Literature

A Short Analysis of W. H. Davies’ ‘Leisure’

By Dr Oliver Tearle

‘What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?’ This couplet is the one truly enduring legacy of the poet and self-described ‘supertramp’, W. H. Davies (1871-1940). There was actually a fair bit more to William Henry Davies than these two lines, but there’s no doubt that they, and the poem ‘Leisure’ from which they come, is the most famous thing Davies wrote.

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 and 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 if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

William Henry Davies (1871-1940) was a Welsh poet, who is often categorised as one of the ‘Georgian poets’, that group of British poets active in the second decade of the twentieth century. The Georgians often wrote about nature, but sought to use a modern idiom and a more direct, natural tone in their work, moving away from poetic cliché and overdone rhetoric.

However, the Georgians were a disparate bunch, and like their contemporaries, the Imagists, often have very little in common with each other besides appearing alongside each other in special anthologies.

And although ‘Leisure’ was written in 1911, around the time that the Georgian movement was gathering speed, the poem didn’t appear in any of the Georgian Poetry anthologies published by Harold Monro.

To paraphrase those famous lines which take the form of a rhetorical question (‘What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?’): what’s the point of being alive if we’re so full of the worries of day-to-day living that we cannot find time to stop and just admire the beauty of nature?

Davies’ poem is beautifully straightforward in its form (of which more below), and its simple repetition – not just of the opening couplet (slightly recast to provide the closing one), but of the phrase ‘no time to’.

This obviously reinforces the idea that we are such hostages to the bustle of modern living (especially modern metropolitan living) that few of us have the time, or even the means, to go out there among nature and spend time observing and appreciating it.

It’s easy to see why Davies’ poem has become so well-liked. It’s accessible – almost to the point of gaucheness and banality in places, such as in the line about ‘star[ing] as long as sheep or cows’, where the line seems dictated more by needing a rhyme for ‘boughs’ than anything more meaningful.

Other lines are more intriguing: how can streams be ‘full of stars’ in ‘broad daylight’? Is the poet capturing the way the ripples and disturbances in the surface of the water catch the sunlight, making little crystals of dazzling light?

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?

Then, in the fifth and sixth stanzas, is Davies referring to ‘Beauty’ in a broader Keatsian sense, personifying the beauty of nature? Or is he thinking of a more human beauty, given the reference to ‘feet’, ‘mouth’, and ‘eyes’? The meaning hovers between personification (birds have little feet that dance, and they and other animals have ‘mouths’ and ‘eyes’) and something more romantic with a small ‘r’, as if Davies is encouraging even those of us who cannot spend time among nature to appreciate the beauty of loved ones closer to home.

‘Leisure’ is written in rhyming couplets of iambic tetrameter, which means there are four poetic ‘feet’ – iambs, in this case – per line. An iamb is a pair of syllables where the stress falls on the second syllable, as in the word ‘began’ (i.e. be-GAN). So the last line of Davies’ poem is four iambs: ‘We HAVE no TIME to STAND and STARE’.

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 and cows:

Davies keeps quite closely to this iambic tetrameter rhythm, although note that the very first line opens somewhat more directly and eye-catchingly with a reversed foot, or trochee, in ‘WHAT is’: ‘What is this life if, full of care, / We have no time to stand and stare?’ And this has perhaps helped the couplet to become lodged in the public imagination.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.

4 Comments

  1. I know that couplet very well, but I couldn’t have told you who wrote it!

    • It’s one of those lines (or pairs of lines) isn’t it? They’ve become far more famous than the poet who wrote them. I think it’s the same as Joyce Kilmer’s ‘I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree.’

  2. Goodness, knew the beginning lines, but neither poem nor poet. Thank you for introduction.

  3. Karl Patterson

    Thank you Prof. Tearle for your discussion of this poem. It has many times reminded me to let go of the day-to-day aggravations of my law practice and remember the peace and pleasure literature and nature provide.

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