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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."

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 is lamenting 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

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

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

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: 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: Why does the speaker in the poem "Leisure" feel that we have no time to "stand and stare"?

Answer: The speaker feels that we have no time to "stand and stare" because our lives are filled with responsibilities that occupy our time.

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 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: Is W. H. Davies telling his readers to cherish the beauty of nature?

Answer: The speaker is simply bemoaning the fact that too many folks seem to be too busy taking care of life duties that they miss out on the beauty around them. He is not telling anyone what to think or how to feel; he is stating his opinion about his observation of something he has experienced.

Question: What is the inspiration behind Davies' poem "Leisure"?

Answer: The speaker is expressing his notion that humanity needs more leisure time.

Question: When W.H. Davies says “full of care” (line 1) he means a life full of?

Answer: The word “care” includes responsibility and interests.

Question: What are some of the things the speaker in Davies' "Leisure" would like to do in his leisure time?

Answer: In Davies' "Leisure," the activities mentioned in the poem that likely would please the speaker are simply stopping to watch nature, observing cows and sheep, squirrels hiding nuts, babbling brooks. He would like to watch lovingly as a ballet dancer moves gracefully.

Question: What are the riming words in W. H. Davies' "Leisure"?

Answer: The following pairs are riming words in Davies’ “Leisure”:

care / stare

boughs / cows

pass / grass

daylight / night

glance / dance

can / began

care / stare

(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 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: Why are the streams full of stars?

Answer: Because water in streams reflects light.

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

Answer: They are all equally important.

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: 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: Is W.H. Davies from England?

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

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

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

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

Answer: It means duties and responsibilities.

Question: Who is “we” in the poem?

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

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: 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: Why does the author of "Leisure" think that we need leisure time in our lives?

Answer: The speaker in Davies' "Leisure" thinks we need free time from duties to observe and appreciate the natural world and its beauty.

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 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: “No time to” ... what does the repetition of this phrase signify in the poem "Leisure"?

Answer: The repetition shows that the speaker feels the claim is so important to require emphasis.

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.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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