Idris Davies 1905-1948

The Man and the Poet
(By Glyn Jones)

Around 1936 and 1937 I began to see the name Idris Davies under poems written in English and appearing usually in small magazines, more often than not those which claim to speak for the hard-tolling working people. I was very interested in Welsh poets and short story writers like Dylan Thomas, Rhys Davies, Caradoc Evans and Vernon Watkins, Welshmen who got their writing done in English. So un-Saxon a name of Idris Davies could say belong to a person of this group. At the first opportunity then, I sought a meeting with him.

It was arranged that we should meet outside the Capitol Cinema in Cardiff, and that would look for a man wearing a white rose. He was a man in his early thirties then. The first sight of him on that wet afternoon, as I remember was quite unlike what I had imagined. I at once thought of the words of General Picton, the Welshman, second in command under Wellington at Waterloo. The ideal infantryman, he said, was the typical dark, stocky South Walian, about five feet two in eight.

This young man standing expectantly with a white flower in his button-hole, wearing a cap and scarf a mackintosh and leather gloves, was like Picton’s ideal of a soldier, short, although more than five foot two, thick-set, erect and sturdy, and very dark. He was from the valleys of South Wales. He was of the obscure race that held Wales before the coming of fair-head Celts.

Schoolmaster

It turned out that he was a school teacher in London, at that time, trying to get back to a similar post in Wales. It was some while after this meeting that he got his teaching job in Cardiff, near my home, and I used to meet him fairy often usually on a Saturday.

South Wales was indeed his home. We have a part of a description his childhood in a long poem:

I was born in Rhymney
To a miner and his wife-
On a January morning
I was pulled into this life.

I lost my native language
For the one the Saxon spake
By going to school by order
For education sake.

I learnt the use of decimals,
And where to place the dot,
Four or five lines from Shakespeare
And twelve from Walter Scott.

I learnt a little grammar
And some geography,
Was frightened by perspective,
And detested poetry.

In a land of narrow valleys,
And solemn Sabbath Days,
And collieries and choirs,
I learnt my people’s ways.

The poet’s childhood would appear to have been that of any lively and sensitive boy brought up in a working-class home in the mining valleys, the sort of life described in prose by Rhys Davies and Gwyn Thomas. The indefatigable mothers of those years were likely to be, in the words of Holy Writ, “unlettered”. His schooling ended when he was only fourteen and he went down into the mines. Fourteen was the normal school-leaving age in miners’ families at that time, and Idris was not forced into the mines against his will.

He worked underground for seven years, so that none knew better than he what the miners experienced, and how well he knew when he wrote:

“These men went into the gloom
And the danger day by day
Went with a curse and a joke
Until desperation forced them out

So out of the grime they came
Insulted and angry and proud
Together to march in the sun
With a song and a curse and a vow”

Striker

Idris Davies was one of the strikers. He was one of the unemployed and one of the hungry, the defenceless, defeated and bitter. He never forgot. He was deeply involved in those days in the struggle for social justice, and his side was always the side of the miner; not only the heroic miner praised by the newspapers for rescuing his comrades from fire, flood or entombment, but the miner on strike, and locked out, and agitating, the miner reviled and screamed-at and threatened.

His book “The Angry Summer,” which recalls the time, was for the poet himself, I’m inclined to think, less a book of poems than a book containing one poem, on the General Strike of 1926, divided into sections. Here is an example of the deep feeling to be found in it the poet’s passionate anger and scorn at the final betrayal of the miners’ cause on what came to be known in the coalfields as “Black Friday:”

The telephones are ringing
And treachery, in the air
The sleek one,
The expert at compromise
Is bowing in Whitehall
And lackey to fox to parrot cries:
“The nation must be saved.”
What is the nation, gentlemen,
Who are the nation, my lords?
The sleek one,
The expert at compromise,
Is chattering in Whitehall.

When the miners went back to the pits after their long stoppage, Idris Davies did not return with them. He engaged instead in what he calls the “long and lonely self-tuition game,” and finally entered Nottingham University to train as a teacher. When he had completed his course, he was appointed to a school in London. He became a great lover of London, of Hampstead Heath, of Epping Forest, and especially of Charing Cross Road, with its second-hand bookshops.

Inborn Shyness

It was by working hard that he succeeded, but he was never like others who went through college, who accepted a continuous academic life as a matter of course. Idris Davies never ceased to feel awkward before those he regarded as highly cultured people. The eventual approval of T. S. Eliot and the publication of his works by Dent and by Faber could not change this feeling he had. It was an inborn shyness – an endearing quality for me, though it did not help his career as a poet. When he died in 1953, at the age of 48, he was not really well known, not even in Wales, his own country. He could never strike an attitude, dramatize himself. A man so completely without flamboyance could never catch the public imagination as Caradoc Evans had done, or Dylan Thomas whom he knew. He had no gift of publicity or self-advertisement, or myth-making as Dylan had.

Idris Davies as a man was not “news.” His verse is simple direct, wholesome unpretentious, unadorned, and so was its author. His convictions were open direct. He had no violent prejudices, no touchiness; no irascibility. His conflicts were not hidden or smouldering to explode from time to time in sulks or eruptions of temper. He had a vast capacity for sympathy, and he longed to make it felt.

