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Featured Poem: On A Fly Drinking Out Of His Cup by William Oldys

Written by Rachael Norris, 10th June 2019

This week's Featured Poem is 'On A Fly Drinking Out Of His Cup' by William Oldys, chosen by The Reader's Learning and Quality Leader, Tom Young.

On reading some poems it can be tempting to ‘sum it up’ with a well-worn phrase or cliché.

A couple come to mind when first reading ‘On a fly drinking out of his cup’: Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think! Live every moment to the max!

On a different day it might be: What’s the point?!

But, obviously, in any good poem there are many more interesting thoughts to be had if you can move beyond everyday truisms. A poem can be helpful in giving a new and surprising expression to a thought you might have struggled with before.

This poem actually seems to warn against easy answers: ‘Make the most of life you may, /Life is short and wears away.’

So, putting to one side my gut response of “Yeah! I get it…” I try instead, through rereading, to take the poem on its own terms.

I like the sense of affinity and generosity. Perhaps this act of taking notice and willingness to share (strange as it might appear) water with a fly, is in itself a way to ‘Make the most of life’ – by acknowledging a richness we might usually ignore.

I’m drawn to

‘Thine’s a summer, mine’s no more,
Though repeated to threescore.’

It reminds me not to automatically defer to a colleague because they have, say, forty years more experience: “because it might just be one year of experience, repeated forty times.” It makes me wonder if the feeling of a short life is exaggerated by repetition, and is it therefore bad to always do the same thing? Should I be trying to make this summer, not necessarily fuller, but different to the last?

This thought takes me back to the first line. Is this a good model for human life? I’m halfway to threescore, and perhaps it would be a good ambition to stay ‘busy, curious’ and ‘thirsty’. They seem like good things to be. But the poem doesn’t have to offer answers or solutions of course, and a lot of the power here comes simply from the novel expression of a regret we’ve all felt before – “Is that it? Over already!”

On A Fly Drinking Out Of His Cup

Busy, curious, thirsty fly!
Drink with me and drink as I:
Freely welcome to my cup,
Couldst thou sip and sip it up:
Make the most of life you may,
Life is short and wears away.

Both alike are mine and thine
Hastening quick to their decline:
Thine's a summer, mine's no more,
Though repeated to threescore.
Threescore summers, when they're gone,
Will appear as short as one!

by William Oldys

Would you like the opportunity to read this or other poems in a Shared Reading group?

If you like the idea of listening along to a story or poem, why not come along to a Shared Reading group? We run groups across the UK, you can find one near you here.

If you can’t find a group in your local community, why not help us bring Shared Reading to your area by becoming a volunteer?


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