W. H. Davies
aka William Henry Davies (1871-1940)
The following introduction has been generously provided by Tom Merrill:
For this installment of "Blasts from the Past," I decided to select another poet from the early part of
the last century, this time one with an unusual background compared to that of
the other poets so far exhibited in this category. For one thing, his family,
unlike that of many of the poets who rose to prominence in that era, was
poor. For another, he didn’t go to college, and in fact leaned more
toward waywardness, so much so that he got tossed out of school at an early
age for having organized a little gang of school acquaintances for the purpose
of robbing local businesses. Not long after his unceremonious dismissal from
the domain of formal education, he met a woman who led him into reading some
of the great Elizabethan and Romantic poets, and he even began writing some
poetry of his own. But shortly thereafter she died, and with her demise his
brief early flirtation with literature ended.
Consistent with this somewhat atypical background, he struck out on his own
and sailed for America from England in his early twenties, where shortly after
his arrival he met a professional vagrant in a park who invited him to
accompany him on his travels, and through whom he got introduced to the life
of hobos and beggars. Adopting their lifestyle, he lived for quite some
time in a way not commonly considered too respectable. After a number of
years of rootless wandering—something between a tramp's existence and an
itinerant laborer's—he decided, in 1901, to head for the Klondike, where it
was rumored there was much easy gold to be found. But in jumping a train on
his journey to the promised riches, he fell off and his foot was severed and
lost under the train’s wheels. That event marked the official end of his
career as a hobo.
Not long thereafter, aware that he would need to find some means of
self-support, he returned to England with the intent of writing poetry again.
Fairly quickly he managed to produce a few books, including a blank verse
drama, a long poem about animals and a long sonnet sequence, but was unable to
find an interested publisher. For a while he tried selling shoelaces, pins
and needles as a traveling salesman in the hope of raising enough money to
publish these works himself, but unsuccessful at that, he had to secure an
advance on a small income he had from his grandmother’s estate. With this
advance, 19 pounds, he published 250 copies of one of his works, The Soul’s Destroyer and Other Poems,
and then sent out copies to various literati with a request either to
purchase or return it. One of those who received a copy was Bernard Shaw, who
recognized the value of the work and found a couple friendly critics to join
him in bringing it to the public's attention—this lucky event having occurred
between 1905 and 1907.
Interest in his work thus aroused, he felt sufficiently motivated to produce a
series of books in rather quick succession, including twenty additional
collections of poetry. He also produced several prose works during the same
period, the most noted of which is The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp (1908).
W. H. (William Henry) Davies is a poet whose work always has struck me as
particularly appealing. His life and his outlook are reflected in many of his
poems—his rejection of the dreary workaday life most resign themselves to,
his evident dream of being able to live without having to be harnessed to some
disagreeable yoke. He seems to have accomplished his goal of eluding this
common fate—if at the expense of a foot, which could as easily have been lost
in a factory—having by-passed both school and a common career and then
finally, not long after his first poetry collection was published, having been
granted a Civil List Pension, which twice was increased and which enabled him to
get by and keep writing without particular financial concern. In 1921 he
became a magazine editor, went on to compile a couple of anthologies, and
eventually, in 1926, the former hobo was even awarded an honorary doctor of
letters degree by his birthplace's most distinguished institution of higher
learning, the University of Wales. At age 53, he married a young prostitute, whom he
writes about in his book Young Emma, and maybe at last, for
a while anyway, had the sort of life he envisioned in his poem "Truly Great."
AS I walked down the waterside
This silent morning, wet and dark;
Before the cocks in farmyards crowed,
Before the dogs began to bark;
Before the hour of five was struck
By old Westminster's mighty clock:
As I walked down the waterside
This morning, in the cold damp air,
I saw a hundred women and men
Huddled in rags and sleeping there:
These people have no work, thought I,
And long before their time they die.
That moment, on the waterside,
A lighted car came at a bound;
I looked inside, and saw a score
Of pale and weary men that frowned;
Each man sat in a huddled heap,
Carried to work while fast asleep.
Ten cars rushed down the waterside
Like lighted coffins in the dark;
With twenty dead men in each car,
That must be brought alive by work:
These people work too hard, thought I,
And long before their time they die.
HERE'S an example from
That on a rough, hard rock
Happy can lie;
Friendless and all alone
On this unsweetened stone.
Now let my bed be hard
No care take I;
I'll make my joy like this
Whose happy heart has power
To make a stone a flower.
