- The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp by W.H. Davies
Amberley, 192 pp, £14.99, September 2010, ISBN 978 1 84868 980 0
According to W.H. Davies, tramps often buried surplus items of clothing or footwear by the side of the road, knowing they could retrieve them should they pass the same way again. In his second volume of autobiography, Later Days, published in 1925, Davies lists a few of his deposits: a shirt on the banks of the Mississippi, a pair of boots in the Allegheny mountains, a coat under rocks on Long Island Sound. ‘When Posterity has confirmed this immortality which contemporary critics have conferred on me,’ he says, only half-jokingly, ‘I hope the British government or private admirers of my work will fit out an expedition to go in search of those treasures and bring them back to my native land.’
No such expedition has been launched: posterity has all but forgotten Davies. Tramp, beggar, poet, memoirist, poor man’s philosopher, he’s a curiosity whose work has not worn well. ‘I think one ought to be downright cruel to him,’ D.H. Lawrence said, and many have been. Max Beerbohm was, when at a dinner party he asked Davies, ‘How long is it since Shaw discovered you?’; on being told it was 13 or 14 years, he replied, ‘Oh dear dear – and has it been going on all this time?’ and added that Shaw had obviously ‘helped a lame dog over the stile’. The insult was doubly (or perhaps trebly) cruel. Davies had a wooden leg (the result of an accident in Canada during his hobo days); he knew his literary career wouldn’t have taken off but for the patronage of Shaw and Edward Thomas; he also knew some thought him overrated, a ‘nature poet’ who had earned that tag by sleeping under hedges rather than the quality of his verse:
I hear men say: ‘This Davies has no depth,
He writes of birds, of staring cows and sheep,
And throws no light on deep, eternal things.’
Until recently, even non-readers of poetry could quote at least one of Davies’s couplets: ‘What is this life if, full of care,/We have no time to stand and stare?’ And he was still enough of a name in the 1970s for a rock band to call itself Supertramp in homage to his autobiography. But present-day readers seem to feel much as Auden did, when he took up Davies for a few weeks as a schoolboy, ‘without finding what I really wanted’. The copy of Later Days I looked at in the London Library (most of his works now being out of print) is full of exasperated marginalia – ‘vulgar’, ‘silly’, ‘you ass’ – and was last borrowed 13 years ago. Oblivion has succeeded condescension.
There have been a couple of valiant attempts to resuscitate Davies’s poetry, notably by James Reeves, whose Penguin anthology of Georgian poetry allots him more entries than it does Owen, Graves, Sassoon or Edward Thomas, and by Jonathan Barker, whose 1985 edition of the Selected Poems reprints more than a third of his 800 or so poems. But it was Larkin who made the best case for him, when he included five of Davies’s poems in the Oxford Book of 20th-Century English Verse. The choices are revealing, showing both what Larkin took from Davies and what he took against. He admired Davies’s sympathy for animals (‘The shot that kills a hare or bird/Doth pass through me; I feel the wound’), his lowlife urban vignettes and his unpretentiousness. He was also fascinated by a vagrant lifestyle – swaggering the nut-strewn roads, living up lanes with fires in a bucket etc – that he didn’t feel sufficiently brave to adopt himself. (In Davies’s unperformed opera of 1923, True Travellers, there’s a passing reference to ‘that toad called work’: Larkin got a couple of poems from the phrase.) What he couldn’t stand was Davies’s ‘kindergarten banality’ – his trite rhymes, facile maxims and cheery treatment of conventional poetic subject matter. So the moon glimpsed between ‘fast-driven clouds’ that ‘still shines with undiminished light’ in Davies’s ‘A Winter’s Night’ reappears between ‘rapid clouds’, and with the same concluding adjective, in Larkin’s ‘Sad Steps’, but is made to stand not for hope but for loss,
a reminder of the strength and pain
Of being young; that it can’t come again,
But is for others undiminished somewhere.
