W. H. Davies' "Leisure"

Updated on May 29, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

W. H. Davies

Source

Introduction and Text of "Leisure"

Welsh poet W. H. Davies' poem "Leisure" plays out in seven riming couplets.

(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.")

This form 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. 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."

This idea, of course, is hardly a novel one—even in the century in which this poet was composing. The notion "stop and smell and the roses" is as old a humanity and time in general. However, this speaker is irked that there is so little no time for the simple enjoyment of things.

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 muses on the notion that leisure time may be employed to watch as natural events unfold around the observer.

First Couplet: Profundity and Triviality

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. 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.

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 on 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.

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.

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 pick apart something as enigmatic as a smile by the powers of observation and intense musing.

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 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 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.

An Unintended Contradiction

Ultimately, the poem reveals a likely unintended contradiction. The speaker's bemoaning humanity's situation must also include the speaker. He is bedeviled by the problem of little time for observing nature. Yet the speaker has obviously been observing nature. That lack of time thing does not seem to have bedeviled the speaker himself as much as he would have us believe.

If this speaker has, in fact, engaged in the act of standing and staring and has come out simply with the notion that such activity is a good thing, then perhaps he really has nothing to complain about. Yet, there they stand: seven couplets of things people do not see, but the speaker does. Is he to be congratulated or accused of hypocrisy?

Questions & Answers

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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