Kevin Saving on
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.
A predilection to stand and stare (probably after a lengthy 'tramp' along country roads) lay at W.H. (William) Davies's very core – and, possibly, within his genes as well. His paternal grandfather (a seafaring man who'd risen to captain his own ship – and who'd played a large part in the future poet's upbringing) would, in his retirement, gaze at the sea for hours on end: noting changes in the conditions. His grandson shared much of that old sailor's wanderlust, as well as some of his stoicism.
After a slightly delinquent youth spent in his birthplace at Newport, south Wales, Davies found the prospect of 'settling down' into a regular pattern of paid employment distinctly unappetising. He'd 'taken to the road' following an apprenticeship in picture-framing, and his consequent travels would find him, by turns, begging his way around Britain; herding sheep in freighters across the Atlantic; getting himself intentionally arrested into American jails (one method of sitting-out the inclement winters) and 'hobo-ing' his way towards the Klondike gold rush by methodically jumping trains. It was this latter adventure which had cost him his lower right leg in March, 1899, after an ill-timed leap. Thereafter fitted with a series of wooden legs, Davies's peregrinations had not ceased entirely – merely slowed down a little.
A born raconteur, Davies – a diminutive man sporting a distinctive quiff, which people were inclined to mistake for a toupee - wrote his 'break-through' Autobiography of a Super-Tramp after encouragement from a new friend, Edward Thomas. The well-known playwright George Bernard Shaw was enlisted to contribute an introduction – he would also suggest a title and recommend the eventual publishing firm. The Autobiography was an instant success, opening a new world for its author. Its royalties enabled Davies to move to 45, London Road, Sevenoaks, Kent – where 'Leisure' was most likely written. He was to lodge there for the three years from 1911. A turn of the century building described as 'handsome' and sandwiched between two shops, the house was owned by a local businessman, Henry Martin. Davies already knew the area quite well, having previously lived nearby in a cheap two-room farm cottage found (and subsidised) for him by Thomas.
1911 saw Davies consolidating his reputation and making further friends among the literati. 'Leisure' was to appear in his fifth poetry collection, Songs of Joy and Others, most of which was written that summer –after a month spent 'tramping' in May - and prior to that volume's appearance in November. Its publisher would be A.C. Fifield, who'd also brought out Super-Tramp. None of this book's reviews would single out 'Leisure', however, as being of especial note.
Recent attempts by some of Davies's new-found contacts to prevail upon him to take up a sinecure at the British Museum had been thwarted by their would-be beneficiary's home-spun philosophy. Largely a-political (but with a certain sympathy for the lot of the common man) he summed-up his reaction thus: “They expected me to work. I have never worked in my life. THAT'S what your friends do for you!”
Always impecunious – his vices seem to have been alcohol and prostitutes – Davies was awarded a grant by the Royal Literary Fund in February, 1911 and a civil-list pension of £50 per annum. Petitioners on his behalf had included Thomas, W.H. Hudson, Edward Garnett and Joseph Conrad. This same year found six of his poems included in the first anthology of Georgian Poetry, edited by another sponsor, Edward Marsh. Davies was concurrently working on his first novel, A Weak Woman – a melodramatic pot-boiler involving murder, prostitution and an improbable death via the agency of a steam roller. Of this production he was later to write that he regarded it 'as a pest to be exterminated on sight...'. Jocularly, he offered a bounty of tuppence for every copy returned.
Davies came to be ambivalent about Sevenoaks (at that time a 'dormitary town'). Local children would habitually pester him for small change with which to buy sweets – once his generosity to them became widely known. Also, he fell out with his landlady over a penchant he'd acquired for living with the window constantly open. This, it was claimed, had rotted both blinds and window frames. He would eventually decamp to London in 1914 – at that time undoubtedly the literary capital of the world.
A curious mixture of diffidence and hauteur, Davies would continue to publish an avalanche of work in various genres (there were to be, in total around seven hundred poems) but his later oeuvre is generally acknowledged to have become increasingly uneven. He is remembered today (if at all) for a few simple lines from a single poem (quoted in a twenty first century CenterParks advert) and for the Autobiography. There would be a touchingly contented marriage in later life to a former 'lady of the streets' (a profession towards which he was always sympathetically inclined, though his wife's previous history would remain a closely guarded secret). There would be an honorary doctorate, courtesy of the university of Wales. Davies seems to have enjoyed his late-found affluence and respectability, ending his days in a pleasant cottage in Nailsworth, Glos., at the 'posh' end of town, on a hill-top with a view – and with a few years still left to him in which to appreciate them.
Davies, W.H. (1943) Collected Poems Of W.H.Davies, Cape.
Hooper, B. (2004) Time To Stand And Stare, Peter Owen.
Hollis, M. (2011) Now All Roads Lead To France: The Last Years Of Edward Thomas, Faber.
Stonesifer, R. (1963) W.H.Davies, A Critical Biography, Cape.
Kevin Saving © 2012