A profile of the poet and drifter WH Davies (1873-1940), who bewailed a busy world that would not take the time to “stand and stare”.
Who was WH Davies?
An itinerant drifter on both sides of the Atlantic, William Henry Davies, also known as WH Davies, was a wild man through and through – and perhaps the only British wordsmith who could describe himself as “poet, writer and tramp”. Of these three occupations – none of which, it could be argued, passes muster as proper, gainful employment – ‘tramp’ became the one that defined his literary sensibilities, along with his fame.
When was William Henry Davies born?
William Henry Davies, born in 1873 in Newport, Wales, the second of three children of an iron moulder, did not spend many years with his parents. When he was three his father died and by the time he was four, his mother had married again, with Davies, his younger sister and older brother handed over to grandparents, who ran the inn a few doors up the street.
He tested the patience of his grandparents, receiving a dozen birch strokes for his involvement in a schoolboy gang of bag-thieves. His early delinquency framed a difficult and fiercely individualistic character who seemed unable to hold down regular work. Leaving Newport, Davies travelled from one casual job to the next and by 1893 had arrived in the United States, where he embarked upon the adventures he would recall in his 1908 book The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp.
The hard life of WH Davies
Surrendering to the discomforts of life on rail and road, Davies and his fellow travellers encountered danger daily. Travelling in 1899 with a character known as Three-Fingered Jack, Davies suffered a horrific injury while trying to jump a train headed for the booming Klondike. His right foot was crushed under a wheel and half his leg was amputated soon after. It was a pivotal moment, yet Davies tried to appear phlegmatic. He later recounted that while he “managed to impress all comers with a false indifference”, his“outward fortitude… was far from the true state of my feelings”.
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Until he was lured to the fortunes promised by the gold rush, Davies worked as an animal-handler, crossing the Atlantic seven times on cattle ships. For Davies, the countryside was often a place of thankless tasks and demanding work. Ironic, perhaps, given his most famous poem was Leisure (above). The opening couplet is one of the most quoted in English poetry, and it appears particularly apt a century or so later – although it also bears the influence of Wordsworth’s sonnet from 1802, The World Is Too Much With Us. Davies and Wordsworth shared a concern over the encroachment of the industrial and urban on both nature and the human spirit.
When was the poem ‘Leisure’ published?
By the time Leisure was published in 1911, Davies was an established writer, a position substantially aided by his friend, the poet Edward Thomas, who rented a cottage for Davies in Kent, two fields away from his home. As literary critic for the Daily Chronicle, Thomas used his connections to further Davies’ career, and it was not long before a preface for Super-Tramp was secured from celebrated playwright George Bernard Shaw. Authors DH Lawrence, Hilaire Belloc and poet Edith Sitwell were among the many other figures who fell under his spell.
Davies fell under a spell of his own in 1922, smitten with the sight of a young woman alighting from a London bus. Helen Payne was pregnant at the time; she later suffered an almost-fatal miscarriage. Marrying in 1923, when Helen was 23 and Davies 51, the couple lived together for the next 17 years until Davies’ death in 1940. (His account of their time together, Young Emma, was published after Helen’s death in 1979.)
Disability had taken its toll on Davies’ health and he suffered with a variety of ailments, including severe rheumatism. He left behind a youthful, irreverent and peerless body of work that sprang from his unique perspective on nature, the outdoors and the wild.
Main image: Alamy