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W. H. Davies' "Leisure"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Introduction and Text of "Leisure"

Welsh poet W. H. Davies' poem, "Leisure," plays out in seven riming couplets. The form of the poem might be considered an American or innovative sonnet. But likely the poet merely spun his thoughts in seven couplets and did not think of his poem as a sonnet.

The poem's speaker claims that life moves too quickly. He bemoans the fact that human beings are too "full of care" to "stand and stare." The workaday world has so encroached upon holiday time that to this speaker's way of thinking an important life feature has been lost—down time, time to fill with rest, relaxation, and non-routine musing.

This idea is hardly a novel one—even in the century in which this poet was composing. The notion of "stop and smell and the roses" is as old as humanity and time in general. However, this speaker is irked that there is so little time for the simple enjoyment of things.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Leisure

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty's glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this is if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

Davies reading his poem, "Leisure"

Commentary

W. H. Davies' speaker laments the limited amount of leisure time spent by society. He begins by wondering what life is really all about if folks have no free time to observe nature and just ponder and muse.

First Couplet: Profundity and Triviality

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What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

The first couplet sets out by proffering the question that is at once deeply profound yet jerks itself back to what at first sounds quite trivial. Readers might guess that this speaker has been bullied by someone for engaging in "standing and staring"—thus wasting time that could be used for more constructive activity.

At this point in his life, the speaker muses on the notion of standing and staring, and he wishes to suggest that life is certainly a poor thing, if people cannot tolerate the simple act of standing and staring.

Second Couplet: Humankind's Lack of Time

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

The speaker then starts a catalogue, enumerating all the many things on which no time can be spent. He names things of nature that fill out the old saw, "stop and smell the roses."

The speaker apparently enjoys rustic scenery, perhaps farm life full of farm scenes. Thus, he then asserts that the human condition contrasts unfavorably with that of "sheep and cows." Those animals are permitted the time to stand and stare as long as they desire.

The speaker is, of course, bemoaning his own sad situation. He is implying that he would prefer to be a cow or a sheep that could take all the leisure time it wishes. But instead he will be called a good-for-nothing, a shirker, or a slacker, if he tries to emulate the activity of animals.

Third Couplet: Lacking Time for Simply Watching

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

The human being passing by a woods will have no time to watch as squirrels roust about through the grass hiding their nuts for winter. This speaker is, however, letting his readers see that he has, in fact, been observant, thus taking that time to see and report.

But he is irked that such leisure time is not valued by society as a whole. By pointing out one small detail of squirrels hiding nuts, he offers an example of what he feels the social order is missing with its "no time" issue.

Fourth Couplet: Stars in Water

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

The fourth couplet finds the speaker mourning the lack of time for watching brooks and creeks and rivers where he has concocted to see "stars" during the day, just as one observes the night sky filled with those orbs.

It is not likely that most folks had thought to find "stars" in streams of water. But the speaker again is exemplifying the usefulness that leisure can bring. To make such a visual connection between sky and water enriches the life of the keen observer, connecting his own life to that of the cosmos.

Fifth Couplet: The Beauty of Dance

No time to turn at Beauty's glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

The fifth couplet points to the abstract quality of "Beauty." He personifies Beauty as a dancer, bemoaning that fact that there is no time to watch Beauty dance. Enough time to watch would allow the spectator to appreciate the intricacy of the dance.

By watching the dancer’s feet, the observer becomes inspired by the wholesome beauty of the dancer and the process of dancing. Again, by taking time to truly see and appreciate, the observer’s life in once again enhanced by beauty and knowledge.

Sixth Couplet: The Onset of a Smile

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

There is no time to stop and to watch a woman smile, as it begins her eyes and then spreads to her mouth. The speaker shows how he can observe the intricacy of something as enigmatic as a smile by the powers of observation and intense musing.

But once again, he is still bemoaning that fact that for too wide a swath of society there is no time for this activity. The speaker continues to lament those instances wherein the lack of observation fails to bring about appreciation of the finer things of life.

Seventh Couplet: A Moral Judgment

A poor life this is if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

The speaker has made it clear that he thinks human beings have a rather pitiful time of it if they cannot stop to enjoy what is going on in nature around them. This speaker laments that human beings are strapped with cares, worries, and so much responsibility that they cannot even begin to enjoy the beauty and glories of life.

