“Count That Day Lost,” by the English writer George Eliot (the pen name of Mary Ann Evans), is a lyric poem consisting of two stanzas and offering straightforward moral advice of the sort often associated with literature of the Victorian period.
Unlike the titles of many works, the title of this poem is absolutely integral to the poem’s meaning, effects, and effectiveness. The title immediately creates suspense. What day (we wonder) does the title imply? In what ways will that unidentified day be “lost”? Answers to these questions are postponed until the very end of the poem, where the text achieves a final ironic symmetry. The poem’s last line (in other words) clearly echoes its title, but in a memorably different way than we may have expected.
The opening line of the text is typical of the poem as a whole. It uses direct address and very simple phrasing—phrasing that seems appropriate to a work that is designed to teach a lesson. By openly addressing the reader, the speaker catches our attention and makes the poem’s personal relevance seem immediately obvious.
The meter of line 1, like the meter of the rest of the work, is straightforwardly “iambic.” Iambic meter consists of unaccented odd syllables followed by accented even syllables. Thus, the first line “scans” as follows: “If you sit down at set of sun.” The rest of the poem conforms to this pattern in thoroughly predictable ways, perhaps because Eliot wanted the poem to sound as simple and direct as its message. Iambic meter is often thought to mimic the rhythms of most “normal” speech, and so the meter of this poem, like so many other aspects of the work, sounds colloquial and almost conversational. The speaker does not sound like a lofty prophet or an eloquent bard but instead like a “regular” person, or perhaps even a friend.
To say this, however, is not to say that the poem’s language is completely simple and unadorned. The first line, for instance, achieves added interest not only because of the way set echoes sit but also because of the speaker’s heavy use of alliteration involving the consonants s, t, and n: “If you sit down at set of sun.” Even when using apparently simple language, then, this speaker often achieves subtle effects. The reference to “set of sun,” for instance, obviously refers to the end of any particular day, but it may also ultimately suggest the final conclusion of one’s life as a whole.
Line 2 is typical of the poem as a whole in its emphasis on practical deeds and actual behavior. The poem does not endorse virtue in the abstract; instead, it celebrates real virtuous conduct toward other people. In fact, the poem itself might be seen as an example of the very sort of behavior it counsels: it tries to do for the reader the kind of good deed that it encourages the reader to do for others. Virtue, in this poem, is less a state of mind or a kind of inclination; it consists, instead, of virtuous behavior.
The rest of stanza 1 displays many features typical of the poem as a whole, including heavy use of simple, monosyllabic words; abundant alliteration; and frequent, emphatic echoing of key terms, as one (lines 4 and 6), count (lines 2 and 8) and counting (line 3), and you (lines 1, 2, and 8). Such repetition adds to the poem’s rhetorical force, and the repetition of you, in particular, never lets us forget that the speaker is addressing each reader directly. The poem also seems forceful because of its heavy emphasis on verbs and also because of its use of highly efficiently listing. This is a work that wastes no words. It makes its...
(The entire section is 1533 words.)