Read for Dewithon 2019 and for the Classics Club
The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp was the readalong book for the inaugural Welsh Readathon hosted by Paula at Book Jotter. It ran for the whole of March. I read lots of books. As usual I’m still catching up with posting my thoughts on them. Thus, here we are in June and here I am, putting together my notes from March!
My copy of this book contains brief Author’s Notes to the 1920 edition (which I see were written in Cornwall). From this, we learn how Davies – first and foremost a poet – came to write his autobiography, at the age of 35.
“This autobiography was written on the advice of a number of friends who claimed that my life of adventure would have an interest for the public, distinct from any merit I might have as a poet. Taking their advice, I began the book at once, and, as the incidents were fresh in my memory, the work was ready for a publisher in a couple of months.” (p.15)
A Foreword was added to the 1923 edition, equally brief. Here Davies pontificates on which books furnish their authors with an income: those that sell quickly for a short time apparently making more than those which sell steadily for longer. He sees his book – this ‘autobiography’ – in the latter camp. He also discusses books which are purchased and books which are borrowed.
“… I have come to the conclusion that if only one quarter of my readers had been buyers instead of borrowers, I would now be worth half a street, perhaps a castle, an island, or a full-masted ship.” (p.17)
I begin with these quotes because they seem to me to illuminate the sort of man I imagine Davies to have been. He is described by history as a poet, a writer and a tramp but that says little about the type of person he was and surely, at least some of the purpose in reading an autobiography (or perhaps a memoir in this instance) is to be left with an idea of the subject as a person?
It was at this point that I popped over to Paula’s blog to remind myself of a point or two, only to notice that she also began the first of her comprehensive weekly posts on Super-Tramp with quotes from the Author’s Notes and Foreword. Rather than reproduce much else of what Paula has already written, I urge anyone with an interest to read her posts for a detailed view of the book’s contents. (Use the readathon link above.) I shall simply say here that the book recounts Davies’ years on the road in England and North America, culminating with the beginnings of his success as a published poet.
Davies, it seems to me, was a man of humour and tenacity. Living as he did for a number of years, on the road and in a variety of doss-houses, it might be assumed that he believed the world owed him a living. But this was not the case. He needed very little to get by beyond the freedom to live his own life. He disdained the notion of working for another but he did not disdain the notion of work. He endured hardship and rejection before finally gaining recognition, largely as a result of his own self-belief and creativity in getting his poems read. During his years on the road, he forged friendships with a vast array of ‘interesting’ characters. Once recognised as a poet, his friendship group included many of the most famous politicians and literary figures in the country. Davies, it seems, had the rare ability to get along with others from both sides of the divide. People helped him at most stages of his life but he also helped himself. Writing this ‘autobiography’ was another step towards making an income sufficient to support himself and gaining an audience for his work.
To read Super-Tramp is to take a peek into a very different world. I was intrigued by the codes of conduct among the hobos in America; by the comparisons between life on the road there and here in the UK. I was warmed by the kindness and generosity shown to Davies and his companions, although as Paula’s posts observe, it’s difficult to believe the veracity of Davies’ account in this regard especially given the high unemployment levels in America at the time. I was amused by some of his more audacious escapades and appalled at the racial references. Accepting that they were of their time does not make them any easier to read. I was shocked by the terrible accident which befalls him and horrified at the conditions under which cattle were transported across the Atlantic.
All of which suggests that this must be a book of passion and high emotions. It is not. Prevailed upon to write a preface (which is definitely worth reading) George Bernard Shaw wrote: “It is a placid narrative, unexciting in matter and unvarnished in manner, of the commonplaces of a tramp’s life. It is of a very curious quality.” (p.10) He concludes with this: “Though it is only in verse that he writes exquisitely, yet this book … is worth reading by literary experts for its style alone.” (p.13)
I certainly found it worth reading. Anticipating perhaps, the works of wandering writers such as Laurie Lee, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Jack Kerouac, it is unpretentious and humble, but seemed all the more compelling for that. To borrow from Shaw, it is indeed, a curiosity and one which held my interest throughout.
As a poet, Davies is known for his nature themes, unsurprising perhaps, given the years he spent in such close proximity with nature in all her guises. Shaw described him as a ‘genuine innocent’ and his biographer, Stonesifer, refers to the ‘often childlike realism, directness and simplicity’ of his style. Davies’ most famous poem is Leisure, written a few years after Super-Tramp, which Davies himself recites in this clip, beginning with a brief exposition on his philosophy of life. In short:
“I chose my own tasks and then found joy in doing them.”
In this, he was a rich man indeed.
I had wondered about how Paula had decided on her choice of readalong book for Dewithon. The more I read about Davies, the more inspired that choice seemed. I imagined Davies to be affable, humble and generous – all qualities exhibited by many a Welshman, and an opinion confirmed by Prof. Thomas when introducing Davies as he received his honorary degree in 1926:
“A Welshman, a poet of distinction, and a man in whose work much of the peculiarly Welsh attitude to life is expressed with singular grace and sincerity. He combines a vivid sense of beauty with affection for the homely, keen zest for life and adventure with a rare appreciation of the common, universal pleasures, and finds in those simple things of daily life a precious quality, a dignity and a wonder that consecrate them. Natural, simple and unaffected, he is free from sham in feeling and artifice in expression. He has re-discovered for those who have forgotten them, the joys of simple nature. He has found romance in that which has become commonplace; and of the native impulses of an unspoilt heart, and the responses of a sensitive spirit, he has made a new world of experience and delight. He is a lover of life, accepting it and glorying in it. He affirms values that were falling into neglect, and in an age that is mercenary reminds us that we have the capacity for spiritual enjoyment.”
What better choice than a book by a poet – a Welsh poet – who himself epitomises so much of the Welsh character and who poses a question still relevant to us today:
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
Stonesifer, R. J. (1963), W. H. Davies – A Critical Biography, London: Jonathan Cape, ISBN B0000CLPA3 (first full biography of Davies).