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What is this life?

21 August 2004

12:00 AM

21 August 2004

12:00 AM

Time to Stand and Stare Barbara Hooper

Peter Owen, pp.202, 15.95

W. H. Davies was a phenomenon of whom, it seems, few nowadays have heard. His lines, ‘What is this life if, full of care,/ We have no time to stand and stare?’ were quoted with approval in the local pub the other day, but nobody knew who wrote them. In 1996 that poem, ‘Leisure’, was voted 14th most popular in the English language, ahead of Marvell and Blake.

Davies was indeed a phenomenon because, for at least ten years of his life, he was a non-writing, non-reading tramp. Not a ‘hobo’, who looks around for casual labour, not a slumming would-be author in search of copy, but a genuine, non-diary-keeping, begging-his-way tramp, in England, the United States and Canada, keeping company with the likes of Three-Fingered Jack and Detroit Fatty, sleeping in doss-houses when he could and in the open air (or in jail) when he couldn’t. He certainly gave himself plenty of non-working leisure, but whether he had much time to stare is doubtful. He seemed to be constantly, compulsively on the move. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand how short of glamour such a life is. It must have been horrible, and no one has been able to figure out why, alert and ambitious as he was, he lived it for so long.

He was born in Newport in 1871; his father died young, his mother married again and he was brought up by his ex- seafaring grandfather. While he was still at school he was birched for shoplifting, and seems not to have minded. Then came five years’ apprenticeship with a picture-frame carver, and he minded that. It was too long. In 1893 he worked his passage on a cattle boat to the USA and ‘took to the road’.

Ten years later he returned, to London, and in a Southwark doss-house (called ‘The Farmhouse’ — a name which charmed his first readers) sat down to write poems, remarkably few of which concerned his tramping experience: ‘Lines to a Sparrow’, ‘Spring’, ‘The Cuckoo’, were the sort of thing. On the way to the Yukon gold-rush, he lost a leg jumping train without a ticket; in the poems he mentions neither the Yukon nor his missing leg. He paid (from a tiny legacy) for 40 poems to be printed in a gloomy book called The Soul’s Destroyer and sent them out to people taken from Who’s Who. He asked for two and sixpence or the return of the book to ‘The Farmhouse’. The tradesmanlike practicality of this offer appealed to George Bernard Shaw, who bought eight copies. The Daily Mail took him up: ‘A Cripple Poet … curious Life History’. Edward Thomas befriended him, publicly praised him, asked him to stay. Soon he was invited by the Sitwells; bust by Epstein, portrait by Augustus John: a phenomenon. His new friends encouraged him to write his story, Shaw (Man and Superman) suggested his title, Autobiography of a Supertramp and wrote a long enthusiastic preface. It sold 40,000 straightaway. What is most remarkable about that book, apart from some tall stories, is Davies’s apparent indifference to hardship, almost as though he didn’t notice it. (Sitting on the railtrack minus a foot, he astonished onlookers by lighting his pipe.)

Of course, among some of the literary lions, he was a five-foot high, one-legged, Welsh-accented curiosity. Streetwise — roadwise — Davies knew this but enjoyed his fame as his due. Like all autodidacts he considered his self-found talent unique. Robert Frost found his conceit ‘asinine’, Rupert Brooke thought him a talkative bore, and D. H. Lawrence, having invited him to Italy — ‘He feels so nice in all his work’ — changed his opinion: ‘I think one ought to be downright cruel to him … Davies, your work is getting like Birmingham tinware.’ (Davies never went to Italy.) His biographer gently remarks — her book is clear and fair — ‘He probably would have found himself out of his depth with the Lawrences.’ Indeed. What is impressive is how faithful many of his smart friends remained: Sickert, Edward Marsh, the Sitwells. Marsh fixed him a Civil List pension. In 1922, aged 51, he married a woman he picked up in the street, half his age, and lived happily ever after, until his death in 1940; a phenomenon to the end.

As few seem to know of him now, it is fair to end with an example of his verse: typically pretty, but with just that hint of violence he must have witnessed, and stayed alert to, during his tramping days. ‘The Villain’:

While joy gave clouds the light of stars,
That beamed where’er they looked;
And calves and lambs had tottering knees,
Excited, while they sucked;
While every bird enjoyed his song,
Without one thought of harm or wrong —
I turned my head and saw the wind,
Not far from where I stood,
Dragging the corn by her golden hair,
Into a dark and lonely wood.

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