Tag Archives: UK

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.

Sonnet: “Flags We Have Feared”

The Swastika, that ancient Vedic sign,
the lightning wheels with which the Aryan bands
in lightning war overrun other lands,
wheeled juggernauts that crush, self-claimed divine.
Hammer and Sickle, commoners’ work-tools;
weapons for rising up, and tearing down
the castle of the rich, the bourgeois town;
fake honour to the poor the Party rules.
A flag with Stripes, memorial for flogged slaves,
striped jail clothes for resulting underclass;
and Stars like bullets through the windshield’s glass
for leaders by the CIA shot down,
star earned for each election overthrown,
star for each land the flag invades, or ‘saves’.

This sonnet was originally and ironically published in Ambit in the UK. The irony being, of course, that the Union Jack is viewed by much of the world with as much fear and hostility as any of the other three flags. But you don’t learn that, or the reasons for it, in school in the UK–at least not in England. The British (at least the English) have a warm and fuzzy feeling toward their flag, and are innocent or puzzled that anyone else should find it negative. Similarly in the times of the other three flags, the Germans (at least the Aryans), the Soviets (at least the Russians) and the Americans (at least the whites) have been happy and proud of their flag, puzzled that anyone else should fear or dislike it.

Another irony: the jury is still out on to what extent one of the leaders shot down by the CIA was their own.

Technically it’s a sonnet with a non-standard rhyme scheme: ABBA CDDC EFFGGE. But the rhymes and the scansion are OK. As for the volta, the requisite turn of mood or argument between the octave and the sestet… well, after dealing with the two great enemies of western democracy, you weren’t expecting me to pick on the US, were you?