“I bore this accident with an outward fortitude that was far from the true state of my feelings. Thinking of my present helplessness caused me many a bitter moment, but I managed to impress all comers with a false indifference … I was soon home again, having been away less than four months; but all the wildness had been taken out of me, and my adventures after this were not of my own seeking, but the result of circumstances.’ ~ W.H Davies, The Autobiography of a Supertramp, 1908
W.H Davies, writer, vagrant, traveller, and perhaps one of the most popular poets to have originated from Wales is possibly better known for authoring, The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp published in 1908 together with the poem Leisure (1911)….
‘What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare…’
Davies spent significant periods of his life as tramp vagrant and hobo both in the UK and America. Central to his poetry were themes exploring and expanding upon his observations of life’s hardships. His deep appreciation and love of Nature was also a major motif and used repeatedly as a backdrop for reflecting upon the human condition. A contemporary and tangible reference for The Autobiography of a Supertramp appears in the film, Into The Wild, (2007) where the lead-character, Christopher McCandless, adopts the name ‘Alexander Supertramp’. Would it be surprising to know that Davies attended The Alexandra Road School (1883 – 1884/5), in Newport, Gwent, Wales prior to commencing his travels. His motivation for travel a life long ambition was keened after being expelled for alleged theft and receiving 12 strokes of the birch….a poem titled ‘Death’ was published in 1885.
The Autobiography of a Supertramp details his travels in America between 1893 and 1899 and brings to life the many characters, situations and circumstances he encountered. During this 6 year period Davies crossed the Atlantic at least seven times, working for his passage aboard cattle ships. Travelling widely Davies crossed many state lines and set about making provision for himself by begging or taking seasonal work when available. It is reputed that Davies would frequently spend what little savings he were able to amass on drinking sprees with fellow travellers. Whilst journeying through the state of Michigan, Davies found opportunity to exploit the corrupt system known as ‘boodle’ – being passed from one jail to another along with other vagrants, where chance for playing cards, singing, smoking, and relating experiences.
After having returned briefly to England, Davies made preparation to leave for Canada believing that wealth and fortune would be gold harvested from the Klondike. Writers suggest that this trip was the turning point in the life of Davies, when attempting to board a train in Renfrew, Ontario (20/03/1899) with a fellow called Three-Fingered Jack he slipped and fell, his leg crushed beneath train wheels. For all intents-and-purposes, the accident forced Davies to abandon his desire for travel and adventure and following surgery (the leg was removed) returned to London where he fashioned a life moving between doss-houses, shelters and hostels. It is widely thought that during this period, Davies began in earnest to develop and establish his poetry, often, or so it is said mentally compiling his poems whilst attempting avoidance of his fellow travellers.
In 1905, he self-published The Soul’s Destroyer with money saved whilst tramping for six months in London. The sacrifice was worth the investment and whilst only 60 of the 200 copies were sold his work came to the attention of Arthur Adcock a journalist writing for the Daily Mail. His reaction upon first reading the book was later to be included in an essay entitled ‘Gods of Modern Grub Street.’ Adcock said that he, ‘recognised that there were crudities and even doggerel in it, there was also in it some of the freshest and most magical poetry to be found in modern books.’ Adcock is credited as the person who discovered Davies. Three editions of The Soul’s Destroyer were published between 1907 and 1910.
In 1907 Davies moved from his home in Llanwern Street, Newport, Wales via London into accommodation provided by Edward Thomas in Egg Pie Lane, Sevenoaks, Kent. Thomas was at that time literary critic for the Daily Chronicle. Thomas encouraged and supported Davies in his work, and brought him into contact with rising names in the literary world. Indeed, in 1907, The Autobiography of a Supertramp caught the attention of George Bernard Shaw, who wrote a preface for the tome. The book was rejected by the original publishers, Duckworth and Sons when Davies tried to renegotiate terms. As a consequence the manuscript was placed with London publisher Fifield.