Larkin thought Davies’s realism ‘that of the freshly scrubbed potato as opposed to the genuine earthy article’. This seems unfair, given poems such as ‘The Bird of Paradise’ (narrated by one prostitute about another) and ‘The Lodging-House Fire’ (about destitution), or the gibe, in a poem about paradise as imagined by different nations, that ‘The heaven that fills an English heart/Is Union Jacks in every part’ – not a popular sentiment amid the jingoistic clamour of 1914. Nor is there anything bland or scrubbed-up about Davies’s robin, a creature more terrifying than Ted Hughes’s thrush (‘He sings in triumph that last night/He killed his father in a fight;/And now he’ll take his mother’s blood’), or his description of fields as ‘dewy cemeteries … white with mushroom tombs’. Still, it’s true that for all his talk of waiting for poems to come naturally, his persona can seem forced and theatrical. Shaw suspected that he’d read no poets later than Cowper and Crabbe, and certainly his doths, hasts, werts, yons, e’ens, e’ers and ofts sound pre-Victorian. His objection to Modernist poets, which grew as time passed, was that ‘there is no personality in their work, and no personal confession.’ Davies’s poems make rather a show of his personality but that isn’t to say he’s confessional. His poem ‘Confession’ confesses as much, alluding to the 99 per cent darker material that doesn’t make it into his verse:
One hour in every hundred hours
I sing of childhood, birds and flowers;
Who reads my character in song
Will not see much in me that’s wrong.
But in my ninety hours and nine
I would not tell what thoughts are mine:
They’re not so pure as find their words
In songs of childhood, flowers and birds.
Shaw perhaps saw that the poems left out too much – not just impure thoughts but deviant experiences. At any rate, having helped Davies get started as a poet, in 1907 he and other friends encouraged him to write an autobiography. Once prompted, the author, no slowcoach (all his best poems were written in a few minutes, he claimed), completed The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp within a couple of months. Shaw imposed himself not just through the title (Man and Superman had had its premiere two years earlier, in 1905) but in a preface praising the book for being ‘unstained with the frightful language, the debased dialect, of the fictitious proletarians of Mr Rudyard Kipling and other genteel writers’.
In reality Davies’s background wasn’t as proletarian as Shaw implies. When his father died and his mother remarried, William, his sister and his ‘imbecile brother’ were adopted by their grandparents, an elderly but far from impoverished couple: before retiring and running a pub in Newport, his grandfather had been a sea captain and, as he never tired of telling strangers, ‘master of his own ship’. The young Davies was bright but wild: a precocious reader, good at his schoolwork, but also a truant, a brawler and the leader of a gang of shoplifters (when finally caught, he was sentenced to 12 strokes of the birch). After working for an ironmonger and as an apprentice picture-framer, he spent six months in Bristol, squandering his earnings on drink. He had dreams of sailing to the US but his grandmother, now a widow, wouldn’t hear of it. Then she died, and her estate was put in the hands of a trustee. The modest profits from the estate – ten shillings a week – kept Davies going for many years. More immediately, aged 22, he persuaded the trustee to advance him £15 – enough for a transatlantic passage.
Davies had high hopes of America and wrote home from his steerage cabin, telling of its wonders, even before reaching land. The reality didn’t disappoint. He admired Americans for their kindness, their respect for women (‘Husband and wife may be unhappy, but you seldom hear of a woman carrying the marks of a man’s brutality’), but above all for their generosity towards tramps and beggars. It’s not clear from his autobiography whether Davies had come across Whitman’s paean to the open road (‘Going where I list, my own master total and absolute’), or had followed the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, or had sampled any of the tramp memoirs and novels that had been appearing in the US since the 1870s. But he knew his Wordsworth and had Romantic notions of wandering lonely through awe-inspiring landscapes. What he couldn’t have known was how vast America’s ‘tramp army’ had become and how much worry it was causing the establishment (‘Two million men are wandering about in idleness, not knowing where their next meal of victuals is to come from,’ one newspaper reported). In 1893, the year of his arrival, bank failures had plunged America into economic depression, with a steep rise in unemployment and homelessness.
Many young men travelled thousands of miles in search of work, but Davies found it easier to beg (‘This is a jolly life indeed,/ To do no work and get my need’). On one Christmas Eve expedition, knocking on doors in Baltimore, he and two other men collected more than 60 food parcels, with everything from beef and oysters to yams and pancakes. In Michigan, to escape the cold, they struck a deal with the local marshal, who arrested them for being drunk and disorderly so that he could earn a reward (one dollar) and they could spend a month in jail with a supply of tobacco and three meals a day. (They then moved on to the next town, to take advantage of the same scam there.) Though some of the men with whom Davies tramped roads and rode freight trains cheerfully stole from one another, the overall picture is of a close-knit community, a band of merry transients and rovers: Australian Red, Cockney Tom, New Haven Baldy, Detroit Fatty, Philadelphia Slim, Pennsylvania Dutch, Three-Fingered Jack and so on. Whenever they acquired a little money, the men quickly drank it away, but to Davies – who as a child used to be given mulled beer, rather than cocoa, at bedtime – that was to their credit: teetotallers, he says, ‘lack the sympathy and generosity of men that drink’. There’s a running joke about the indignity of labour and the loss of integrity that a morning sawing wood or picking fruit would entail; indolence is sanctified: ‘Good people keep their holy day,/They rest from labour on a Sunday;/But we keep holy every day,/And rest from Monday until Monday.’ In America, we’re told, beggars scornfully refer to working men as ‘stiffs’.
