The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp by W H Davies

Published 1908

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?

oak tree

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.

oak tree

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.

oak tree

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.

oak trees

(Photo by Justin Novello on Unsplash)

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.

oak treewales_flag

 

Stonesifer, R. J. (1963), W. H. Davies – A Critical Biography, London: Jonathan Cape, ISBN B0000CLPA3 (first full biography of Davies).

 

44 thoughts on “The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp by W H Davies”

  1. Fascinating, somehow I imagine it was a little easier to be a tramp on the road over a hundred years ago, maybe finding nice warm barns to sleep in and knocking at farm doors for food, offering to do odd jobs. As for animals being transported, has that improved?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you enjoyed it 🙂 It’s a quirky read – certainly different. (And will shortly be available from the store at our local library; I shall finally be returning it!)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Don’t worry, Sandra. It’s the quality of the completed piece of writing that counts (as proved by this review), not the speed at which you publish posts. 😊

        We saw D’s surgeon yesterday and her op has been scheduled for 21st June. Six weeks after surgery she starts a course of radiotherapy (every day for three weeks) and will have regular Herceptin infusions – but the really nasty bit (chemo) is at an end. Also, everything has been planned very nicely around our cruise, so we set sail three weeks after her op. Can’t wait! 🚢

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Fantastic news, Paula. You are both going to need this cruise 🙂

          (As for the backlog of book posts, my plan is to slot them in amongst others in the hope that I keep up to date with everything else and play catch up with just the one thing! Plans have a habit of going awry…. 😉 )

          Liked by 1 person

  2. The idea of being a tramp is probably much more romantic than the reality. Freedom versus meal a and shelter… Your review reminded me of George Orwell’s stories of tramping around England in Down and Out in Paris and London.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I should have thought of Orwell. That would be an interesting comparison. And I’m sure you’re right, Rose; the idea is far more romantic than the reality. Davies doesn’t suggest it’s a bed of roses – quite the reverse a lot of the time.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I don’t think you’ve convinced me to read the book but I very much enjoyed reading your review! That clip of him reading Leisure is extremely discombobulating – if you listen with your eyes closed, it’s lovely. But if you watch that awful computer manipulation to make it look as if he’s speaking, it turns into a nightmarish horror sequence… 😱

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I’m sorry about the animation; it’s ghastly! I spent a bit of time trying to find a better version but the other option was not that much better and longer – so even more to endure! I wanted to include his voice though; it’s fabulous! (Maybe I should add a health warning to the link! 😂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. A great review of a book I read as a teenager. I’m sure I’d get far more from it now: your review – insightful as ever – tempts me to pop it on the pile. But the pile is more than tottering……..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think we have to be strong when it comes to what goes on the pile. This is a fascinating book but you’ve earned your stripes by reading it already. I would suggest you move on! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree, Maria, good to have read it at last. As for human nature, I think that’s one of the things that surprised me. There seemed a difference between human nature then and now. Were people kinder, were they more open to the ‘other’? I wonder.

      Like

      1. He seemed to feel there was a big difference between the open handedness found in the USA and the poverty and therefore poorer handouts he experienced back in the UK. That may have changed. But his musings on freedom and so on were helpful when I was talking to a certain beggar I know! It’s not a universal comment but I found his ideas informative for now as well as then. He helped me connect with that person in a new and much more honest way.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I take your point, Maria. How gratifying that a book from so far back has had a direct and positive impact today, and on the very group of people that Davies described for us.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. I downloaded this for Paula’s readathon with great enthusiasm and got distracted, so thank you for the reminder! It seemed like an intriguing read at the time, and your review confirms that instinct. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Oh I know how easily that distraction thing happens, Liz! This is certainly something different, Liz. Of it’s time and a look into the life of an interesting man. I couldn’t help feeling that life seemed simpler then which worried me slightly. I’m not eady yet to start looking back at ‘the good old days’! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Great review Sandra, on yet another writer little known to me. What a marvellous outlook he had on life.
    Another one for the ever growing reading pile. But isn’t THAT wonderful!! xxx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, but you know his poem, Pat: What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare? I know how much you look, listen and enjoy when out in the fresh air 🙂

      (And yes! Aren’t we lucky to have such a ‘difficult’ problem!) xx

      Like

  7. Hi Sandra – I was sure I posted a comment on your interesting review, but somehow it is not here! Anyway, thank you for the review, I also did not know/recall that Davies wrote the poem that is so often quoted, and I completely agree with the sentiment expressed. I will look out for the Super-Tramp book, which seems to resonate still in current times. (Btw, I see that the English rock band Supertramp took its name from the book.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Carol, although the band was often in my thoughts whilst reading and writing about the book, I didn’t realise that they took their name from it. Thank you for that! Supertramp (the band) was a great favourite of mine back in the day!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. A lovely read this. Like many others growing up in the ‘50s I read the poem on ‘Leisure’ at school.

      Recently while staring out the kitchen window at the sheep and cows in the field I was reminded of it.

      I reworked those most oft quoted lines as a haiku …

      we stand ‘n stare –
      among the sheep ‘n cows
      swallows twitter

      Just a bit of fun!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I always enjoy Haikus, Clive 🙂 Around here, it’s mostly cows – I stand and stare at them often. As for swallows – it’s always a treat to hear them twittering. Swallows are a favourite of mine, sadly depleted here for the last couple of years.

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply to Elizabeth Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.