07 February, 2009

W. H. Davies

William Henry Davies or W H Davies was a Welsh poet and writer.

He spent a significant part of his life as a tramp or vagabond in the United States and United Kingdom, but became known as one of the most popular poets of his time. The principle themes in Davies' work are the marvels of nature, observations about life's hardships, his own tramping adventures and the various characters he met. Davies is usually considered as one of the Georgian poets, although much of his work is atypical of the style and themes adopted by others of the genre.

.The son of an iron-moulder, Davies was born at 6 Portland Street in the Pillgwenlly district of Newport, Monmouthshire and a busy port. His father died when he was just two years old. When his mother remarried she agreed that care of the three children should pass to their paternal grandparents who ran the nearby Church House Inn at 14, Portland Street. His grandfather Francis Boase Davies, originally from Cornwall, had been a sea captain.

In his 1918 "Poet's Pilgrimage" Davies recounts the time when, at the age of 14, he had been left `with orders' to sit with his dying grandfather. He missed the final moments of his grandfather's passing as he had been too engrossed in reading "...a very interesting book of wild adventure". This revealing anecdote betrayed the passion Davies was to have all his life, despite his humble background, for the written word.

After finishing school in disgrace at the age of 15 (having been given twelve stokes of the birch for shoplifting with a gang of school-mates), his grandmother signed the papers for Davies to become an apprentice to a local picture-frame maker. Davies never enjoyed the craft, however, and never settled into any regular work. He was a difficult and somewhat delinquent young man, and made repeated requests to his grandmother to lend him the money to sail to America. When these were all refused, he eventually left Newport, took casual work and started to travel. The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp (1908) covers his life during his traveling and included many adventures and characters in the USA 1893-99, where he lived as a tramp. During this period he crossed the Atlantic at least seven times working on cattle ships. He traveled widely, through many of the States, sometimes begging, sometimes taking seasonal work, but often ending up spending any savings on a drinking spree with a fellow traveler. At one stage, on his way to Memphis, Tennessee he lay alone in a swamp for three days and nights suffering from malaria.

The great turning point in Davies' life came when he read in England of the riches to be made in the Klondike and immediately set off to make his fortune in Canada. Attempting to jump a freight train at Renfrew, Ontario, however, with fellow tramp Three-fingered Jack, he lost his footing and his right foot was crushed under the wheels of the train. The leg later had to be amputated below the knee and he wore a wooden leg thereafter. It was this event, perhaps more than any other, which led him to seek poetry-writing as a means of earning his living.

He returned to England, living a rough life, particularly in London shelters and doss-houses. So desperate was he to compose that, fearing the contempt of his fellow tramps, he would often feign slumber in the corner of his doss-house, mentally composing his poems and only later committing them to paper in private. So desperate was he to see his work in print that at one stage he borrowed the money to have his poems printed on loose sheets of paper which he then tried to sell door-to-door through the streets of residential London. When this enterprise failed miserably, he returned to his lodgings and, in a fit of rage, burned all of the printed sheets in the fire.

His first book of poetry was published in 1905, again with the help of Davies' own savings and proved to be the beginning of success and a growing reputation. In order to even get "The Soul's Destroyer" published Davies had to forego his allowance and live the life of a tramp for six months (with the manuscript of the book hidden in his pocket), just to secure a loan of funds from his inheritance. When eventually published the volume was largely ignored and he resorted to posting individual copies by hand to prospective wealthy customers chosen from the pages of "Who's Who". He eventually managed to sell 60 of the 200 copies printed.

On 12 October 1905 he met Edward Thomas, then literary critic for the Daily Chronicle in London, who was to do more to help Davies than anyone else. Thomas rented a tiny two-roomed cottage for Davies not far from his own home at Elses Farm near Sevenoaks in Kent. Davies moved to the cottage from Newport, via London, in the second week of February 1907. On one occasion Thomas had to arrange for the manufacture, by a local wheelwright, of a makeshift wooden leg for Davies.

In 1907 the manusript of "The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp" drew the attention of George Bernard Shaw, who agreed to write a preface (largely through the concerted efforts of his wife Charlotte). It was only because of Bernard Shaw that Davies' contract with the publishers was re-written to allow the author to retain the serial rights, all rights after three years, royalties of fifteen per cent of selling price and a non-returnable advance of twenty five pounds. Davies was also to be given a say on the style of all illustations, advertisement layouts and cover designs. The original publisher, Duckworth and Sons, refused to accept these demands and so the book was placed instead with London publisher Fifield.

In 1911 Davies was awarded a Civil List Pension of £50, later increased to £100 and then again to £150.

After lodging at a number of temporary addresses in Sevenoaks, Davies moved back to London early in 1914, settling eventually at 14, Great Russell Street in the Bloomsbury district (previously the residence of one Charles Dickens). Here in a tiny two-room apartment, initially infested with mice and rats, and next door to rooms occupied by a noisy Belgian prostitute, he lived from early 1916 until 1921.

It was during this time in London that Davies embarked on a series of public readings of his work, alongside such others as Hillaire Belloc and W. B. Yeats, impressing such fellow poets as Ezra Pound. He soon found that he was able to socialise with leading society figures of the day, including Lord Balfour and Lady Randolph Churchill.

Whilst in London Davies also became friendly with a number of artists including Jacob Epstein, Harold Knight, Nina Hamnett, Laura Knight, Augustus John, Harold Gilman, William Rothenstein, Walter Sickert, Sir William Nicholson and Osbert and Edith Sitwell.

In his poetry Davies drew extensively for material on his experiences with the seamier side of life, but also on his love of nature. By the time of his prominent place in the Edward Marsh Georgian poetry series, he was an established figure. He is generally best known for two lines from his poem, Leisure, first published in "Songs Of Joy and Others" in 1911:

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
where he rented rooms from the Quaker poet Olaf Baker. He began to find prolonged work difficult, however, suffering from increased bouts of rheumatism and other ailments.

Davies returned to his native Newport in September 1938 for the unveiling of a plaque in his honour at the Church House Inn with an address given by the Poet Laureate John Masefield. He was unwell, however, and this proved to be his last public appearance. His health deteriorated, not helped by the weight of his wooden leg, and he died in September 1940 at the age of 69.

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