Punctuality by Lewis Carroll expresses the importance of being “punctual” and showing respect enough for endeavors to treat them with promptness. Through “time”-based ideas and the figurative notion of “a flower” blossoming, Carroll has managed to craft a work that expresses reliability and possibility that can be achieved by taking appointments seriously. This, in the end, is the theme of the poem, expressed in the “Moral” section: that “punctuality” can lead to “better” opportunities and relationships in a number of areas of life.
First and Second Stanza
Man naturally loves delay,
And to procrastinate;
Business put off from day to day
Is always done too late.
Let every hour be in its place
Firm fixed, nor loosely shift,
And well enjoy the vacant space,
As though a birthday gift.
The first stanza of this poem sets the stage for the issue that the rest of the poem will comment on: “punctuality.” Specifically, Carroll details that a person “naturally loves delay” and will “procrastinate” so that everything is “done too late.” These statements make it clear that “punctuality” itself is lacking, to the author, in the general population. There is nothing abnormal about this flaw, as it is something that comes “naturally,” and it is an element of life that is treasured enough to be “love[d].” It does, however, come with a strict complication in that “[b]usiness put off from day to day [i]s always done too late.” The consequence, then, of this “[be]love[d]” and “natural” fault is that everything is completed behind schedule, which speaks to a level of chaos and disorganization.
The second stanza dives into how this flaw can be resolved if we put “every hour in its place.” To do this, “every hour” should be “[f]irm fixed” so that it does not “loosely shift.” That the “f” sound is repeated in “[f]irm fixed” showcases the rigidity with which Carroll believes the process should be undertaken. Just as the alliteration keeps the reader from straying too far in regard to sound, a person should keep to their schedule without straying from it so that things are not “done too late.” The use of “[f]irm” solidifies this concept since the very definition of the word is to be rigid and strong. Essentially, this structure in this handful of words is perfect for expressing how tightly one person should hold to their schedule, as well as how rigid the schedule itself should be.
As harsh as this might sound—as if “every hour” needs to be designated to a specific thing—Carroll allows “time” for a more relaxed concept, but only “the vacant space” that is left over after scheduled activities have been catered to. This “time” should be treated as enjoyable, like a treat or “a birthday gift.” This speaks to the level of rarity of such a “time,” since “a birthday” only comes once a year, as well as the level of personal enjoyment that can come from it. A person’s “birthday,” after all, is a day centered around them. Likewise, this “time” in the “hour[s]” that are “vacant” of scheduled activities can be “time” that is connected to a person’s specific enjoyment and preferences. Once more then, Carroll has chosen the right wording to portray his ideas, and the reader can leave this stanza with the knowledge that scheduled activities should be tended to “[f]irm[ly]” so that “the vacant space” of “hour[s]” can be their treat, or “gift,” to enjoy as a reward for waiting for them to “arrive,” like “a birthday.”
Third and Fourth Stanza
And when the hour arrives, be there,
Where’er that “there” may be;
Uncleanly hands or ruffled hair
Let no one ever see.
If dinner at “half-past” be placed,
At “half-past” then be dressed.
If at a “quarter-past” make haste
To be down with the rest
These two stanzas are a continuation of the instruction provided as a method to be more “time” sensitive. For this section, Carroll tells the reader to “be there” “when the hour arrives” in a state of organization and tidiness. This is the substance of Stanza Three where he advises the reader to “[l]et no one ever see” “[u]ncleanly hands or ruffled hair,” meaning that the attendant of any particular activity should not only delegate “time” to the activity itself, but also to preparing for said event to appear put-together. This concept clearly takes more “time,” which increases the rareness of “the vacant space[s]” where relaxation and personal “time” can happen.
Despite this detail, however, Carroll does not shy away from the topic at all, and goes on in Stanza Four to offer “If” situations regarding when a person would need to “arrive” at a certain “place.” Regardless of the “time” expected, Carroll insists the reader “be dressed” and “make haste” to be present and “punctual.” One interesting thing about the delivery of this fourth stanza, though, is that the “time[s]” offered are provided in quotation marks. This indicates that they are designated to the person, which reinforces the responsibility to be present. The “time” of “arriv[al]” is mandated, so the person needs to be sure to not disappoint.
It becomes apparent, as well, that the rhyme scheme of ABAB has provided the same dependency of structure that Carroll wishes the reader to utilize. Just as a person should be present when they are expected, the rhyme scheme maintains a strong dependency of a B line coming after an A one, and back to B again—from beginning to end.
Fifth and Sixth Stanza
Better to be before your time,
Than e’re to be behind;
To open the door while strikes the chime,
That shows a punctual mind.
Let punctuality and care
Seize every flitting hour,
So shalt thou cull a floweret fair,
E’en from a fading flower
Stanza Five presses the matter even further by saying that being on “time” can be improved by being early for events and activities. This is represented in the first two lines of that particular stanza when Carroll notes that it is “[b]etter to be before your time, [t]han e’re to be behind,” essentially telling the reader that if a person has to choose between the two, “arriv[ing]” early is “[b]etter” than late. After that passive mention of a new level of instruction, however, Carroll returns to the idea of being expressly on “time” by stating that “open[ing] the door while strikes the chime” “shows a punctual mind.” In this, the reader can infer that being early is a recommendation of preference, but that the important matter still remains to be “punctual” or on “time.”
The final stanza states that with this kind of “punctuality and care,” “every flitting hour” could make a “floweret fair” of “a fading flower.” This is where the poem’s word choice steps away from the common use of ideas that relate to “time”—words like “flitting hour,” “strikes the chime,” and “quarter-past”—to go into something more creative. As it happens, “time” is rigid and ongoing. “[A] flower,” however, changes with seasons and can come in a variety of shapes and colors to create something beautiful. It seems, then, that Carroll has depicted a scenario where “punctuality” can lead to something lively and lovely. This can be used to represent relationships and opportunities that were “fading” because of the ill “time” treatment they received, like job interviews to which a person “arrive[d]” late, family obligations that a person missed, etc.
This a primary theme of the poem: that if a person’s approach changes to be “punctual,” professional and personal relationships can blossom like “a flower” into things that are stronger because of the respect shown in “punctuality.”
About Lewis Carroll
Best known for his stories about his famous character, Alice, Lewis Carroll was born in 1832 as Charles Dodgson. His fame extended outside of writing to reach into the realm of mathematics. He had ten siblings and was involved with the magazine, Mischmasch before passing away in 1898.