Poets And Poetry
William Henry Davies

Poetry Analysis Leisure by William Henry Davies

William Henry Davies
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"Poetry Analysis Leisure by William Henry Davies"
Caption: William Henry Davies
Image by: Alvin Langdon Coburn

William Henry Davies (1871-1940), who wrote as W H Davies, was a Welsh poet and prose writer who is best known for two works, his early “Autobiography of a Super-Tramp”, which detailed his life as a hobo in the United States from 1893 to 1899, and the short poem “Leisure”, which appeared in his “Songs of Joy and Others” in 1911. He continued to write poetry and other works throughout his life, but this single poem is the one that most people can bring to mind when his name is mentioned.

“Leisure” is only fourteen lines long, although it is not in sonnet form as it comprises seven rhyming couplets in iambic tetrameter:

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. 

The first couplet is the one that most people remember, and one wonders how Davies would react to the knowledge that, but for those sixteen monosyllabic words, he would be largely forgotten (unjustly, as it happens, but that is how it goes).

The repeated “no time”, which appears in every couplet, rings like a bell in this carefully crafted poem that takes the reader through a catalogue of occasions on which the excuse of “no time” prevents one from enjoying life to the full.

The second to fourth couplets refer to the natural world and have most relevance to the rural reader who is likely to encounter boughs, woods and streams in the course of their day. They are salutary reminders that the privilege of living in the countryside (as does the current writer) is largely wasted if one does not pause and allow its sights and sounds to do their work on one’s feelings and emotions.

The fifth and sixth couplets take the principle of “standing and staring” to the highly recommended pastime of people-watching, particularly if one is male and the other person female. A mere glance at a pretty girl is not enough, because she may display more beauty than first promised, or smile at you consciously as well as subconsciously.

The near repetition of the first couplet as the last is a neat device to round things off, especially as it answers the original question of “What is this life” with a definitive answer: “A poor life this”.

The title of “Leisure” is an interesting one, because the poem is a call to create leisure by taking the decision to “stand and stare”. Davies wrote these words more than a hundred years ago and they are even more relevant today than when he penned them. Most people seem to be “full of care” most of the time and many complain that they have no time for leisure. However, few would disagree with Davies’s conclusion that their life is impoverished because they do not make the effort to switch off and absorb the world around them.

More about this author: John Welford

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