Thus, the speaker is ultimately making a moral judgment about his fellows. And he makes it clear that he finds them lacking. Without time to appreciate beauty, art, and nature, the lives of his fellows are diminished.

An Unintended Contradiction?

At first blush, there may seem to be a possible unintended contradiction in the poem. The speaker's bemoaning humanity's situation does not seem to include the speaker.

He has demonstrated that he has, in fact, had some leisure time because he is able to give certain details that he has observed: the squirrel hiding nuts, sparking water that resembles stars, the dancer’s feet, and the woman’s smile.

Although he is likely also bedeviled by the problem of little time for observing nature, he has given himself at least a modicum of time to do so. Thus, perhaps he is not so hampered as others whom he has observed who lack any off time at all, but he also would likely hope to have even more leisure time for pleasantly observing his surroundings.

The speaker has determined that standing and staring remain important activities for humanity. Standing and staring are so important that he has concluded that life is a poor thing if humanity remains so burdened with duties and responsibilities that it cannot free its schedule for more leisure.

The speaker is, thus, using his experience with leisure to make a statement about the importance of free time for humanity in general. Because leisure has been so important to him in his own life, he is now gracefully implying that folks add that important commodity to their schedule.

Questions & Answers

Question: What is the theme of the poem "Leisure"?

Answer: The speaker is lamenting the limited amount of leisure time spent by society.

Question: What are some of the things that the poet W.H. Davies would like to do in his leisure time?

Answer: The speaker of W. H. Davies' poem, "Leisure," would like just to stand and stare at the things around him. He would like to watch cows and sheep and observe squirrels hiding nuts. He would like to muse on the stars in the night sky. He would also like to watch dancers and then carefully observe how they smile first with their mouth and then watch as that smile spreads to their eyes. He would like it if he could just stand, or perhaps by extension, sit and watch as life goes by filled with so many things to see and by extension again, hear.

Question: What can one see while passing through woods in the poem, "Leisure"?

Answer: If there were enough time, one could see "squirrels hide their nuts in grass," but because there is no time, the exact answer to your question is nothing.

Question: How does nature smile in W.H. Davies' poem, "Leisure"?

Answer: Poetic observation might metaphorically compare the beautiful features of nature to a smile and the ugly ones to a frown. An odd question when applied to this poem that does not broach that issue. The "smile" mentioned in this poem is on the face of a dancing woman--not "nature" in general.

Question: Where in Nature can we see beauty dancing as described in the poem 'Leisure"?

Answer: In the fifth couplet, as the speaker points to the abstract quality of "Beauty," he personifies Beauty as a dancing woman; thus, he is not referring to natural features such as trees, cows, stars, as he had done in preceding couplets.

Question: What inspired W. H. Davies to compose "Leisure"?

Answer: Likely a beautiful sunny day with fluffy clouds and warm breezes, as he watched a sailboat off in the distance moving gracefully over the magnificent, clear blue waters of the sea.

Question: What does "care" mean in the poem Leisure by W.H. Davies?

Answer: It means duties and responsibilities.

Question: What kind of poem is "Leisure", a lyric or a sonnet?

Answer: Actually, a sonnet is usually also a lyric poem. This form in this poem might be considered an American or innovative sonnet. But likely the poet merely played out his thoughts in seven couplets and did not think of his poem as a sonnet.

Question: Why are the streams full of stars?

Answer: Because water in streams reflects light.

Question: What beauty does the speaker in W.H. Davies "Leisure" like to watch?

Answer: The speaker likes to observe the branches of trees, sheep and cows, the woodlands, squirrels hiding nuts, babbling brooks, skies at night.

dancers with smiling eyes.

Question: Why does the speaker call our life “poor”?

Answer: The speaker thinks life should include more time for observation and contemplation.

Question: What do the lines, "No time to stand beneath the boughs / And stare as long as sheep or cows" in the poem "Leisure" mean?

Answer: The speaker apparently enjoys rustic scenery, perhaps farm life full of farm scenes. In those lines, he is asserting that the human condition contrasts unfavorably with that of "sheep and cows." Those animals are permitted the time to stand and stare as long as they desire. The speaker is bemoaning his own sad situation, implying that he would prefer to be a cow or a sheep that could take all the leisure time it wishes. But instead, he will be called a good-for-nothing, a shirker, or a slacker, if he tries to emulate the activity of animals.

Question: How personal is the complaint in Davies' "Leisure" for the poet?

