Friday, April 26, 2013

Making time to stand and stare

A blue plaque now graces the wall of the Church House Inn, Pill, Newport

Sometimes it takes the words of a dead man to make us slow down and reflect upon what’s important in life; what really matters when the layers of modern society and our consumerist lifestyles are stripped away.

Lately, whenever I find myself rushing from pillar to post, getting impatient in a traffic queue or just feeling stressed about life’s seemingly endless demands, I find myself mulling over the words of the poem  ‘Leisure’ by W H Davies.

W H died in 1940 and so copyright of his poetry has lapsed, which means I'm not breaking any laws by reproducing the poem here in its entirety:

‘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.’

No marks for guessing what our favourite line is!

But seriously, I love the sentiment behind his words and the idea that life is richer when you slow down and start noticing how absolutely perfect the natural world is.

William Henry Davies 1871-1940
William Henry Davies, universally known as W H Davies, was born in Newport, South Wales, on July 3, 1871, an era where the world at large moved more slowly (though the rapid expansion of Newport docks undoubtedly meant Pill(gwenlly) was a bustling place at the end of the 19th century).

Born 90 years apart, WH and I nonetheless have a lot in common, quite apart from the same home town, family name (my mother’s maiden name was Davies) and the day of the month on which we were born.

We both had grandparents living in Portland Street, however while WH and his siblings were brought up by his mother’s parents, Francis and Lydia Davies, at the Church House Inn, I met my own paternal grandfather just the once.

And while poetry has never really been my forté (if you want to judge for yourself, read Rope Bridges) I absolutely share WH’s love of words.

But where I truly recognise a kindred spirit is in WH’s thirst for adventure, his desire from an early age to wander far and wide. Not, I hasten to add, that I’ve done anything like the amount of travelling he did. Neither have I ever slept rough or chanced leaping onto a moving train.

Yet the wanderlust is always there, simmering below the surface, unfulfilled in part because I have children and financial commitments but also, if I'm honest, because I lack something WH had in abundance: courage.

The poet was a self-proclaimed hobo (tramp)
He was young when he headed to America that first time – just 22. Yet, that’s exactly the age you should be doing outrageous things, travelling the world, and sleeping under the stars. Because one thing’s certain, if you’re not brave enough to throw yourself at life when you are young, you never will be. You've missed the boat. Our older selves will always tend to over-think and over-plan – we need itineraries, emergency money in our bank accounts, assurances that nothing will go wrong, comfortable beds with en-suite bathrooms. The list goes on...

As the publisher’s ‘trumpeter’ for The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, George Bernard Shaw described WH as ‘a free knight of the highway, [who] lived like a pet bird on titbits’. 

The working-class poet, who had his lower leg amputated after falling from a train, was rather more blunt, referring to himself as a ‘hobo’.

I think I’d like to be the female equivalent, a free dame of the highway, with the highway in question a long-distance, high-level trail winding through varied, but always beautiful, landscapes. I can see myself now, legs toned and tanned, living on oranges and grapes, and just the occasional warm bread roll, always walking, always moving on.

In the magnificent Young Emma, WH gives a short account of the early days of his relationship and subsequent marriage to Helen Payne, thirty years his junior and a former prostitute. After sending the manuscript to his publisher Jonathan Cape in 1924, he had second thoughts about revealing just how badly he’d treated his doting young wife (he mistakenly believed she’d given him a venereal disease). He requested his editor return the manuscript and destroy two type-written copies to stop it getting ‘into the hands of strangers in about 50 years time’.

Fortunately for modern day readers, the copies were simply put into a safe and forgotten about until after his death in 1940. They were eventually rediscovered but Jonathan Cape continued to respect the author’s wishes and Young Emma was only published in 1980, a year after Helen’s death.

I recently read the book and the poet’s passion for the natural world is evident throughout. Eager to leave London, he decides to move to the countryside where he dreams ‘of passing more trees than human beings, and hearing more bird than human voices’.

Newport's 'Stand and Stare' statue by Paul Bothwell-Kincaid 
Though devoted to him, Helen/Emma never really understood why her husband’s ‘lonely country walks’ where he could ‘stop and stare’ were so necessary for his emotional well-being and creativity as a poet.
‘For while she was indoors, looking at the rooms, I was in the garden, trying to name the trees, and a dream of leaves I had: I wanted to cover the whole house all over with green leaves: around every window, all over the roof, and even around the chimney stack. But this, of course, would take years and years: and life would be generous indeed, if I ever saw that done.’
‘There appeared to be no ending to my liking for nature; whether a tree was so leafy that it reduced the whole heavens to a few blue eyes, or whether the twigs were as thin and bare as the bird’s legs that used them – it was all the same to me.’
Young Emma, W H Davies

Perhaps it’s me, but I find it slightly ironic that this passionate nature-lover, this man for whom time stood still whenever he walked in the countryside or woodland, should, in 1930, be awarded a grandmother clock by his townsfolk.

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