William Henry Davies

(3 July 1871 – 26 September 1940 / Monmouthshire / Wales)

Biography of William Henry Davies

William Henry Davies poet

William Henry Davies or W. H. Davies (3 July 1871 – 26 September 1940) was a Welsh poet and writer. Davies spent a significant part of his life as a tramp or hobo, in the United Kingdom and United States, but became one of the most popular poets of his time. The principal themes in his work are observations about life's hardships, the ways in which the human condition is reflected in nature, his own tramping adventures and the various characters he met. Davies is usually considered one of the Georgian Poets, although much of his work is atypical of the style and themes adopted by others of the genre.
The son of an iron moulder, Davies was born at 6, Portland Street in the Pillgwenlly district of Newport, Monmouthshire, Wales, a busy port. He had an older brother, Francis Gomer Boase (who was considered "slow") and in 1874 his younger sister Matilda was born.
In November 1874, when William was aged three, his father died. The following year his mother Mary Anne Davies remarried and became Mrs Joseph Hill. She agreed that care of the three children should pass to their paternal grandparents, Francis and Lydia Davies, who ran the nearby Church House Inn at 14, Portland Street. His grandfather Francis Boase Davies, originally from Cornwall, had been a sea captain. Davies was related to the famous British actor Sir Henry Irving (referred to as cousin Brodribb by the family); he later recalled that his grandmother referred to Irving as " the cousin who brought disgrace on us". Davies' grandmother was described, by a neighbour who remembered her, as wearing ".. pretty little caps, with bebe ribbon, tiny roses and puce trimmings". Writing in his Introduction to the 1943 Collected Poems of W. H. Davies, Osbert Sitwell recalled Davies telling him that, in addition to his grandparents and himself, his home consisted of "an imbecile brother, a sister ... a maidservant, a dog, a cat, a parrot, a dove and a canary bird." Sitwell also recounts that Davies' grandmother, a Baptist by denomination, was "of a more austere and religious turn of mind than her husband."
In 1879 the family moved to Raglan Street, then later to Upper Lewis Street, from where William attended Temple School. In 1883 he moved to Alexandra Road School and the following year was arrested, as one of a gang of five schoolmates, and charged with stealing handbags. He was given twelve strokes of the birch. In 1885 Davies wrote his first poem entitled "Death".
In his Poet's Pilgrimage (1918) Davies recounts the time when, at the age of 14, he was left with orders to sit with his dying grandfather. He missed the final moments of his grandfather's death as he was too engrossed in reading "a very interesting book of wild adventure".
He returned to Britain, living a rough life, particularly in London shelters and doss-houses, including the Salvation Army hostel in Southwark known as "The Ark" which he grew to despise. Fearing the contempt of his fellow tramps, he would often feign slumber in the corner of his doss-house, mentally composing his poems and only later committing them to paper in private. At one stage he borrowed money to have his poems printed on loose sheets of paper, which he then tried to sell door-to-door through the streets of residential London. When this enterprise failed, he returned to his lodgings and, in a fit of rage, burned all of the printed sheets in the fire.
Davies self-published his first book of poetry, The Soul's Destroyer, in 1905, again by means of his own savings. It proved to be the beginning of success and a growing reputation. In order to even get the slim volume published, Davies had to forgo his allowance and live the life of a tramp for six months (with the first draft of the book hidden in his pocket), just to secure a loan of funds from his inheritance. When eventually published, the volume was largely ignored and he resorted to posting individual copies by hand to prospective wealthy customers chosen from the pages of Who's Who, asking them to send the price of the book, a half crown, in return. He eventually managed to sell 60 of the 200 copies printed. One of the copies was sent to Arthur Adcock, then a journalist with the Daily Mail. On reading the book, as he later wrote in his essay "Gods Of Modern Grub Street", Adcock said that he "recognised that there were crudities and even doggerel in it, there was also in it some of the freshest and most magical poetry to be found in modern books". He sent the price of the book and asked Davies to meet him. Adcock is still generally regarded as "the man who discovered Davies". The first trade edition of The Soul's Destroyer was published by Alston Rivers in 1907. A second edition followed in 1908 and a third in 1910. A 1906 edition, by Fifield, was advertised but has not been verified.
Davies returned to Newport, in September 1938, for the unveiling of a plaque in his honour at the Church House Inn, and with an address given by the Poet Laureate John Masefield. He was still unwell, however, and this proved to be his last public appearance.
Before his marriage to Helen, Davies would regularly visit London and stay with Osbert Sitwell and his brother Sacheverell. He particularly enjoyed walking with them along the river from the Houses of Parliament to the Physic Garden, near to their house, in Chelsea. During his visits Davies would often call, on a Sunday afternoon, to hear recitals on the harpsichord and clavichord given by Violet Gordon Woodhouse. Having moved to Watledge the Davieses continued to visit Gordon Woodhouse, at her house in Nether Lypiatt, near Stroud, to dine with the Sitwells.
About three months before he died, Davies was visited at Glendower by Gordon Woodhouse and the Sitwells, Davies being too ill to travel to dinner at Nether Lypiatt. Osbert Sitwell noted that Davies looked "very ill" but that ".. his head, so typical of him in its rustic and nautical boldness, with the black hair now greying a little, but as stiff as ever, surrounding his high bony forehead, seemed to have acquired an even more sculptural quality." Helen privately explained to Sitwell that Davies' heart showed "alarming symptoms of weakness" caused, according to his doctors, by the continuous dragging weight of his wooden leg. Helen had been careful to keep the true extent of the medical diagnosis from her husband.
Davies himself confided in Sitwell:
"I've never been ill before, really, except when I had that accident and lost my leg... And, d'you know, I grow so irritable when I've got that pain, I can't bear the sound of people's voices. ... Sometimes I feel I should like to turn over on my side and die."
Davies' health continued to deteriorate and he died, in September 1940, at the age of 69. Never a church-goer in his adult life, Davies was cremated at Cheltenham and his remains interred there.

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