What is this life if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare. No time to stand beneath the boughs And stare as long as sheep or cows. No time to see, when woods we pass, Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass. No time to see, in broad daylight, Streams full of stars, like skies at night. No time to turn at Beauty’s glance, And watch her feet, how they can dance. No time to wait till her mouth can Enrich that smile her eyes began. A poor life this if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare.
“Leisure” is a favourite poem by William Henry Davies a poet and writer from my home town of Newport in Wales. Davies spent a significant part of his life as a tramp or hobo, riding the freight trains of America. 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.
Often he would be forced to beg for a crust, just to survive, and sometimes he would deliberately get himself caught for minor crimes, knowing that a warm prison cell was far more preferable than freezing to death on the barren prairies of the American Midwest. His descriptions of these adventures, later published as “The Autobiography of a Super Tramp”, give a view of life on the road in the final years of the 19th century.
Heading for the gold fields of the Klondike in 1899, Davies slipped while trying to jump a train at Penfrew, Ontario. His leg was crushed by the carriage wheels and later had to be amputated below the knee. He returned to Britain and lived in hostels for several years. He had always been an avid reader and now took to composing poems in his head, only putting them down on paper later, when his fellow inmates had gone to bed.
He borrowed money and published the book The Soul’s Destroyer. Davies sent copies to well-known people and asked them, if they liked it, to send him half a crown in return. Among those who sent money was the famous playwright George Bernard Shaw.
Within months WH Davies was being lionized by the literary elite of Britain, his poems praised for their simplicity and refreshing beauty. A tramp-poet was certainly unusual but people were also quick to see that there was real talent and skill in Davies’ deceptively simple creations. Soon his poems were appearing in the influential anthologies of the Georgian Poets, most of them, like Leisure, praising the wonders of nature.
Among his friends were people such as Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas and Joseph Conrad. World War One destroyed the pastoral idyll of the Georgian poets and cut away many of Davies’ friends.
In September 1940 he died, aged just 69 years. He would undoubtedly have said that it was a life well spent.
On my daily walks I enjoy stopping and staring, I see colours, shapes and textures all around. I often find myself reciting this poem as I walk, sending up a prayer of thanks for being able to have this time.
Nature inspires poets, writers and artists working in every medium and on every level. This last week we have looked at fashion and textiles, the vast majority of embroidery featured has been inspired by nature and in particular flowers.
Today try and find some time to stop and stare. Sometimes when you really look you can be surprised by what you can see.
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