Answer: The speaker is likely lamenting his own situation; he is implying that he would prefer to be a cow or a sheep with plenty of leisure hours to take all the time he wishes to simply observe things around him. But he will probably be called a good-for-nothing, a shirker, or a slacker if he tries to imitate the activity of animals.

Question: Which animal would the speaker in Davies' "Leisure" like to imitate?

Answer: I suppose one could interpret the lines, "No time to stand beneath the boughs / And stare as long as sheep or cow," to be suggesting that the speaker would like to "imitate" cows and sheep.

Question: How does the speaker in the poem "Leisure" by W. H. Davies view his fellow humans?

Answer: The speaker has made it clear that he thinks human beings have a rather pitiful time of it that they cannot stop to enjoy what is going on in nature around them. This speaker laments that human beings are strapped with cares, worries, and so much responsibility that they cannot even begin to enjoy the beauty and glories of life. Thus, the speaker is ultimately making a moral judgment about his fellows. And he makes it clear that he finds them lacking.

Question: Which line answers the question asked in line 1& 2 of W.H. Davies poem "Leisure"?

Answer: The last two lines: “A poor life this is if, full of care, / We have no time to stand and stare.”

Question: Why would life be poor without leisure in regards to W.H. Davies' poem, "Leisure"?

Answer: The speaker opines that without leisure one does not have the time and opportunity to "stand and stare," that is, observe with appreciation the beauty around one.

Question: What are the values imparted by the leisure activities?

Answer: The speaker seems to value free time for observing what he considers to be beautiful; otherwise the poem does not remotely approach the issues os "values."

Question: What message does the poet wish to convey through the poem, "Leisure"?

Answer: W.H. Davies is trying to convey that life quality is diminished if one fails to observe the beauty in one's environment.

Question: What is your impression of the poet from your reading of the poem "Leisure"?

Answer: One cannot form impressions of poets by merely reading their poems.

About the speaker of the poem, one can gather that he feels life moves too fast for observing the things around him. He seems a bit confused, however, and it becomes hard to take him seriously. He catalogues the many things he would like to see which implies that he has, in fact, leisurely observed them. Thus his complaint seems unwarranted.

That impression about the speaker of the poem may or may not attach to the poet himself.

Question: Write the values imparted by leisure activites?

Answer: W. H. Davies' poem, "Leisure" offers a simple complaint that the world provides too little time for simply doing nothing. The speaker appears to think it a valuable way to pass the time by just "standing and staring." It would require the unpleasant act of reading into the poem what is not there to attribute "values" to his leisure activities.

Question: What literary devices are used in Davies' poem "Leisure"?

Answer: The poem uses rime.

In the line, "Streams full of stars, like skies at night," it employs a metaphor which is followed by a simile,

In the lines, "No time to turn at Beauty's glance, / And watch her feet, how they can dance," personification is used.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error at https://owlcation.com/humanities/Rhyme-vs-Rime-An-... ."

Question: What are some of the simple delights we miss in our rushed life according to W.H. Davie's poem, "Leisure"?

Answer: According to the speaker in this poem, we might miss the following if we don't take time to "stand and stare: "the boughs," "the woods," "squirrels hiding nuts," "streams full of stars," "skies at night," watching a beautiful woman dancing, seeing her eyes as they smile.

Question: In W. H. Davies' poem, "Leisure", the word beauty in stanza 5 or 6 refers to nature. Explain when and how nature dances and smiles?

Answer: Nature "dances and smiles" only metaphorically.

Question: What is the tone of the poem "Leisure" by W.H. Davies?

Answer: The tone of the poem is melancholy.

Question: In W.H. Davie's poem "Leisure," why does the speaker think our life is full of care?

Answer: The speaker thinks life is "full of care" because of the many responsibilities human beings must attend to and because of all the trials and tribulations we must face.

Question: What kind of life is poor life for the speaker of W.H. Davies' poem, "Leisure"?

Answer: For the speaker of this poem, life is poor for the many folks who do not take the time to enjoy the things around them.

Question: After reading the poem "Leisure" by W.H. Davies, do you think the author is not enjoying life?

Answer: The speaker of the poem seems to think that he would enjoy his life more if he had more time to "stand and stare." He likely thinks that because he would prefer to have more leisure time and less work and responsibilities.

Question: What style is this poem?

Answer: Welsh poet W. H. Davies' poem, "Leisure," plays out in seven riming couplets. The form of the poem might be considered an American or innovative sonnet. But likely the poet merely played out his thoughts in seven couplets and did not think of his poem as a sonnet.

