Text of the Poem

If you sit down at set of sun
And count the acts that you have done,
And, counting, find
One self-denying deed, one word
That eased the heart of him who heard, 
One glance most kind
That fell like sunshine where it went—
Then you may count that day well spent.

But if, through all the livelong day,
You've cheered no heart, by yea or nay—
If, through it all
You've nothing done that you can trace
That brought the sunshine to one face—
No act most small
That helped some soul and nothing cost—
Then count that day as worse than lost.

Footnotes

  1. In most carpe diem poetry, the poet begins with a negative argument about the ephemeral nature of life and beauty, or the negative consequences of not making each day count. They end the poem with a positive argument about what the reader can do to combat these negative aspects of life and seize the day, generally in a manner that benefits the speaker. Notice that in this poem, Eliot reverses the order of her carpe diem argument. She begins with the positive argument—do one good deed every day and your days will be worthwhile. She then ends with the negative argument—if you do not do one good deed, your day is worse than lost. This structure could be a reaction to traditional carpe diem poetry. In ending with the consequences of wasting a day, her poem’s message benefits the reader more than the speaker.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  2. Notice that the sequence of arguments leaves the reader with an ominous warning rather than the call to action. This pattern may suggest that the narrator believes the more effective way to communicate her message is to warn the reader of these consequences. This could also suggest a slightly negative understanding of her reader: she believes they will be more effectively convinced by this ominous threat than the positive call to action.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  3. “Cost” repeats the idea of “self-denying” mentioned in the first stanza. Here, the narrator suggests that the “good deed” must be taxing in some small way. This seems to contradict her claims in the first stanza that the deed is extremely simple and small.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  4. Note here the kind of cause and effect relationship that Eliot describes for doing good. She again takes the reader through the logical steps of benevolence with an “if...then” structure. In other words, if at the end of the day you have “cheered no heart” by any means of the phrase, then you can consider the day “lost.” The stakes of inaction are now much higher.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. “Soul” in this context represents a person. In referring to a person only by this essential spirit, the narrator once again invokes religious connotations within her secular call to action.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  6. Notice that the “good deed” the narrator proposes everyone do is, in fact, incredibly small. She proposes that a “good deed” is simply making another person happy for a moment. In this way, the poem is not about abstract religious virtue but rather about real virtuous conduct towards fellow human beings.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  7. Eliot’s word choice in this last line is interesting because it alters the title in a very noticeable way. From the beginning we know that we are going to read about a day that has been “lost.” Here, Eliot’s warning is more ominous, as the day will be “worse than lost.” If at the end of the day we have not actively helped benefit the lives of others, the day was somehow “bad” or even “evil.”

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  8. Notice the repetition of sun and sunshine throughout this poem. The sun is symbolic for light, goodness, and renewal. It is also a means by which people measure time. The repetition of this image both reminds the audience of the limited time they have to complete their good deeds and the positive connotations of daylight.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  9. The rhyme scheme *AABCCBDD* mimics the cycles of the day in its symmetry. The stanzas begin and end with couplets that bracket an enclosed rhyme—four lines of poetry in which the first and fourth lines, and second and third lines rhyme. This symmetrical repetition of sounds can metaphorically represent the arc of a day: the sun rises, burns for the daylight, then sets.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  10. This stanza begins with an “if” that is resolved in the final line by a “then” statement. In this way, Eliot’s poem creates a rational argument. The poem’s style is plain because it is concerned with logic and the straightforward communication of a moral message, not extravagant artistry.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  11. Unlike many abstract ethical teachings, this poem brings the concept of good deeds into the tangible realm. The use of the term “trace” here reminds us that seemingly insignificant acts of kindness can be measured and evidenced by their very *real* effects on another person. Rather than teaching morality through vague, inaccessible concepts, the poem expresses ideas in the realm of scientific or mathematical logic that can be “trace[d].”

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  12. “Glance,” a verb meaning to take a brief and hurried look, is an action that requires very little effort on the part of the actor. With words like this, the narrator suggests that the “good deed” she wants everyone to perform each day is extremely simple.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  13. Note that Eliot’s kind deeds are action-based rather than philosophical. In many literary works, virtue is perceived as a kind of inclination or natural disposition, meaning that if one is not born with virtue, it may seem difficult to achieve it. This poem puts forth a different kind of virtue, one that is achieved by way of behavior and action, rather than mental predispositions.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  14. Calling for “one self-denying deed” conjures images of a martyr. A martyr is someone who suffers persecution or death by honoring their beliefs; who sacrifices the self for a cause or population larger than oneself. Martyrdom is a common theme in religious stories. The narrator's call for self-denial once again suggests a connection between Eliot’s message and religious themes, and makes more apparent the religious framework on which her argument is built.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  15. Eliot frequently underscores the incredible length of a single “livelong day” throughout the poem. Thus, kindness and goodwill are not only easily enacted, but they “cost” the individual a very small amount of their time in the grand scheme of things. By emphasizing the number of hours in the day, Eliot reminds us that we all have time to help others.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  16. In the Catholic tradition, a parishioner could achieve grace or redemption by reciting a certain number of prayers, spending a certain amount of time in confession, or even purchasing “indulgences” that would buy one’s way out of Purgatory. By using monetary metaphors and language, Eliot’s argument borrows from this theology. She argues that a certain number of good deeds makes a good day in the same way that Catholic theology argues a certain number of prayers or payment creates salvation.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  17. The verb “fell” used in this line, is passive in the way that “glance” in the previous line is. Eliot uses repetition of passive verbs to remind the reader that selfless acts of kindness require very little effort from us. We can make someone’s day with a merely a kind glance in their direction.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  18. Within this line, the “s,” “t,” and “n” consonant sounds repeat. Eliot uses alliteration and other forms of repetition in order to underscore the didactic nature of her poem: the more it repeats the easier it is for the reader to walk away with her message.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  19. When Eliot writes that one need only seek to perform good deeds that have “eased the heart” of another, her allegory moves away from the realm of religion. The good deeds that she is calling on the reader to perform are not abstract or extravagant. A good deed can take the form of a small kind gesture.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  20. Note again the use of monetary wording here. Considering the religious connotations present throughout the poem, the repetition here takes on the quality of a repeated prayer, similar to the practice of praying with a rosary or mantra. Repetitious prayer is used to deeply ingrain a lesson or idea through reiteration. Within this allegorical poem, the narrator repeats words to instill the moral lesson of the poem in the reader.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  21. Throughout the poem, Eliot repeatedly uses monetary language, such as the term “count” in this line and the following. As an allegorical poem, the goal of the work is to teach lessons in an accessible way so that readers can easily grasp the logic behind the moral teachings. The mathematical language further emphasizes the poem’s logical structure.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  22. Notice that Eliot uses the second-person point of view (which directly addresses the reader.) Considering that the poem is allegorical (it is written to relay some kind of moral message) this creates a “call to action” type of tone that will continue for its entirety.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff