On Being Idle by Jerome K. Jerome –Explanation

 On Being Idle    

Now, this is a subject on which I flatter myself I really am au fait. The gentleman who, when I was young, bathed me at wisdom’s font for nine guineas a term—no extras—used to say he never knew a boy who could do less work in more time; and I remember my poor grandmother once incidentally observing, in the course of an instruction upon the use of the Prayer-book, that it was highly improbable that I should ever do much that I ought not to do, but that she felt convinced beyond a doubt that I should leave undone pretty well everything that I ought to do.

Explanation .. The author claims he is an expert on the subject he is going to deal with. (‘Au fiat’ means ‘expert’.) The church man, who gave the author the customary bath to impart him all the wisdom, implied that the author, perhaps, was perhaps reluctant to work hard. The author’s grandmother was of similar view. She felt that the author, as a boy, was possibly not a very active chap. He would rather leave some allotted work undone, rather than do more work than what was assigned to him.

I am afraid I have somewhat belied half the dear old lady’s prophecy. Heaven help me! I have done a good many things that I ought not to have done, in spite of my laziness. But I have fully confirmed the accuracy of her judgment so far as neglecting much that I ought not to have neglected is concerned. Idling always has been my strong point. I take no credit to myself in the matter—it is a gift. Few possess it. There are plenty of lazy people and plenty of slow-coaches, but a genuine idler is a rarity. He is not a man who slouches about with his hands in his pockets. On the contrary, his most startling characteristic is that he is always intensely busy.

Explanation .. The author says rather god-humouredly that he has proven his grandmother wrong partially, at least. In the past, he has done certain works that were not assigned to him. He overcame his laziness to do the additional work. The grandmother has not been proved entirely wrong, though.  This is because the author has neglected so many tasks that he should not have left undone. In this respect, the grandmother is right. The author proceeds to admit that he loves idling, even though, he knows it is not right. He says that lazy and slow people abound in this world, but chronically idle people are really rare. He says a genuinely idle man doesn’t move around with his hands in his pocket, but is always ‘intensely busy’.

It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do. There is no fun in doing nothing when you have nothing to do. Wasting time is merely an occupation then, and a most exhausting one. Idleness, like kisses, to be sweet must be stolen.

Explanation .. One can enjoy idling, only when there is a big pile-up of works to do. When there is no task pending, idling gives no satisfaction. Whiling away time becomes inevitable, and killing time proves to be thoroughly tiring one. Idleness, when indulged in the sly becomes exciting like a stolen kiss.

Many years ago, when I was a young man, I was taken very ill—I never could see myself that much was the matter with me, except that I had a beastly cold. But I suppose it was something very serious, for the doctor said that I ought to have come to him a month before, and that if it (whatever it was) had gone on for another week he would not have answered for the consequences. It is an extraordinary thing, but I never knew a doctor called into any case yet but what it transpired that another day’s delay would have rendered cure hopeless. Our medical guide, philosopher, and friend is like the hero in a melodrama—he always comes upon the scene just, and only just, in the nick of time. It is Providence, that is what it is.

Explanation .. The author had fallen sick once in his childhood, but he never knew that the ailment was serious. He thought he had a very bad cold. The doctor reproached him saying that he should have seen him at least a month ago. He had added that one more week’s delay could have resulted in very serious trouble. The author surmises that the doctors come in, always, in the last moment. It is a strange thing.

Well, as I was saying, I was very ill and was ordered to Buxton for a month, with strict injunctions to do nothing whatever all the while that I was there. “Rest is what you require,” said the doctor, “perfect rest.”

Explanation .. The author had to move to Buxton for a month, and have full bed rest. The doctor was quite emphatic about the rest.

It seemed a delightful prospect. “This man evidently understands my complaint,” said I, and I pictured to myself a glorious time—a four weeks’ dolce far niente with a dash of illness in it. Not too much illness, but just illness enough—just sufficient to give it the flavor of suffering and make it poetical. I should get up late, sip chocolate, and have my breakfast in slippers and a dressing-gown. I should lie out in the garden in a hammock and read sentimental novels with a melancholy ending, until the books should fall from my listless hand, and I should recline there, dreamily gazing into the deep blue of the firmament, watching the fleecy clouds floating like white-sailed ships across its depths, and listening to the joyous song of the birds and the low rustling of the trees. Or, on becoming too weak to go out of doors, I should sit propped up with pillows at the open window of the ground-floor front, and look wasted and interesting, so that all the pretty girls would sigh as they passed by.

Explanation .. The author was very delighted by the doctor’s advice. The physician seemed to have understood his sickness really well. The author didn’t mind suffering some sort of mild sickness so long as it gave him pleasant mild idleness (dolce far niente). Without anybody frowning on him, he could get up late, sip chocolate, and have my breakfast in slippers and a dressing-gown. It let him have the freedom to lie on a hammock in the garden and read a book leisurely till he fell asleep. He could gaze at the blue sky where clouds swum slowly. He could look at the distant ocean and see the ships with their sails going by. He could enjoy the chirping of the birds and the rustling of the leaves. If he became too weak, he could sit on the bed with pillows on both sides. He could then peer at the pretty girls passing by on the other side of the window.

And twice a day I should go down in a Bath chair to the Colonnade to drink the waters. Oh, those waters! I knew nothing about them then, and was rather taken with the idea. “Drinking the waters” sounded fashionable and Queen Anne-fied, and I thought I should like them. But, ugh! after the first three or four mornings! Sam Weller’s description of them as “having a taste of warm flat-irons” conveys only a faint idea of their hideous nauseousness. If anything could make a sick man get well quickly, it would be the knowledge that he must drink a glassful of them every day until he was recovered. I drank them neat for six consecutive days, and they nearly killed me; but after then I adopted the plan of taking a stiff glass of brandy-and-water immediately on the top of them, and found much relief thereby. I have been informed since, by various eminent medical gentlemen, that the alcohol must have entirely counteracted the effects of the chalybeate properties contained in the water. I am glad I was lucky enough to hit upon the right thing.

Explanation … They would cart him away on a bath chair to the Colomnade to enjoy the feel and taste of the waters.  But, the water was described by others to have an unpleasant taste. So, he didn’t quite relish the idea. He drank the water for six days consecutively, but couldn’t take it anymore. To overcome the after taste of the mineral water, he took some bandy mixed with water to overcome the unpleasant feeling. Later, he got to know from other doctors that alcohol destroys the curative powers of the mineral water. He felt relieved because he drank the brandy!

And twice a day I should go down in a Bath chair to the Colonnade to drink the waters. Oh, those waters! I knew nothing about them then, and was rather taken with the idea. “Drinking the waters” sounded fashionable and Queen Anne-fied, and I thought I should like them. But, ugh! after the first three or four mornings! Sam Weller’s description of them as “having a taste of warm flat-irons” conveys only a faint idea of their hideous nauseousness. If anything could make a sick man get well quickly, it would be the knowledge that he must drink a glassful of them every day until he was recovered. I drank them neat for six consecutive days, and they nearly killed me; but after then I adopted the plan of taking a stiff glass of brandy-and-water immediately on the top of them, and found much relief thereby. I have been informed since, by various eminent medical gentlemen, that the alcohol must have entirely counteracted the effects of the chalybeate properties contained in the water. I am glad I was lucky enough to hit upon the right thing.

But “drinking the waters” was only a small portion of the torture I experienced during that memorable month—a month which was, without exception, the most miserable I have ever spent. During the best part of it I religiously followed the doctor’s mandate and did nothing whatever, except moon about the house and garden and go out for two hours a day in a Bath chair. That did break the monotony to a certain extent. There is more excitement about Bath-chairing—especially if you are not used to the exhilarating exercise—than might appear to the casual observer. A sense of danger, such as a mere outsider might not understand, is ever present to the mind of the occupant. He feels convinced every minute that the whole concern is going over, a conviction which becomes especially lively whenever a ditch or a stretch of newly macadamized road comes in sight. Every vehicle that passes he expects is going to run into him; and he never finds himself ascending or descending a hill without immediately beginning to speculate upon his chances, supposing—as seems extremely probable—that the weak-kneed controller of his destiny should let go.

Explanation .. The author’s one-month period of drinking the medicinal water was quite unbearable. He used to just walk around the room and the garden to while away his time. During the day, the nursing staff put him on a bath-chair and took him out for two hours. Sitting on the chair and being carted away was a deeply unsettling time for him. The bumps and the shaking of the chair really horrified him. He felt disoriented and lost as the bath-chair was pushed around with him sitting on it.

But even this diversion failed to enliven after awhile, and the ennui became perfectly unbearable. I felt my mind giving way under it. It is not a strong mind, and I thought it would be unwise to tax it too far. So somewhere about the twentieth morning I got up early, had a good breakfast, and walked straight off to Hayfield, at the foot of the Kinder Scout—a pleasant, busy little town, reached through a lovely valley, and with two sweetly pretty women in it. At least they were sweetly pretty then; one passed me on the bridge and, I think, smiled; and the other was standing at an open door, making an unremunerative investment of kisses upon a red-faced baby. But it is years ago, and I dare say they have both grown stout and snappish since that time. Coming back, I saw an old man breaking stones, and it roused such strong longing in me to use my arms that I offered him a drink to let me take his place. He was a kindly old man and he humored me. I went for those stones with the accumulated energy of three weeks, and did more work in half an hour than he had done all day. But it did not make him jealous.

Explanation ..Soon, the ordeal of having to sit on the bath chair and wheeled away caused too much enmui (listlessness) in him to bear. He decided to flee. On the twentieth morning, he got up, had his breakfast, and walked away from the Hayfield facility. He never looked back. On the way, he saw a beautiful maid on the bridge, and later, a young mother generously kissing her child. The author felt good. Then, he came across an old man busy braking stones, for a living. The author had regained much of his strength by then. His muscles were itching for some work. He offered a bottle of wine to the old man to make him agree to take a break from his work, so that the author could substitute for him in the stone breaking work. The old man was too happy to oblige. The author started his work. In half an hour he could produce as much stone pieces as the old man did in a whole day.


Having taken the plunge, I went further and further into dissipation, going out for a long walk every morning and listening to the band in the pavilion every evening. But the days still passed slowly notwithstanding, and I was heartily glad when the last one came and I was being whirled away from gouty, consumptive Buxton to London with its stern work and life. I looked out of the carriage as we rushed through Hendon in the evening. The lurid glare overhanging the mighty city seemed to warm my heart, and when, later on, my cab rattled out of St. Pancras’ station, the old familiar roar that came swelling up around me sounded the sweetest music I had heard for many a long day.

Explanation .. The author continued to wander around in gay abandon, with no cares, nor worries in his mind. The morning was spent in amble around the place. In the evening, he went to listen to the band in the pavilion. The leisure continued, but not for long. The day arrived for him to return to the hectic London from the dull, unpleasant Buxton. It was a pleasant return journey on board a carriage. He passed through Hendon and St. Pancras’ station, enjoying every moment of the trip.

I certainly did not enjoy that month’s idling. I like idling when I ought not to be idling; not when it is the only thing I have to do. That is my pig-headed nature. The time when I like best to stand with my back to the fire, calculating how much I owe, is when my desk is heaped highest with letters that must be answered by the next post. When I like to dawdle longest over my dinner is when I have a heavy evening’s work before me. And if, for some urgent reason, I ought to be up particularly early in the morning, it is then, more than at any other time, that I love to lie an extra half-hour in bed.

Explanation .. Looking back, the author feels the idle month in Buxton was a time well spent. Idling during a time when one should be busy doing some productive work gives the most pleasant feel of the habit. Standing beside the fire in a carefree mood feels better when bills have piled up for payment or letters, needing urgent response have piled up on the table. In the same way, sitting long at the dinner table while there is a big backlog of work to do for the night is actually quite enjoyable. Similarly, the author feels good to lie on the bed late into morning when one has to get up and start early for some urgent assignment is a pleasant feeling.


Ah! how delicious it is to turn over and go to sleep again: “just for five minutes.” Is there any human being, I wonder, besides the hero of a Sunday-school “tale for boys,” who ever gets up willingly? There are some men to whom getting up at the proper time is an utter impossibility. If eight o’clock happens to be the time that they should turn out, then they lie till half-past. If circumstances change and half-past eight becomes early enough for them, then it is nine before they can rise. They are like the statesman of whom it was said that he was always punctually half an hour late. They try all manner of schemes. They buy alarm-clocks (artful contrivances that go off at the wrong time and alarm the wrong people). They tell Sarah Jane to knock at the door and call them, and Sarah Jane does knock at the door and does call them, and they grunt back “awri” and then go comfortably to sleep again. I knew one man who would actually get out and have a cold bath; and even that was of no use, for afterward he would jump into bed again to warm himself.

Explanation … The author wonders if there are people who enjoy getting up in a jerk, without spending few more minutes on the bed unable to shake off the residual sleepiness. There are many who just lie lazily on the bed knowing pretty well that they are overshooting the deadlines of work. They do these things indulgently. Despite having a new alarm clock, or some one to remind them, they discover novel ways to stay in the bed well after the scheduled time. The author knew someone, who would jump on the bed, even after the morning bath.

I think myself that I could keep out of bed all right if I once got out. It is the wrenching away of the head from the pillow that I find so hard, and no amount of over-night determination makes it easier. I say to myself, after having wasted the whole evening, “Well, I won’t do any more work to-night; I’ll get up early to-morrow morning;” and I am thoroughly resolved to do so—then. In the morning, however, I feel less enthusiastic about the idea, and reflect that it would have been much better if I had stopped up last night. And then there is the trouble of dressing, and the more one thinks about that the more one wants to put it off.

Explanation … The author mentions that once he is out of the bed, he can remain active as long as needed, but it is the task of unfettering the head from the pillow that is the most difficult task. Even if he has decided with great solemnity that he would get up in time the next day, he simply can’t break free of his bed. Even sleeping early at night doesn’t enable him to get up in time. So, the exercise of getting up in time is always a non-starter for him. Even, the ritual of dressing up is a monotonous and painful job.

