Tuesday, October 23, 2012


I think of idleness as a good thing.  I do not associate idleness with lassitude, laziness, or sloth.  Rather, I associate it with repose, reverie, and contemplation.

People who carry on cellphone conversations in public are in dire need of idleness.  People who walk through the world with their head down, peering at their iPhone while scrolling and tapping, are in dire need of repose, reverie, and contemplation.

These thoughts may mark me out as a reactionary anachronism.  For my younger readers, I offer the following anecdote in order to provide some perspective on my fuddy-duddyness.  Long ago, in my early years of practicing law, I received letters from clients and opposing counsel.  These letters arrived in envelopes that had stamps on them.  I would take a couple of days to consider how to respond to each letter.  I would then write a letter in reply, place it in an envelope, put a stamp on the envelope, and deposit it in a mailbox.  I'm not pulling your leg.

Yes, I come from an ancient world.  A lost world.  Hence my fondness for idleness.

                          Paul Gauguin, "Landscape at Pont-Aven" (1886)


It was a time when wise men
Were not silent, but stifled
By vast noise.  They took refuge
In books that were not read.

Two counsellors had the ear
Of the public.  One cried 'Buy'
Day and night, and the other,
More plausibly, 'Sell your repose.'

R. S. Thomas, H'm (1972).

                  Paul Gauguin, "Cove Opposite Pont-Aven Harbor" (1888)

Your gift of life was idleness,
As you would set day's task aside
To marvel at an opening bud,
Quivering leaf, or spider's veil
On dewy grass in morning spread.
These were your wandering thoughts, that strayed
Across the ever-changing mind
Of airy sky and travelling cloud,
The harebell and the heather hill,
World without end, where you could lose
Memory, identity and name
And all that you beheld, became,
Insect wing and net of stars
Or silver-glistering wind-borne seed
For ever drifting free from time.
What has unbounded life to do
With body's grave and body's womb,
Span of life and little room?

Kathleen Raine, The Oval Portrait (1977).  The poem is untitled.

                          Paul Gauguin, "Upstream of Pont-Aven" (1888)


Andy McEwan said...

Mr Pentz,
How resonant a chord your post has struck in me! I could not agree more that much of the world would benefit from more repose, reverie and contemplation. I often feel bewildered and downhearted when I witness the antics of our smart-phone zombies. Never, I suspect, throughout history have so many people done so much "communicating" without really saying anything - the Triumph of Banality is upon us.
Like you, I rejoice in idleness - when I can. Idleness has, however, become equated with laziness or lack of "drive" in our frenetic world, I fear, and those who idle are misunderstood. Thomas Cowper, certainly no lazy fellow, wrote, "How various his employments, whom the world calls idle."
I remember only too well the receipt of real letters by mail, the drafting of replies and the finished responses committed to the post. So many of the electronic generation never experience the pleasure of slitting open an envelope (sometimes blazoned with exotic stamps) or recognising the familiar handwriting of a friend on crisp paper - their loss, I think. Not all is lost, however: I correspond regularly with a young person across the Atlantic who looks forward to receiving real letters as much as I do to receiving the subsequent replies. The real letter, like the printed book, is still alive despite prognostications of their demise by the e-generation.
I've rambled on longer than intended but will close, thinking about idleness, with a quote from Bertrand Russell - "The time you enjoy wasting is not time wasted."
Yours idly,
Andy McEwan.

Fred said...


I hate to say this, but you are fighting a lost cause. The battle is over; we have lost--for now, anyway.

But, there are cycles and some day, who knows, it may yet become fashionable to leave mobile phones at home occasionally or at least turn them off.

My friends eye me pityingly for I don't carry a mobile phone with me and am out-of-touch for hours or more.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr McEwan: thank you very much for those fine thoughts, with which, as you might expect, I am in full agreement. You are absolutely right about the banality of most of the "communication" that goes on these days (which, of course, reflects the banality of "culture" at large).

I love the line from Cowper, which I don't recall having seen before. I see from a quick Internet search that it comes from "The Task," of which I have only read portions -- time to read the whole thing. The text that follows your quote is nice as well: ". . . and who justly in return/Esteems that busy world an idler too!"

As always, I greatly appreciate hearing from you.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: yes, alas, I know that it is a lost cause. Two of my nieces visited me this summer. They are both wonderful girls, polite and thoughtful, but both of them had their IPhones in their hands the entire time they were here. What can you do? I've resigned myself to the fact that I'll never "get it."

On the other hand, I realize that I am being selective in my disdain for technology -- witness this blog.

It is always good to have you stop by. As ever, thanks, Fred.

George said...

The sometime abbot of St. Anselm's Abbey in Washington, DC, Fr. Aidan Shea (now commendatory abbot of Tewskbury), wrote in a reminiscence a few years ago of a time in his youth when he did not believe in opening letters until he had time to read them with the consideration they deserved. One such letter contained greetings from the President of the United States. The president, and his agents in the Selective Service System being impatient sorts, his mother presently found MPs on her porch, conveying the message that he had better report for induction. He did, and served in the Army, though his account suggests that even then he may have been better suited for the contemplative life.

Somebody--Empson?--wrote of hearing T.S. Eliot say that he had made a careful study of letters, and that the mistake most people made was that after completing a later they would mail it, rather than burn it. But at least with the letter there is the greater inertia required for sending.

bruce floyd said...

