11.30 on a Sunday afternoon, my wife and I were pottering around, having declined her parents’ invitation to accompany them to church. I was polishing off the last bites of a lazily assembled ‘brunch’, that is pasta and pesto with cheddar cheese, and the baby, whom we had been entertaining since an unGodly hour, was sleeping. ‘I’m getting a definite go back to bed kind of vibe,’ I said.
My bed, however, was haunted by a most unwelcome ghost – that of the staunch non-conformist hymn-writer, logician and poet, Isaac Watts, whose poem I had chanced across in an old anthology the night before:
‘Tis the voice of the sluggard; I heard him complain,
“You have waked me too soon, I must slumber again.”
As the door on its hinges, so he on his bed,
Turns his sides and his shoulders and his heavy head.
“A little more sleep, and a little more slumber;”
Thus he wastes half his days, and his hours without number,
And when he gets up, he sits folding his hands,
Or walks about sauntering, or trifling he stands.
I pass’d by his garden, and saw the wild brier,
The thorn and the thistle grow broader and higher;
The clothes that hang on him are turning to rags;
And his money still wastes till he starves or he begs.
I made him a visit, still hoping to find
That he took better care for improving his mind:
He told me his dreams, talked of eating and drinking;
But scarce reads his Bible, and never loves thinking.
Said I then to my heart, “Here’s a lesson for me,”
This man’s but a picture of what I might be:
But thanks to my friends for their care in my breeding,
Who taught me betimes to love working and reading.
Having spent most of the poem picking fault with the sluggard, Watts finally sees something providential in having a sluggard around him: the sluggard at least inspires him by his bad example not to be so lazy. And of course, he provides us, the listeners with that same example.
I can imagine this having been a great favourite with headmasters of times past, perhaps basing the odd school assembly around its message. “There are some people in this hall who would do well to heed the message of this poem… boys who don’t do their homework, boys whose handwriting is sloppy, boys who saunter into school late, who daydream when they should be working.” There his charges would sit prickling with shame, or in the case of the most irredeemable of them, not giving a toss… maybe even – shock horror – folding their hands.
Perhaps it was such a headmaster who inspired Lewis Carroll to write an absurd parody, which begins:
‘Tis the voice of the Lobster: I heard him declare
“You have baked me too brown, I must sugar my hair.”
As a duck with its eyelids, so he with his nose
Trims his belt and his buttons, and turns out his toes.
If you’re trying to make sense of that, don’t forget that lobster’s noses are like little flicky manoeuvrable arms, and that they could, if a lobster were to wear a belt, be used to trim the belt – you know like people used to trim belts? As for trimming buttons, however, I’m not sure what that means, though if anyone reading this knows, I would be happy to find out. Ducks, meanwhile, have bristly eyelids which they seem to use to brush the feathers on their back. And why would that lobster sugar his hair? I don’t know, but didn’t people used to use sugar water to lacquer their hair in the days before hair gel and the like?
As curious as Lewis’s parody is, it did nothing to get me in the idle mood that Watts’s poem had so ruined. In fact, I felt the very definition of a sluggard, lying in bed at midday googling lobsters’ noses and ducks’ eyelids.
I turned then to another poet, who, being from Wales must have had his fill of the protestant work ethic and then some – Wales being packed to the rafters with non-conformist ministers singing earnest hymns and preaching against idleness and iniquity in stentorian tones. W.H. Davies had little time for that sort of thing, I suspect. He too has poem called ‘The Sluggard’, which is the perfect antidote to Watts’s verse:
A jar of cider and my pipe,
In summer, under shady tree;
A book by one that made his mind
Live by its sweet simplicity:
Then must I laugh at kings who sit
In richest chambers, signing scrolls;
And princes cheered in public ways,
And stared at by a thousand fools.
Let me be free to wear my dreams,
Like weeds in some mad maiden’s hair,
When she believes the earth has not
Another maid so rich and fair;
And proudly smiles on rich and poor,
The queen of all fair women then:
So I, dressen in my idle dreams,
Will think myself the king of men.
Ah now, that’s more like it! A lovely poem to be idle to. I love the first four lines in particular – I have a feeling that book is a book of poems by William Blake, not a bad choice either to read when in an idle mood. Those idle dreams that Davies is dressed in (or dressen in) brings to mind those rags that hang on Watts’ sluggard. It seems likely that Davies is himself familiar with Watts’s poem and this is a reply, of sorts. Davies doesn’t so argue with Watts’ contention that idleness leads to poverty; he acts rather as if it doesn’t really matter – as if sweet simplicity and idle dreaming, and the poverty that goes with them are in themselves preferable to toil, drudgery, and Bible studies and the respectability and stability that accompanies them. Davies isn’t romanticising poverty from the comfort of his boudoir, by the way – he really practised what he preached and lived the life of a wandering vagrant, famously losing a foot trying to jump onto a moving train in America.
Most of us, I guess, like to keep an eye on our bank account (and attached to our appendages!) in the manner of a Watts, though less zealously so, but on a Sunday afternoon we can be glad there is space in the world for the likes of Davies too, wreathed in idle dreams…