MY walls outside must have some flowers,
My walls within must have some books;
A house that's small; a garden large,
And in it leafy nooks.
A little gold that's sure each week;
That comes not from my living kind,
But from a dead man in his grave,
Who cannot change his mind.
A lovely wife, and gentle too;
Contented that no eyes but mine
Can see her many charms, nor voice
To call her beauty fine.
Where she would in that stone cage live,
A self-made prisoner, with me;
While many a wild bird sang around,
On gate, on bush, on tree.
And she sometimes to answer them,
In her far sweeter voice than all;
Till birds, that loved to look on leaves,
Will doat on a stone wall.
With this small house, this garden large,
This little gold, this lovely mate,
With health in body, peace in heart—
Show me a man more great.
WHAT is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty's glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
When I was once in Baltimore,
A man came up to me and cried,
"Come, I have eighteen hundred sheep,
And we will sail on Tuesday's tide.
"If you will sail with me, young man,
I'll pay you fifty shillings down;
These eighteen hundred sheep I take
From Baltimore to Glasgow town."
He paid me fifty shillings down,
I sailed with eighteen hundred sheep;
We soon had cleared the harbor's mouth,
We soon were in the salt sea deep.
The first night we were out at sea
Those sheep were quiet in their mind;
The second night they cried with fear—
They smelt no pastures in the wind.
They sniffed, poor things, for their green fields,
They cried so loud I could not sleep:
For fifty thousand shillings down
I would not sail again with sheep.
It is the bell of death I hear,
Which tells me my own time is near,
When I must join those quiet souls
Where nothing lives but worms and moles;
And not come through the grass again,
Like worms and moles, for breath or rain;
Yet let none weep when my life's through,
For I myself have wept for few.
The only things that knew me well
Were children, dogs, and girls that fell;
I bought poor children cakes and sweets,
Dogs heard my voice and danced the streets;
And, gentle to a fallen lass,
I made her weep for what she was.
Good men and women know not me,
Nor love nor hate the mystery.
The Worms' Contempt
What do we earn for all our gentle grace?
A body stiff and cold from foot to face.
If you have beauty, what is beauty worth?
A mask to hide it, made of common earth.
What do we get for all our song and prattle?
A gasp for longer breath, and then a rattle.
What do we earn for dreams, and our high teaching?
The worms' contempt, that have no time for preaching.
Stung by a spiteful wasp,
I let him go life free:
That proved the difference
In him and me.
For, had I killed my foe,
It had proved me at once
The stronger wasp, and no
Is it not fine to walk in spring,
When leaves are born, and hear birds sing?
And when they lose their singing powers,
In summer, watch the bees at flowers?
Is it not fine, when summer's past,
To have the leaves, no longer fast,
Biting my heel where'er I go,
Or dancing lightly on my toe?
Now winter's here and rivers freeze;
As I walk out I see the trees,
Wherein the pretty squirrels sleep,
All standing in the snow so deep:
And every twig, however small,
Is blossomed white and beautiful.
Then welcome, winter, with thy power
To make this tree a big white flower;
To make this tree a lovely sight,
With fifty brown arms draped in white,
While thousands of small fingers show
In soft white gloves of purest snow.
In the Country
This life is sweetest; in this wood
I hear no children cry for food;
I see no woman white with care,
No man with muscles wasting there.
No doubt it is a selfish thing
To fly from human suffering;
No doubt he is a selfish man,
Who shuns poor creatures sad and wan.
But 'tis a wretched life to face
Hunger in almost every place;
Cursed with a hand that's empty, when
The heart is full to help all men.
Can I admire the statue great,
When living men starve at its feet!
Can I admire the park's green tree,
A roof for homeless misery!
When I can see few men in need,
I then have power to help by deed,
Nor lose my cheerfulness in pity—
Which I must do in every city.
For when I am in those great places,
I see ten thousand suffering faces;
Before me stares a wolfish eye,
Behind me creeps a groan or sigh.
It was the Rainbow gave thee birth,
And left thee all her lovely hues;
And, as her mother's name was Tears,
So runs it in my blood to choose
For haunts the lonely pools, and keep
In company with trees that weep.
Go you and, with such glorious hues,
Live with proud peacocks in green parks;
On lawns as smooth as shining glass,
Let every feather show its marks;
Get thee on boughs and clap thy wings
Before the windows of proud kings.
Nay, lovely Bird, thou art not vain;
Thou hast no proud, ambitious mind;
I also love a quiet place
That's green, away from all mankind;
A lonely pool, and let a tree
Sigh with her bosom over me.