achieved something, but it’s not enough. They have not met the aspiration of the second verse implied by their staring at the stars ‘high above’. ‘Staring straight ahead’ and ‘trying so hard to stay right’ are too vague and purposeless – neither up nor down. What is required for one’s own salvation and that of others is ongoing, purposeful activity.
Finally, what is needed for salvation is having appropriate values. The narrator praises his sweetheart for having been ‘fine and good-lookin”, yet these good looks are inevitably transient. It’s ironic that the narrator realises this in the case of the rose, but not the sweetheart. His search for love is the wrong sort of search in that it involves sitting and staring out the window instead of actively doing things. And as a result he makes a false estimation of the speed at which time passes. Time doesn’t pass slowly; we need to act now before it’s too late.