We had to read and learn poetry chosen by our teachers. My erstwhile English teacher in my later years at Perth Academy was a certain Tom McRae, a fine cricketer for Perthshire and a lover of poetry, who used to face the class perched on a pupil desk, feet resting on the integral bench seat, and read poetry to us.
He read quite beautifully and we found it well-nigh impossible to resist the allure of verse when it was read with such skill that even the poet’s most complex emotions became crystal clear to teenagers.
We were not angels; and I am sure some teachers breathed a sigh of relief when the welcome bell marked the end of their allotted 40-minute period. But not Tom; we would wait in rapt silence after the bell had rung to hear the end of the poem he was reading, held in the palm of his hand by the enchantment of the usually modern poetry he chose to read to us.
One poem, which we willingly committed to heart and tried to recite with something approaching Tom’s love for both words and meaning was ‘Leisure’ by William Henry Davis (1871-1940).
Davis was born in Wales and divided much of his younger life between his homeland and the United States where he bummed around as a ‘hobo’ … a tramp … as we were told at school, although I have read more recently that he was regarded as a ‘rounder’ in the States, a dissolute person, often a drunkard.
He abandoned his romantically-named ‘adventurer’s life’ after losing a leg attempting to board a moving freight train and settled in England to scrape a living as a poet. His best-known poem is ‘Leisure’, the opening couplet of which is, “What is this life if, full of care, / We have no time to stand and stare?”
Indeed. And, like most people, I have had time to stand and stare in recent weeks; I have had, “Time to stand beneath the boughs / and stare as long as sheep or cows.” And, lucky me,
I have not been worried sick about whether I would have a job to go back to, whether my business would survive, how I was going to pay the mortgage or the rent or where my next meal was coming from. I have had time to stand and stare at things I have never noticed before.
I have never before seen swans overflying my garden. Do they do this from time to time? And what about the ducks which have also been enjoying a bird’s eye view of my property? Is this surveillance a regular feature of their lives? Living close to the Union Canal as the crow flies, I would not be astonished to learn that I have simply not noticed these flights before.
Then what about the adult fox which I watched scouting my garden a few mornings ago while I was getting dressed. He … I think he was a dog fox from the shape of his head … was engaged on a tour of inspection in broad daylight.
Yes, I have seen foxes in my garden before: but I have never seen one so brazenly studying the territory, which included parading along the wall which separates my property from that of Network Rail to get a better oversight. He wasn’t too keen to leave even when I pointed out to him that, in the parlance, “This is my bit!”
And there are the great tits. I was quite embarrassed on another recent morning when one perched on a branchlet outside my bedroom window and seemed to watch me dressing.
Now I know that he, too, was ‘casing the joint’, for he and his mate are building a nest in the nook under the bottom edge of the wood siding on the south facing wall. Are they regular tenants or first-time visitors?
I just don’t know; all I can say is that I’ve never noticed them before. Yes, indeed, “A poor life this if, full of care, / We have no time to stand and stare.”