It is a strange thing this bed, this mimic grave, where we stretch our tired limbs and sink away so quietly into the silence and rest. “O bed, O bed, delicious bed, that heaven on earth to the weary head,” as sang poor Hood, you are a kind old nurse to us fretful boys and girls. Clever and foolish, naughty and good, you take us all in your motherly lap and hush our wayward crying. The strong man full of care—the sick man full of pain—the little maiden sobbing for her faithless lover—like children we lay our aching heads on your white bosom, and you gently soothe us off to by-by.

Explanation … The author sings the praise of the humble bed that offers the solace and comfort as nothing else in this world does. The bed does not differentiate, nor does it discriminate against the good and the evil, the pious and the sinner, the rich and the poor etc. Its embrace is all-encompassing, tender, and motherly. Its white bosom makes us sleep and forget all our sadness.

Our trouble is sore indeed when you turn away and will not comfort us. How long the dawn seems coming when we cannot sleep! Oh! those hideous nights when we toss and turn in fever and pain, when we lie, like living men among the dead, staring out into the dark hours that drift so slowly between us and the light. And oh! those still more hideous nights when we sit by another in pain, when the low fire startles us every now and then with a falling cinder, and the tick of the clock seems a hammer beating out the life that we are watching.

Explanation .. When sleep eludes us due to any ailment of our body, or that of the others, we endure insufferable pain. Lying on the bed with eyes wide awake, with the ailment gnawing at us relentlessly is a very harrowing experience indeed. Same way, when we sit beside a sick man as a vigil, we suffer.

But enough of beds and bedrooms. I have kept to them too long, even for an idle fellow. Let us come out and have a smoke. That wastes time just as well and does not look so bad. Tobacco has been a blessing to us idlers. What the civil-service clerk before Sir Walter’s time found to occupy their minds with it is hard to imagine. I attribute the quarrelsome nature of the Middle Ages young men entirely to the want of the soothing weed. They had no work to do and could not smoke, and the consequence was they were forever fighting and rowing. If, by any extraordinary chance, there was no war going, then they got up a deadly family feud with the next-door neighbor, and if, in spite of this, they still had a few spare moments on their hands, they occupied them with discussions as to whose sweetheart was the best looking, the arguments employed on both sides being battle-axes, clubs, etc. Questions of taste were soon decided in those days. When a twelfth-century youth fell in love he did not take three paces backward, gaze into her eyes, and tell her she was too beautiful to live. He said he would step outside and see about it. And if, when he got out, he met a man and broke his head—the other man’s head, I mean—then that proved that his—the first fellow’s—girl was a pretty girl. But if the other fellow broke his head—not his own, you know, but the other fellow’s—the other fellow to the second fellow, that is, because of course the other fellow would only be the other fellow to him, not the first fellow who—well, if he broke his head, then his girl—not the other fellow’s, but the fellow who was the—Look here, if A broke B’s head, then A’s girl was a pretty girl; but if B broke A’s head, then A’s girl wasn’t a pretty girl, but B’s girl was. That was their method of conducting art criticism.

Explanation .. The author feels he has talked about bed and sleep enough. Now, he takes up the emollient effects of smoking. It is a good way of spending time, relieving stress, and enjoying oneself. He assumes that the young men of the Middle East were quarrelsome because they didn’t smoke for their leisure. With nothing to keep them busy, the young men became listless and indulged in petty fratricidal warfare. When that gets over, they pick up feuds with their neighbors. When this also gets over, they sit in groups lazily, and argue about the look of their sweethearts. Invaribly, they used crude tools like clubs and hammers to settle their scores. This is a very wasteful pastime that often leads to bloodshed and corrosive animosity.

Nowadays we light a pipe and let the girls fight it out among themselves.

They do it very well. They are getting to do all our work. They are doctors, and barristers, and artists. They manage theaters, and promote swindles, and edit newspapers. I am looking forward to the time when we men shall have nothing to do but lie in bed till twelve, read two novels a day, have nice little five-o’clock teas all to ourselves, and tax our brains with nothing more trying than discussions upon the latest patterns in trousers and arguments as to what Mr. Jones’ coat was made of and whether it fitted him. It is a glorious prospect—for idle fellows.

Explanation .. Nowadays, the author says good-humouredly that the men folk let the girls fight it out themselves, where s the men just sit around lazily with cigar in hand. The women, now, have drawn level with the men, occupying top positions in society, as doctors, politicians, lawyers, newspaper editors etc. The author feels, this gives an opportunity to the men folk to just lazy round, doing nothing worthwhile. They can read books, lie in bed, and do precious nothing. They could talk about all trivial matters like the design of trousers etc. This will usher the golden age for the fraternity of lazy people.


In the days to come, this post will be edited more than once to improve it qualitatively. Questions and answers will be added also. All readers are welcome to send their comments.


(This essay will be completed gradually. Readers may please bear with us.)

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