In the poem below Dickinson is asking a rhetorical question.She knows the answer is NO! This reclusive poet, immured from the noisy and busy word, knew the value of idleness, for from it she extracted her poetry and her manifold lively letters. Creative idleness is the antithesis of insentient and tongueless death. I'd like to think that Dickinson, were she living today, would share our disdain for Facebook and twitter and all that other mindless fluff. Like Emerson she felt that words were living things we should nurture. If we cut them, they would bleed.

A long -- long Sleep -- A famous -- Sleep --
That makes no show for Morn --
By Stretch of Limb -- or stir of Lid --
An independent One -

-Was ever idleness like This?
Upon a Bank of Stone
To bask the Centuries away --
Nor once look up -- for Noon

bruce floyd said...

In the first section of perhaps the most famous poem in American literature we find these words:

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

Our country's greatest poet, some would say, knew more than anyone the real value of idleness.

Chris Matarazzo said...

"I loaf and invite my soul..." Whitman agreed with you, Stephen, and I could not agree more. I'm a rebellious nut -- I sometimes leave the house without my cell phone. (Insert ominous chord here.)

Chris Matarazzo said...

"I loaf and invite my soul..." Long live the loafers (the people, not the shoes) I say, Stephen. Whitman certainly had a clue about the value of idleness, as did the Romantics.

Maybe the constant motion of those around us makes our oases of stillness sweeter. I think it's nice to be of the minority, sometimes. I always find it amusing to hear people brag about not being able to sit still. What is one supposed to say in response to that?

Stephen Pentz said...

George: thank you for visiting again, and for those two anecdotes. Sending and receiving letters has the advantage of reducing the likelihood of intemperate behavior. As one who has done so, it is way too easy to fire off emails one later regrets. And you cannot, as Eliot suggested, burn them.

Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Floyd: thank you for the reminders from Dickinson and Whitman. As you note, they were both "idlers" in their own distinctive ways. I thank you once again your sharing the Dickinson poems this autumn.

Stephen Pentz said...

Chris: you'll see above that Whitman came to mind for both you and Mr. Floyd. I hadn't thought of him at all in this connection, so I'm glad that you two brought him up.

I've encountered "can't-sit-still" people as well. The frenetic culture/technology around us encourages those feelings, doesn't it? My thought is always: what does this extra speed and busyness add to our lives? The long-touted idea that technology will give us more leisure time and more time for repose is one of the great deceptions of our time, isn't it?

As always, it is great to hear from you.

Chris Matarazzo said...

"Our country's greatest poet, some would say, knew more than anyone the real value of idleness."

Mr. Floyd's comment is obviously one that I agree with -- yet, in thinking about it further, it occurred to me that perhaps Whitman would have been fascinated by Facebook, as it, in a way, brings to life the sort of connections that he metaphorically presented in his work. Also, being a former Rutgers Camden student (strong connections to the once local poet)and a person who lives a short walk from one of his old summer homes, it also occurred to me that he was anything but someone who could be classified as "idle" -- he was a constant and even ambitious walker, as well as a busy newspaper man, at times. I don't think he would have shunned modern tech, but he would have felt the need (as many of us seem to do) to step away from it.

I'm not implying that anyone here has equated "lazy" with "idle" -- quite the opposite.But, I think what you said, Stephen, is important: the tech is forcing us out of idleness when it was supposed to provide us with the opportunity for more of it. I once wrote something in which I equated the situation to Aesop's crow, dropping pebbles to raise the water in the jar so that he could drink. If tech is the pebbles, we have to use only enough to raise the water to our lips; drop too many pebbles in and all we manage is to overflow the water into the dirt at our feet. Again, the need for balance becomes apparent...

Stephen Pentz said...

Chris: thank you for those follow-up thoughts.

My knowledge of Whitman's work is extremely limited. Hence, it's interesting to hear from you and Mr. Floyd about how he fits into this idleness discussion. I agree with you that the expansive side of Whitman would welcome the technology (to some extent).

One note on Whitman as walker: as I'm sure you know, walking and idling can go well together. I am thinking (only two examples of many) of John Clare and Edward Thomas. They were both indefatigable walkers, but I think they were idling as well (in terms of reflection and contemplation).

Your closing point on technology is a good one, and fits with my observation that I am being somewhat selective (and self-contradictory) in my condemnations, given the technology that I am using as I write in response to you this very moment. The key, as you say, is knowing when to turn it off. You are no doubt familiar with the lines by Graham Parker from "Distraction": "I can't see the point but I see the attraction." The attraction can be deadly.

Thank you once again.

Mathias Richter said...

When I read the heading of this post I thought immediately "Ah, this is another Andrew Young!"
I was thinking of one of his most celebrated poems, simply called "Idleness". To me this is one of the finest poems about idleness, characterised by Young's slightly mischieveous sense of humour. It has been set to music in 1949 by Robin Milford, one of the first composers to be inspired by Young.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mathias: thank you very much for reminding me about Andrew Young's poem -- I feel bad for not having remembered it. Advancing age!

". . . will learn to shirk/No idleness that I may share your work." Those lines (and the entire poem) are right on point when it comes to my post and the subsequent discussion in the comments.

And thank you as well for the information about the musical setting by Robin Milford. I wasn't aware of it, and will try to track it down.