This week’s Featured Poem welcomes the new month in true poetic style with In May by William Henry Davies.
Born in July 1871, William Henry Davies was the son of an iron moulder in the busy port of Newport, Wales but following the death of his father and his mother’s remarrying, Davies and his siblings came under the care of his paternal grandparents who ran an inn. A plaque in his honour would later appear on the wall of the inn, unveiled by then Poet Laureate John Masefield.
At the age of 12, Davies was arrested with a gang of schoolmates, for stealing handbags. He was given 12 strokes of the birch. In his book Poet’s Pilgrimage (1918) Davies recounts sitting with his dying grandfather at the age of 14 – he had become so engrossed in “an interesting book of wild adventure” that he missed his grandfather’s final moments.
Davies led a rough life, spending a lot of time in London shelters and doss-houses such as a Southwark’s Salvation Army hostel. While staying there he often feigned sleep, composing lines of poetry in his mind before committing them to paper in private later. As a means of enterprise, Davies borrowed money to have some poems printed on loose sheets of paper to sell door-to-door around London. However his efforts proved unsuccessful and Davies burned the sheets in disgust.
In 1905, he paid to self-publish his first book of poetry, The Soul’s Destroyer, which proved to mark his change in fortunes. To do so however, he had lived as a tramp for six months, allowing the allowance from his inheritance to accumulate. After publication, Davies struggled to sell the volume, resorting to posting individual copies by hand to prospective wealthy consumers, asking them to send a half crown in return as payment. By these means Davies managed to sell 60 of the 200 published copies, one of which had come into the hands of Arthur Adcock, a journalist at the Daily Mail. Adcock is credited with having discovered Davies, and later wrote that the volume had stood out to him as some of the “most magical poetry to be found in modern books”.
The Soul’s Destoryer was published by Alston Rivers in 1907, with later editions following in 1908 and 1910. Davies‘ work was rooted in the observations of life’s hardships and of those characters he met during his tramping adventures. Nature was also a prevalent theme as Davies reflected on how the human condition could be reflected in the natural world, as today’s poem, In May demonstrates.
Yes, I will spend the livelong day
With Nature in this month of May;
And sit beneath the trees, and share
My bread with birds whose homes are there;
While cows lie down to eat, and sheep
Stand to their necks in grass so deep;
While birds do sing with all their might,
As though they felt the earth in flight.
This is the hour I dreamed of, when
I sat surrounded by poor men;
And thought of how the Arab sat
Alone at evening, gazing at
The stars that bubbled in clear skies;
And of young dreamers, when their eyes
Enjoyed methought a precious boon
In the adventures of the Moon
Whose light, behind the Clouds’ dark bars,
Searched for her stolen flocks of stars.
When I, hemmed in by wrecks of men,
Thought of some lonely cottage then
Full of sweet books; and miles of sea,
With passing ships, in front of me;
And having, on the other hand,
A flowery, green, bird-singing land.
William Henry Davies