As well as travelling widely across the US – from Chicago and St Louis to Memphis and New Orleans – Davies made several trips back to Britain, working his passage as a cattleman. His accounts of these trips underline the difference between his poetry and his prose. In ‘Sheep’ he writes:
The first night we were out at sea
Those sheep were quiet in their mind.
The second night they cried with fear –
They smelt no pastures in the wind.
They sniffed, poor things, for their green fields,
They cried so loud I could not sleep:
For fifty thousand shillings down
I would not sail again with sheep.
This is a fine display of sentiment but it tells something less than the truth: in his autobiography Davies owns up to having made 18 Atlantic crossings. The prose version is less pious in tone, richer in detail, and offers a quite different version of animal behaviour at sea:
There is always plenty of trouble at first, when [the cattle] slip forward and backward, but in a few days they get their sea legs, and sway their bodies easily to the ship’s motion. The wild terror leaves their eyes, and, when they can no more smell their native land, they cease bellowing, and settle calmly down. This restlessness breaks out afresh when nearing shore on the other side, and again they bellow loud and often, long before the mariner on the lookout has sighted land …
The condition of the cattle can be seen without difficulty, but ten or fifteen sheep lying or standing in front of a crowded pen may be concealing the dead or dying that are lying in the background. For this reason it is every morning necessary to crawl through the pens, far back, in quest of the sick and the dead, and it is nothing unusual to find half a dozen dead ones. The voyage would not be considered bad if 30 sheep only died out of 2000.
Davies did not always feel the same compassion for humans. Osbert Sitwell, who knew him later in London, was struck by his animosity to black men, and the autobiography bears him out. An eyewitness account of a lynching near Memphis is devoid of any sympathy for the victim. And after being mugged in the South, Davies rants: ‘This not very intelligent race half murder a man without being sure of anything for their pains.’ Life as a drifter had its dangers. Still, his biggest complaint in six years of travel was lack of access to books, and he might have continued to beat his way across North America but for the accident he had after moving north to Canada in pursuit of Klondike gold, when he fell while attempting to leap onto a train – an episode recounted in winningly laconic fashion:
I attempted to stand, but found that something had happened to prevent me from doing this. Sitting down in an upright position, I then began to examine myself, and now found that the right foot was severed from the ankle. This discovery did not shock me so much as the thoughts which quickly followed. For, as I could feel no pain, I did not know but what my body was in several parts, and I was not satisfied until I had examined every portion of it. Seeing a man crossing the track, I shouted to him for assistance … he looked me over, went away and in a minute or two returned with the assistance of several others to convey me to the station. A number of people were still there; so that when I was placed in the waiting room to bide the arrival of a doctor, I could see no other way of keeping a calm face before such a number of eyes than by taking out my pipe and smoking, an action which, I am told, caused much sensation in the local press.