Question: Why has the poet W. H. Davies expressed his dissatisfaction against the busy life of ours?

Answer: For the same reason that a man climbs mountains, bakes cakes, learns to knit, runs marathons, paints seascapes, builds skyscrapers, founds organizations, plays the piano, writes songs, or answers questions--because he can . . .

Question: What does the speaker say he has no time for?

Answer: He is complaining about having little or no time for leisure activities, such as observing nature or a ballet performance or other nice, lovely things that happen in life.

Question: Which stanza do you think is the most important in W.H. Davie's "Leisure"?

Answer: They are all equally important.

Question: What is "poor life" according to Davies?

Answer: According to the poem's speaker in Davies' "Leisure," it is a poor life if one cannot find enough free time from life duties to enjoy the beauty in God's creation.

Question: Why is it important in W.H. Davies' poem "Leisure" to have leisure in life?

Answer: According to the speaker of W. H. Davies "Leisure," people need leisure time in order to observe and enjoy the beauty around them.

Question: What do you think the poet means by "care" in W.H. Davie's "Leisure"?

Answer: This speaker is lamenting that human beings are strapped with cares, worries, and so much responsibility that they cannot even begin enjoy the beauty and glories of life.

Question: What is leisure?

Answer: Leisure is free time for enjoying recreation, an unhurried period of time off from work or duty, or simply a time for rest and relaxation.

Question: What does the poet W.H. Davies mean by '"Streams full of stars," "in broad daylight" in the poem Leisure?

Answer: The speaker is referring to the glistening of the waters of a small brook or creek and likening that shine to stars one sees in the night sky--only one can see the shining water of the small stream in the daylight.

Question: Is W.H. Davies from England?

Answer: No, he was born in Newport, Wales.

Question: What are the five synonyms for leisure in the poem "Leisure" by W.H. Davies?

Answer: "Stand and stare" is the only phrase synonymous with "leisure" in the poem.

Question: Why does W. H. Davies repeat the phrase ''no time'' in his poem "Leisure"?

Answer: For emphasis.

Question: What does the speaker of W. H. Davies' "Leisure" want us to stare at and gain from it?

Answer: The speaker wants to be able to take time to enjoy observing life around him.

Question: What is the tone of W. H. Davies' "Leisure"?

Answer: The general tone of W. H. Davies' "Leisure" is melancholy.

Question: Who is “we” in the poem?

Answer: In Davies’ “Leisure,” “we” refers to human beings.

Question: What does the speaker in the poem "Leisure" want?

Answer: The speaker would like to have more leisure time.

Question: How does a mouth enrich a smile in W.H. Davies' poem, "Leisure"?

Answer: To smile, one must open and move the lips outward and expose the teeth; thus the mouth completes the smile that began with the eyes.

Question: What is the special feature of the poem "Leisure" by W.H. Davies?

Answer: One "special feature" of this poem is that it is an innovative (American) sonnet, playing out in seven couplets.

Question: Why does W.H. Davies' call our life “poor” in his poem, "Leisure"?

Answer: It’s “poor” only if one has no “leisure” or free time to enjoy the beautiful things life offers.

Question: What could have inspired W. H. Davies to compose this "Leisure"? Do you think it relates to our present day life?

Answer: Speculation about why a poet wrote a particular poem is a fool's errand. Even if you were to ask the poet why and he gave some response, you still have to rely only on what he actually wrote and not what he says were the reasons for writing it.

The poem focuses on the human's lack of time and/or interest in engaging in free time. The speaker regrets that folks don't seem to have that time to observe and experience the world around them. Of course, it relates to present day; the attitude bemoaned in the poem is not limited to any historical time frame.

Question: Why is the poet comparing daylight to skies at night in the poem "Leisure"?

Answer: The speaker is using a clever conceit to express his mourning the lack of time for watching brooks and creeks and rivers where he has concocted to see "stars" during the day, just as one observes the night sky filled with those orbs. No doubt, the speaker felt proud of himself for making such an odd observation. It is not likely most folks had thought to find "stars" in streams of water.

Question: Why is it said that a smile begins from one’s eyes in W.H. Davies' poem, "Leisure"?

Answer: That notion belongs to the speaker who seems to have observed the dancer's smile starting with her eyes. It is more likely that the speaker just happened to observe the eyes first and then the mouth.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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