After moving to London in 1914, and finally taking up residence at 14 Great Russell Street (previously the home of Charles Dickens) in 1916, where he remained until 1921. Davies set about promoting his work through a series of open-air readings, taking stage alongside poets such as W.B Yeats and Hilaire Belloc. Opportunities to socialise and engage with other leading figures from society life quickly followed, and before long Davies was hobnobbing with the likes of Lord Balfour and Lady Randolph Churchill and striking up friendships with artists including Jacob Epstein, Laura Knight, Nina Hamnett, Augustus John, William Rothenstein, Harold Gilman, Walter Sickert, Siir William Nicholson and Osbert and Edith Sitwell.
In October 1917 Davies had his poetry included in the anthology Welsh Poets: A Representative English selection from Contemporary Writers collated by A. G. Prys-Jones. By now an established poet in his own right, Davies continued his work despite the discomfort and impact of flaring rheumatism. Perhaps it was this discomfort that provided motivation for Davies to embark upon a series of recorded readings with the BBC, totalling 14 in all between the period 1924 – 1940. A sequel to The Autobiography of a Supertramp, titled Later Days, was never recorded by the BBC, nor curiously his most famous poem, Leisure.
Marriage to Helen Matilda Payne in 1923 finally brought Davies to his final home, ‘Glendower’ in Nailsworth, Gloucestershire after periods spent in East Grinstead, Sevenoaks, and Oxted (Surrey). It was whilst at Glendower in 1930 that Davies edited the poetry anthology Jewels of Song. The anthology was substantial and included works by more than 120 different poets, with contributions by William Blake, Thomas Campion, William Shakespeare, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and W. B Yeats. Davies selected just two of his many poems, The Kingfisher and Leisure. The Anthology was re-published in 1938 as An Anthology of Short Poems.
Davies returned to Newport in 1926 to receive his honorary degree from the University of Wales. Professor W. D. Thomas, M.A introduced Davies with the following address, which many believe serves as a summary of Davies’ themes, style and tone:
“A Welshman, a poet of distinction, and a man in whose work much of the peculiarly Welsh attitude to life is expressed with singular grace and sincerity. He combines a vivid sense of beauty with affection for the homely, keen zest for life and adventure with a rare appreciation of the common, universal pleasures, and finds in those simple things of daily life a precious quality, a dignity and a wonder that consecrate them. Natural, simple and unaffected, he is free from sham in feeling and artifice in expression. He has re-discovered for those who have forgotten them, the joys of simple nature. He has found romance in that which has become commonplace; and of the native impulses of an unspoilt heart, and the responses of a sensitive spirit, he has made a new world of experience and delight. He is a lover of life, accepting it and glorying in it. He affirms values that were falling into neglect, and in an age that is mercenary reminds us that we have the capacity for spiritual enjoyment.” (Moult, T. (1934), W. H. Davies, London: Thornton Butterworth., quoted on Wiki.)
In celebration of the poetry and achievements of W.H Davies, Raven’s 12 are delighted to feature an excellent poem written especially for Gallybloggers by our good friend Tŷ Unnôs.
~ From The Loquacious Usk ~ By ~ Tŷ Unnôs
Son of Pillgwenlly
in the former domain of
on the loquacious Usk
and the tongue-twisting old tongue
you sacked conventional work
unless to pay for your passage
eschewing the teeming path
of the Empire’s Christian soldiers
to sleep under the forever stars
in a vastness with railway arteries
and waning bison heart
you wondered at Nature
the great outdoors
as you wandered
the Great Dominion
and the Great Plains
that reverence for
the unmanufactured world
always walked with you
the lines in a weathered face
telling so many histories
the detail in the hedgerow dazzling
that moment’s contemplation
of the search for
the next coin
the next smile
the next shelter
the next stanza
from your tramping and your courage
in living with physical trauma
to your single-minded campaign
to become a man of letters
the story of you is a lesson
to us in our hours of doubt
and cruel but needless isolation
~ A personal thank you from all at Raven’s 12 for the superb poetry of Tŷ Unnôs ~
Tŷ unnôs – (plural: Tai unnos) (One night house), is an old Welsh tradition which has parallels in other folk traditions in areas of the British Isles.
It was believed by some, that if a person could build a house on common land in one night, that the land then belonged to them as a freehold. There are other variations on this tradition: that the test was to have a fire burning in the hearth by the following morning; and that the squatter could then extend the land around by the distance they could throw an axe from the four corners of the house. ~ Quoted directly from Wiki.