Blake Morrison

  • 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.

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