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)
This fourteen line poem can be regarded as a sonnet comprising of seven rhyming couplets. It is a simple poem to memorise and people of a certain vintage may have come across this poem in their school days.
This is a poem about time and the use of time that use being defined as ‘Leisure’. Leisure implies taking time out from being busy. The iambic rhythm has been likened to a heartbeat and heartbeats are a measure of time. Also the repetition of the two syllables ‘no time’ in each line reinforces the passage of time.
The first couplet has become memorable to the extent that William Henry Davies is mainly known for this one poem. Each of these lines comprise of eight single syllable words (iambic tetrameter). Single syllable words have more strength in immediate mind absorption because they stand alone and start and finish quickly. This couplet poses the question on the use of time. What is life if we don’t stand and stare? And full of care has implications of self-absorption encouraging us to look outside ourselves.
The next three couplets tell us to appreciate nature advocating that the way to do this is to take time out from what we are usually doing and be still and thus recognise the beauty that abounds in the natural environment. It is more relevant to those that live in rural settings with an obvious English setting as there are no squirrels in Australia.
Unfortunately for me stare has connotations of something not to do so although I fully understand the implications of the use of this word in the context of stopping for a moment to absorb and be aware of surroundings. But I can’t avoid the childhood admonition in respect of people. In the fifth and sixth couplets we are encouraged to appreciate the beauty in another person and maybe the use of glance in these lines encourages some discretion in how this is done to gain appreciation.
The last couplet answers the question posed in the opening lines. Life is diminished if we don’t take time out, or is it putting time in, to appreciate our surrounds and to stop and just absorb.