W.H. Davies, the Welsh tramp poet, at the top of his fame near the end of World War I, tired of London literary life and decided to marry and decamp. But how to get a wife? At 50 he wasn't much to look at: short with a hugh head, thick lips, coarse dark skin and minus a leg lost mising the rung of a freight car in Canada years before. Luckily, he had no illusions about himself.
Or about the women he was apt to meet. After trying three of varying temperaments and morals, he meets poor charming Emma, 20, fresh in from the country, already pregnant but not yet a prostitute. He takes her home and tends her through the delivery of a stillborn child while wrongly suspecting that the venereal disease that nearly kills him has come from her. From this poor beginning, love blooms, they marry, move to the country and live happily ever after.
This was but one episode in Davies' emergence as a poet phenomenon. After years of bumming around America, Canada and England, in 1905 he'd hawked his first volume, "The Soul's Destroyer," in the London streets. A copy came into the hands of Edward Thomas, the critic (later one of the finest poets of his generation), who praisd the poems, and found, befriended and housed the poet. A few years later publication of "The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp," boosted by George Bernard Shaw, gave Davies the prestige and financial means to develop as a poet.
And develop he did. As simple as water, his verse proved popular with the public and critics alike, and was favorably compared with that of Herrick and Suckling, Clare and Blake. Walter de a Mara wrote that it was as natural as a buttercup of a goldfinch. And sometimes had nature's harshness. "The Villain" ends: While every bird enjoyed his song, Without one thought of harm or wrong -- I turned my head and saw the wind, Not far from where I stood, Dragging the corn by her golden hair, Into a dark and lonely wood.
Though he wrote much more that was pedestrian, none of it whined. He took life on its own terms. That fine poet, Ralph Hodgson, found him once with his good leg trussed and suspended, Davies saying, "One of nature's favorites . . . now I've got the gout!"
Davies wrote up the episode in "Young Emma" and sent the manuscript to publisher Jonathan Cape in 1924, but when he told Emma of it and she became upset, he recalled the original and exacted from Cape a promise to destroy the two copies, a promise Cape failed to keep. When Emma died in 1979 (Davies almost 40 years earlier), the publisher felt the agreement had been observed and that he was free to publish the manuscript.
William Plomer, the writer, says that to have destroyed "young Emma" would have been a form of vandalism -- posterity has priority. The other argument, that today's sexual mores have diluted the shock of some of the book's scenes, is equally hollow. The only salient point is that Davies wanted the book quashed and died believing that it had been. If the writer is free to create a work, he is also free to kill it. It is, after all, his. G.K. Chesterton put it well: "The most sacred thing is to be able to close your own door."
Had "Young Emma" been a masterpiece this truth would still stand. But it is not. Where Davies' poems were limpid his prose simply limped. The book's prime virtue is the insight it provides on society's underdogs and on Davies' personal goodness. With most poets the poetry can be separated from the man; with Davies it cannot. He is there, a quiet gentle presence, living verse that vivifies his and Emma's life together imcomparably better than does this abortive book. A lovely wife, and gentle too; Contented that no eyes but mine Can see her many charms, nor voice To call her beauty fine. With this small house, this garden large, This little gold, this lovely mate, With health in body, peace at heart -- Show me a man more great. ("Truly Great")