Poetry is not widely read in the English-speaking world these days. Some claim it never was, although they always except Byron (young women queued around the block when Don Juan was published) and Tennyson (Queen Victoria, no culture vulture she, kept a copy of In Memoriam by her bed). I'm not so sure, and though it can't be proved statistically perhaps it can be anecdotally.
W. H. Davies was born in 1871, in Newport in what was then Monmouthshire and is now Gwent. He was brought up by his grandparents, who kept a pub near the docks, and left school at fourteen. For six years in the 1890s he was a hobo in the United States, occasionally working as a labourer and fruit picker, riding the rods in summer, wintering in Baltimore. In 1894 he returned briefly to Britain by working his passage in a cattle boat. He wrote two poems about his experience. One is called "Sheep."
When I was once in Baltimore,
A man came up to me and cried,
'Come, I have eighteen hundred sheep,
And we 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.'
The next three verses tell of the voyage, and of the poet's pity for the sheep bleating in fear of the sea. It ends:
They cried so loud I could not sleep:
For fifty thousand shillings down
I would not sail again with sheep.
The poem was published in 1911, fifteen years after the voyage, in Davies's fifth book of poetry, Songs of Joy and Others . Some time in the next thirty years it seems to have left the printed page and become part of popular oral culture, not only passed on by word of mouth but changed in the process like a folk song. I first heard the changed verses at the family tea table in the 1940s.
I met a man in Baltimore
With forty thousand sheep and more.
He offered me a hundred pound
To go with those sheep to Glasgow town.
Unfortunately, I don't remember the other verses (I think there were three altogether) but they followed the original story of pity and upset. In passing through the oral tradition the verse has been tightened up and, I think, improved. It is more direct and incisive now, carrying more of a punch. More to the point, however, can it be argued from this that poetry then mattered so much it was memorised and quoted by all and sundry and passed on verbally? In other words, poetry was part of the common culture?
W H Davies was popular from the beginning; he wrote with great simplicity about the countryside and the poor and dispossessed. In the same volume as "Sheep" he also published Leisure, which everybody knew and quoted:
What is this life, if full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?
In 1899, he again left for North America, this time to join the gold rush in the Klondike. He got no farther than Ontario in Canada where his right foot was severed when he fell off a train. He was taken to the station waiting room, calmly smoking his pipe until a doctor came. Two months later he was back in England, his leg having been amputated above the knee. Next year in London he privately printed a few poems on a sheet of paper and tried to sell copies door to door. It didn't work. He set up as a pedlar, but failed at that. (In his youth in the 1880s he'd been apprenticed to a picture-frame maker and gilder but read too much, too much of the time, to be good at it.) In 1904 he scraped together nineteen pounds to pay Watts & Co to print a book of poetry: The Soul's Destroyer and Other Poems. He never looked back. Both Arthur Symons and George Bernard Shaw sent him money to print more copies. Shaw also encouraged him to write up his experiences as a hobo and even suggested the title: The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp. Mrs Shaw helped defray the printing costs and G B wrote the Preface, in 1908.
Davies's success was astonishing; for the rest of his life he knew, and was even friends with, all the leading literary and artistic figures in London; as early as 1911, for example, the Prime Minister (Asquith), Edward Thomas, and Edward Garnett petitioned the King to grant him a Civil List pension. He was given fifty (later a hundred) pounds a year. By 1916 he knew most of the sculptors and painters in London and began collecting portraits of himself. He knew Gaudier-Brzeska (Ezra Pound's friend) and Jacob Epstein. He also knew Augustus John and Sickert. Reading his poetry aloud to paying audiences as part of the war effort introduced him to fashionable high society including Lady Cunard (of the steam ship company) and Lady Churchill.
It made no difference to the essentially simple Davies. He married a country girl, thirty years his junior. They lived outside London, constantly and restlessly moving. Even when they settled finally in a Cotswold village in Gloucestershire they moved house four times. All this while he wrote poetry (seven hundred poems in at least twenty-five volumes), always on his themes of the countryside and the poor, as well as an autobiography in three volumes (one so graphic he had to re-write it).
Edward Thomas — the nature writer whom Robert Frost encouraged to become a poet — was his special friend and when Thomas was killed in 1917 he wrote a moving poem in his memory, but which also sums up Davies's own gentleness of character. It's called "Killed in Action."
Happy the man whose home is still
In Nature's green and peaceful ways;
To wake and hear the birds so loud,
That scream for joy to see the sun
Is shouldering past a sullen cloud.
And we have known those days, when we
Would wait to hear the cuckoo first;
When you and I, with thoughtful mind,
Would help a bird to hide her nest,
For fear of other hands less kind.
But thou, my friend, art lying dead:
War, with its hell-born childishness,
Has claimed thy life, with many more;
The man that loved this England well,
And never left it once before.
Ezra Pound, the miglior fabbro who pruned Eliot's The Waste Land to its present size, praised his work in spite of the sometimes archaic thee and thou diction. But soon there were two kinds of reader: the young university Modernist followers of Eliot and the unreconstructed others. W H Davies died in 1940, the second year of World War II. I became aware of the folk-version of his poem about the voyage from Baltimore three or four years later. But the most vivid image must be of his sitting in the railway station at Renfrew, Ontario, calmly smoking his pipe with true Victorian grit as a crowd gathered to stare at him. He'd never have struck gold in Alaska, any way. For a man born in Wales, he was a very English poet.
Davies, W H.The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp. Fifield. London, 1908 Also: Kessinger Publishing. Montana, 2003.
Davies, W H. Selected Poems. Oxford University Press. Oxford, 1985.
Last modified 3 June 2007