Tag Archives: George Bernard Shaw

Review: “The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp” by W.H. Davies

Hobos

Hobos, US Library of Congress. Unknown date. Likely 1880s – 1930s

W.H. Davies was a poet whose best-known piece begins

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

Born in Newport, Wales, in 1871, he was raised by his grandparents. As a boy he fought a lot, and at 13 was the leader of gang, was arrested for stealing handbags, and got twelve strokes of the birch. He read enthusiastically, disliked being apprenticed to a maker of picture frames, and at 21 took passage to America. His years of wandering provide a fascinating view of the US over 100 years ago, with chapters on jails, thieves, cattlemen, race issues in the Mississippi area, and so on. He worked his way back and forth over the Atlantic, lost a leg hopping a train in Canada and thereafter limited himself to England where he began writing his poetry and memoirs in doss houses in between bouts of tramping and begging. Eventually he was noticed, published for his poetry first and then for his autobiography–with a preface by George Bernard Shaw–and became famous.

His autobiography is frank, amusing, informative, insightful and naive all at the same time. A unique book, and a good accompaniment to his poetry (the link is to an 11-slide deck) which is also insightful and naive and oriented to observing life outside, whether in city or countryside. This is from “The Sleepers”:

As I walked down the waterside
This silent morning, wet and dark;
Before the cocks in farmyards crowed,
Before the dogs began to bark;
Before the hour of five was struck
By old Westminster’s mighty clock:

As I walked down the waterside
This morning, in the cold damp air,
I saw a hundred women and men
Huddled in rags and sleeping there:
These people have no work, thought I,
And long before their time they die.