“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...
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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 point clearly (perhaps too clearly for anyone interested in poetic subtlety), and it uses imagery, metaphors, and similes in ways that are sparing and undemanding (as in the phrases “eased the heart,” line 5; and “fell like sunshine,” line 7). In short, the poem teaches simple lessons simply.
At the same time, however, some of the imagery is worth some thought. By comparing kind glances to “sunshine,” for example, the speaker associates such glances with light, warmth, nature, and perhaps even God. A friendly “glance”—which can sound slight and minor—can nevertheless help illuminate another person’s day and can help eliminate mental and emotional darkness. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the poem’s imagery, however, is the work’s paradoxical use of metaphors associated with materialism (such as “count” and “spent”) to describe idealistic, nonmaterialistic virtue.
Also effective is Eliot’s decision to make each stanza consist of one long unfolding sentence and to save the crucial information of each sentence until the very closing line. She thus creates a strong sense of anticipation and suspense, so that it is not until the last two words of the opening stanza that we finally discover that stanza’s “point.” As we work our way toward that point, however, we notice various subtle effects, such as the ones already mentioned as well as the wordplay of “heart” and “heard” in line 5.
Stanza 2 deliberately contrasts with stanza 1, but the contrasts are of course emphasized by various similarities, including resemblances in structure, tactics, and diction. Thus, the two stanzas are very similar in organization, especially in the ways both of them delay the crucial point until the final line. Both stanzas also employ an if/then structure that emphasizes the crisp logic of the arguments the stanzas make. Both stanzas directly address the reader, and in doing so, both use the more familiar, contemporary, colloquial word you rather than the more elevated, archaic, and somewhat pretentious-sounding word thou (a word that can make many Victorian poems sound a bit affected and self-consciously “poetic”). This effect of spontaneous informality is further enhanced by the double use of the contraction you’ve rather than a more formal-sounding you have (lines 10 and 12).
Stanza 2 resembles stanza 1 in other ways as well, including the ways it echoes the imagery and phrasing of the first stanza. Thus, the word heart appears both in line 5 and in line 10, while sunshine is mentioned both in line 7 and in line 13. The word acts is first used in line 2 and then is echoed by act in line 14. And, of course, the final lines of each stanza are intriguing not only because of their similarities but also because of their differences. As even its appearance on the page suggests, this is a poem with a high degree of unity and coherence. It is a well-designed poem that also has very obvious designs on the reader. It is intended less to intrigue than to persuade and even, perhaps, to pressure.
The speaker’s use of the word soul in line 15 to refer to another human being may suggest that the poem’s initial readers (most of whom would have called themselves Christians) have an almost religious obligation to treat others with charity and kindness. Such phrasing may also suggest that in the final analysis, it will not be readers themselves, but rather God, who will be assessing their conduct. Whatever Eliot’s personal attitudes toward religion may have been, she knew the conventional religious beliefs of the audience she was addressing. The reference to other persons as “souls” would definitely have played on the religious consciences of many of her first readers. By calling other people “souls,” the poem suggests that all persons are equal in the sight of God and that readers have two more reasons to treat others well: God expects them to do so, and someday they will face God’s judgment.
The poem repeatedly suggests that moral behavior is not especially demanding: it doesn’t cost much to bring a bit of cheer into another person’s day. Thus readers should feel even more obliged to show concern for others, since doing so costs them very little. Yet the final line catches us a bit by surprise. If (the speaker says) we fail to treat others well during the course of a day, then we should “count that day as worse than lost” (line 16).
Both the poem’s title, “Count That Day Lost,” and its highly symmetrical structure had led us to expect that it might end with the identical phrase used in the title, thus giving the work a final effect of complete balance. Therefore the inclusion of the word worse (“Count that day worse than lost”) comes as a slight shock. It briefly but noticeably subverts the symmetry that the speaker has thus far constructed. Why, we wonder, is a day lacking in charitable behavior not simply “lost” but “worse than lost”?
Various possibilities present themselves. Does “worse than lost” imply that the failure to be kind is especially blameworthy? Does that phrase suggest that a lack of kindness should particularly trouble one’s personal conscience, especially when kindness is so easy? Or does the phrase perhaps even suggest that ultimately the failure to be kind will be judged by God? Whatever the case, the shift from the expected “count that day lost” to the unexpected “count that day worse than lost” makes the final line especially memorable and emphatic.