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W. H. Davies: the tramp poet’s ‘gift of laziness’.

William Henry Davies at 57, by WNP Nicolson. [Image:NPG]. POETRY AS IT reveals itself in the work of William Davies [1871-1940] is the spirit of inner contentment. In him we see the discovery that joy is not a thing of wealth or foreign travel or anything external, but a condition of the mind. In the words of Masefield,

“Life offers nothing but contented minds.”

Davies expresses this idea with great charm and terseness in two verses of the opening poem of the volume called Songs of Joy: –

Strive not for gold, for greedy fools
Measure themselves by poor men never;
Their standard still being richer men
xxxxMakes them poor ever.

Train up thy mind to feel content,
What matters then how low thy store;
What we enjoy, and not possess,
xxxxMakes rich or poor.”

He distinguishes similarly between Joy and Pleasure. Joy is esoteric, a habit of the soul; Pleasure is exoteric, dependent on external stimulus. It seems as if Davies’s joy of life was so intense that it bubbled over irrepressibly into poetry. He often speaks of it in its imaginative, poetic aspect, as the Muse, or Fancy. Here is a delightful lyric called “Fancy’s Home”: –

Tell me, Fancy, sweetest child,
Of thy parents and they birth;
Had they silk and had they gold,
And a park to wander forth,
With a castle green and old?”

In a cottage I was born,
My kind father was Content,
My dear mother Innocence;
On wild fruits of wonderment
I have nourished ever since.”

Davies, like Burns, is a rare exception among poets. He is a plain, comparatively uneducated man – before he took to writing poetry he was a tramp. His mind is quite free, it seems, from the seething turmoil of ancient and modern ideas, from theorizing about art, from the facts of modern science. And with this – and here lies the wonder – he had the power of articulating his thoughts and feelings and of expressing them with absolute lucidity. “Les idées très simples,” Remy de Gourmonth has said, “ne sont pas à la portée que des esprits très compliqués.” Luckily for modern poetry, Davies is a striking exception to the rule.

ONE OF THE gifts which he seems to have acquired from his life as a tramp, or possibly the gift which made him a tramp, is the gift of laziness. We say, deliberately, gift, because the power of being profitably, creatively lazy is a great gift. Not stagnation, which is the deadliest of all sins, but recreative laziness. In the ideal State, hours will be set apart for the exercise of this laziness.

A jar of cider and my pipe,
In summer, under shady tree;
A book of one who made his mind
Live by its sweet simplicity.

Then most I laugh at kings who sit
xxxxIn richest chambers, signing scrolls;
And princes cheered in public ways,
xxxxAnd stared at by a thousand fools.

Laziness of this sort is certainly very far from stagnation. But another poem, called “A Beggar’s Life,” shows in its whimsical way another side to Davies’s laziness, one which is not guiltless of truancy. This is the first stanza:

When farmers sweat and toil at ploughs,
xxxxTheir wives give me cool milk and sweet;
When merchants in their office brood,
xxxxTheir ladies give me cakes to eat,
And hot tea for my happy blood;
xxxxThis is a jolly life indeed,
xxxxTo do no work and get my need.

… which, of course, is all very well, but if we all do the same, who is going to make the tea and cakes?

Davies’s placid enjoyment of life seems to come chiefly from his ardent love of Nature. To observe natural objects around him is, to him, an unfailing source of delight; and how minute his observation can be is evident to anyone who will run through his work. Who but a close observer would speak of “glazèd buttercups,” or say that “the squirrel flies before the storm He makes himself in lofty trees”; or who but one who was intimate with the Jenny Wren would say to her, “you prefer To be a thing to run unheard Through Leaves and grass, and not a bird”? But not only does he take a simple delight in the country he also believes it to be actually indispensable to human welfare. The soul, he says, cannot exist shut up perpetually in town; it needs

xxxxputting out to grass, like common beasts,
To keep life healthy, fresh, and of good cheer.

HE NEVER WEARIES of Nature and her children. Often in his poems he speaks of animals, birds, insects, trees, and flowers as though he hardly distinguished them from human beings, just as St. Francis of Assisi did. In the Fioretti it is told that St. Francis preached to a flock of birds, calling them “Sirocchie mie uocelli,” – “Birds my little sisters.” That is Davies’s attitude towards wild things, an attitude, with him, perfectly genuine and without the least trace of self-consciousness or sophistication.

His love of humanity is no less than his love of Nature, and many of his verses record his detestation of the conditions of slavery and destitution which are so dark a blot on our modern civilization. His art is always simple as the utterance of a child; and, as in a child’s speech, you will find in it occasionally images and phrases of a sort of comical awkwardness, which is one of the most usual qualities of simplicity; but this, as in the case of the child, so far from being objectionable, adds a quaint charm and often hits off an image with extraordinary penetration.

His freshness and sanity make the best of his lyrics a continual source of pleasure; one can turn to them again and again and always find the same fascination and the same refreshment in them, because he is always sincere and always young; as he has said himself,

As long as I love beauty I am young.

Martin D. Armstrong (1882-1974) was a prolific critic, poet and novelist, and a veteran of the First World War. One of his poems, ‘The Procession’, is republished in the Fortnightly here. This excerpt is from ‘Recent English Poetry’ which was published in the Fortnightly Review in March 1914; it is republished here after manual transcription. Notices such as this, his early backing by G. B. Shaw and his own instinct for self-promotion – he told his story in The Autobiography of a Super-tramp [1908] – helped Davies become one of Britain’s most famous poets.

Non-textual alterations added to this file to track subsequent use.

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