Shaw was impressed that ‘a man should lose a limb with no more to-do than a lobster loses a claw or a lizard his tail’. More impressive still was Davies’s resumption of tramping, despite his right leg having been amputated to the knee. In Britain the rewards of being a ‘downrighter’ (a beggar pure and simple) were so paltry, even for a peg leg, that he sometimes resorted to hawking needles, shoelaces and buttons. A potentially more lucrative method was ‘gridling’: standing in the street and singing in a tuneless voice until windows were opened and coins tossed out to stop the noise. The finer points of etiquette and strategy on the open road are patiently explained both in the Autobiography and in Davies’s instant follow-up, Beggars (1909), along with global perspectives (‘second-rate beggars in America earn more than first-rate beggars in Europe’) and handy tips (‘Saturday morning is the worst time in the week for a beggar’). The dialect of the tribe emerges too:
Beggars – Needies
House – Kennel
Bed – Feather
Food – Scrand
Drink – Skimish
Soup – Shackles
Laces – Stretchers
Combs – Rakes
Scissors – Snips
Spectacles – Glims
Unlike others who have written about life on the margins (Mayhew, London, Agee, Orwell), Davies wasn’t gathering material: he tramped because he liked the lifestyle (‘A jar of cider, and my pipe,/In summer, under shady tree’) and he lived in Salvation Army hostels and cheap lodgings because on ten shillings a week (with a thirst for alcohol) he could afford no better. But he did harbour serious literary ambitions, and the latter part of The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp recounts his efforts to get his poems into print, first, while he was living in a hostel called the Ark, in the form of 2000 sheets costing threepence each (after a dispiriting day failing to sell them door to door, he burned the lot), then in a privately printed collection called The Soul’s Destroyer, 60 copies of which he posted to literary figures of the day, begging them to send him the cover price. Shaw, receiving his copy from Davies’s address – The Farmhouse, Marshalsea Rd, SE – thought it quaint there should still be farms in Kennington, before discovering the place was a dosshouse. Surprised by the quality of the work, he bought eight copies at half a crown each, on which proceeds Davies lived comfortably for the next three months. He was soon the subject of newspaper articles and with the autobiography he became a minor celebrity. Edwardian London was charmed by his hobohemianism, just as it was two years later by H.G. Wells’s Mr Polly, who turns his back on convention and commerce to become ‘a leisurely and dusty tramp … walking every day for eight or nine hours’. Further editions of The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp followed in 1920 and 1923, tapping a market for tales of adventure that didn’t end in death on the Somme. Davies allowed himself the thought that his book might be a work of genius, since it hadn’t made him rich: ‘Genius gives gold and gets no more than pence.’ But he did get a Civil List pension worth £50 a year, which enabled him to move to a flat in Great Russell Street, and exchange the companionship of Australian Red and Philadelphia Slim for that of Sickert, Balfour, Conrad, Epstein, Huxley, Lady Cunard and Augustus John.
In Later Days he portrays himself as a shy outsider among metropolitan bigwigs, afraid of being exposed as a fraud. Patronised as a peasant innocent, aka the Tramp Poet (a title even the British Museum Reading Room catalogue used for him), he shrewdly played along and was ‘given free rides further than I expected’. The book is mostly harmless gossip but ends dramatically when his housekeeper, a young woman he calls Dinah, is rushed to hospital with an undisclosed illness, before recovering to become his wife. Her real name seems to have been Helen Payne (though according to Barbara Hooper, in her introduction to the new edition of The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, there’s no record of her in the census).
She is given a third name in a novel Davies wrote around the same time, Young Emma, which Shaw, among others, thought too candid to be published. (Davies, losing his nerve, asked that the typescript be destroyed but his publisher cannily put it in a safe, where it was discovered in 1972 before being published in 1980, a year after his widow’s death.) What Shaw thought would damage Davies – the book’s disclosure that ‘the literary world of writers, publishers, editors and so forth, not to mention the people who have taken him up socially, are so completely alien to him as they were when he was a tramp’ – makes Young Emma the natural sequel to The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp. Bored, middle-aged, and dissatisfied with his posh friends, the anonymous narrator decides it’s time to marry and, after his first two proposals are turned down, resolves ‘to trouble no more about respectable women, but to find a wife in the common streets’. Emma, the pretty young woman he meets one night by a bus stop on the Edgware Road, seems the perfect match, until he finds he has a venereal infection and she (the episode skirted round in Later Days) suffers a near fatal miscarriage; he has somehow failed to notice she is six months pregnant. More troubling than the prospect of syphilis is his terror that she will now abandon him, since she no longer needs a father for her child. But the fear proves groundless: they move to the country, his infection (picked up from an earlier liaison, not from Emma) is cured, and all ends cosily – as it seems to have done for Davies and his wife, who remained together, childless but surrounded by animals, until he died in 1940.
‘I have always been honest and sincere in my literary work, without thinking of popularity,’ Davies writes at the end of Young Emma. In truth, he was desperate to win honours and acceptance, which made him write too much, too same-ily. But in their directness, their (sometimes faux) naivety and their Blakean indignation on behalf of the poor, the best of his poems still resonate. And with The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp and Young Emma he produced two minor classics of life writing, both worth retrieving from their burial place.