I couldn’t even remember at first which poem it came from — it was the image that stuck.
It’s hard to know how or why this happens, but happen it does. A fragment of a poem lodges in the mind, illogically and irreversibly. I woke thinking about one of these again: the small creature with “shining eyes between the leaves” in the grass or under the hedge, the life that goes on despite us and beside us.
It was W H Davies who planted this image. It haunts me, especially when stuck in traffic, intent on some human imperative or other – the vision of a small creature nearby in the grass leading a separate life altogether.
Last June, when visiting New York and waiting on the train to go into the city, I glimpsed a chipmunk (I had never ever seen one before) busily about its business at the side of the train track. He was so easily missed, and yet there, as alive and urgent as we were, only a few yards away. W H Davies put him there for me, I reckon.
And about eight years ago, I was with my friend Stewart Eglin, outside the Adam Smith Theatre in Kirkcaldy, on a bench in the sun, when I had a similar experience. We had spent an hour in the café inside but they had thrown us out. It was their closing time and we weren’t done chatting. So we sat outside in the sun, and as we talked, I noticed a mouse. (We were beside a public thoroughfare, a main road and traffic lights). The mouse popped up its head from a grating just opposite us and looked from side to side, slowly and carefully. Its ears were as fine and clear as a cartoon mouse, the sun highlighting their translucence. I could practically see its whiskers. Then it popped down again, into the dark. It was sheer chance that I noticed it at all. Chance and W H Davies.
All those lives going on just beside ours. All the things we don’t see.
W H Davies was probably best known during his life time for The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, though he wanted his reputation to rest, above all, on his poetry, and for me, it does. When he needed inspiration he went walking, tramping through the countryside and over the hills, like his friend Edward Thomas.
Davies had many casual relationships with women, paying for sex on a regular basis, before he finally married (late but irrevocably). As a child, he had been brought up by his grandmother, in a strict Baptist faith, with many “shalt nots”. The theatre was regarded as sinful and the famous actor, Henry Irving (later knighted for his theatrical achievements) was known as the man who brought disgrace on the family.
But Davies was a rebel. He could never have settled for an ordinary life and even the story of how he became a poet is an extraordinary one (too long to tell here).
I tracked down the Davies poem that planted an image in my mind. It wasn’t at all the one I was expecting.
It was ‘A Fleeting Passion’, first published nearly a century ago in The Bird of Paradise. Here Davies recalls one of his sexual assignations. Oddly I had remembered nothing of the sex, the passion (fleeting or otherwise), or even the contrast between the man and the woman (to the woman’s grave disadvantage). It was the small creature in the grass at the edge of the road that had remained vivid and haunting. It will stay with me for life.
‘A Fleeting Passion’ is a strange poem, I think, as many of Davies’ poems are – despite his reputation for being a predictable Georgian. I’ll leave you with it.
A Fleeting Passion
(first published in The Bird of Paradise and Other Poems, 1914)
Thou shalt not laugh, thou shalt not romp,
...Let’s grimly kiss with bated breath;
As quietly and solemnly
...As Life when it is kissing Death.
Now in the silence of the grave,
...My hand is squeezing that soft breast;
While thou dost in such passion lie,
...It mocks me with its look of rest.
But when the morning comes at last,
...And we must part, our passions cold,
You’ll think of some new feather, scarf
...To buy with my small piece of gold;
And I’ll be dreaming of green lanes,
...Where little things with beating hearts
Hold shining eyes between the leaves,
...Till men with horses pass, and carts.