A Clean Bohemian

He was a good deal of a Bohemian in his liking for late nights, talk, cafes, freedom and tramping about. But he was a Bohemian with a profound regard for soap and clean linen. I often picture him now that he is gone sitting, talking; always well-scrubbed – like the shine of one of the colliers he so often wrote about just come out of his bath. His pallid face was spare and rugged, with deep incisions running along the cheeks, his thick hair black and gleaming, brushed straight back off his forehead. His rather old-fashioned glasses were often askew. His mutilated hand, damaged in an accident underground, would hold one of the cheap cigarettes he had got to like in the days when he was unemployed. He would talk and talk, about Wales, about politics, about poetry, sometimes about W. B. Yeats – the cunning, arrogant and complicated poet who was his hero, and his complete antithesis as man and artist.

Will Griff’s Testimony

While he was in London, despite moments of great loneliness and longing for home in Wales, he learned to like the city and its people, and he made many close friends. One of these was Will Griffiths, who records how Idris Davies became one of a small coterie of London Welsh. “Idris and I became acquainted some years before the war. It was a case of instant friendship, and for this reason: You see, he came from Rhymney, and my mother from, so to speak next door – Pontlottyn. As it is with us Welsh, he knew my people and I his. He was lonely in London at this time, and many is the time we sat together talking of Rhymney and the other valleys. We laughed about many an old character and his sayings and ways, and often, it was easy to see, Idris laughed boisterously in order to cover up the tears that were in his eyes and voice. As a Welsh group we met every Friday evening Together we discussed literature and the arts, and Idris was invariably at this period in his life, very happy. He would recite to us English poetry hour after hour, all from memory, and sometimes we would twit him and say that if only poets would write in Welsh as well as they did in English, it would be for the good of our language. He would respond to this immediately by pointing out the beauties of Welsh poetry, even on occasions climbing on a table to do so. His knowledge of Welsh poetry was no mean thing.”

Early Work in London

That his early poems were written in his London days seems the safest guess, because he used to read the “Adelphi” and dream of writing poems to submit to its editor, Middleton Murry. Many people I believe, first met the name of Idris Davies in the early numbers of Keidrych’s Rhys’s “Wales.” Anyhow, we know that by 1938, he had written enough poetry to make up a volume because that year saw the appearance of his first book “Gwalia Deserta.” The dominant theme here, as the title suggests, is not the great strike but the great depression between the two wars. The book has not quite the intensity, the vigour, the passion, the unity of “The Angry Summer” which was to follow it, but it is nevertheless fresh and sincere, and contains many pieces of great charm, power and beauty.

Idris Davies became very tired of hearing critics of his work point out continually his affinities with Housman, but it is, all the same, true that a few lyrics in “Gwalia Deserta,” have a rather Housman-like ring. But some of the more persistent and striking features of this book, the nostalgia, the humour often come through with greater clarity in the free-verse pieces. For example there is the following:

Because I was sceptical in our Sunday School
And tried to picture Jesus crawling in the local mine,
The dozen deacons bred and the milk of Spurgeon
Told me I was dangerous and in danger

On Sabbath evenings when I yawned in grand-mother’s pew,
When the parson roused himself with his raised arms,
And the elders cried out, “Amen, Amen.”
And Jenkins the Joiner nudged his wife with a caramel,
And tired mothers were musing on carpets and insurance agents,
And young fathers coaxed tiny boys to sleep,
I remembered I used to stare through the chapel windows
Watching the sun like a perfect tomato touching the hill,
And a swarthy young man wandering on a distant ridge
And his body was bent and his smile was compassionate,
And sometimes in mid-week I would see him again,
And we would smile and understand.

During World War II, Idris Davies was evacuated from London to Hertfordshire, then to the Rhondda Valley and finally to Cardingshire. In 1945, with the ending of the war, his third volume, “Tonypandy,” appeared. The long poem from which the book takes its title was presumably composed in the Rhondda during his evacuation there, but some of the other poems had been written as far back as 1937, before “Gwalia Deserta,” such as “Renaissance,” which W. B. Yeats, said he would like to have set to music. It begins:

The cocks of the south were crowing,
And white sails shone on the sea,
And Rabelais rolled with laughter
Under the richest tree.

But of significance is that this volume there is emerging a new Idris Davies, a poet who delights in fine language. He writes a sonnet:

I tossed my golden anchor to the sea
To tease the twisted tides of salty joy,
And then my heart pursued the mystery
Of sea-born kings that did the moon annoy
Before the horn of summer caught the tune
Born in the shell of grief. The velvet bone
Of sea-weed forests melted in the noon
And every frond bent down to clasp the stone,
Sea bottom surge, be gentle with my bread
For in my bread there sleeps another god
Whose hands are clean, whose heart is strong and red
The idols of old Sabbath loved the rod
And smiled to see our blood on window panes
And danced upon the dead in thistle lanes.

It is interesting to hear what the poet himself thought of the poem. In a letter to me about the review of “Tonypandy,” I had written, he rebuked me for singling out this sonnet for special praise. “The only really obscure poem in the book,” he wrote “is the sonnet, which I never really liked and which I am very sorry I ever included in this volume. It was a typical piece of 1930-ish verse, – tripe of the first order.” That is what the poet thought in 1945. And yet the sonnet has appeared in print repeatedly and T. S. Eliot thought it worthy of inclusion in the poet’s “Selected Poems.”

Man of Simplicity

Idris Davies was one who liked simple jokes, simple natures, simple relationships – and simple poetry. He was as incapable of envy as he was of calculation. He cultivated the people he liked rather than the people he should see. He describes in some of his poems his religious doubts and questionings. Whether he finally overcame those I do not know, but he seemed to me always to live like a Christian man. He was among the meek, and the merciful, and the pure in heart. His nature was given to appreciation of others. I well remember him one evening at the Cardiff Docks, where he liked to go, when he met a group of Shoni Winwns men, Breton onion sellers with their strings of onions and their carrying-poles over their shoulders. I shall long remember the pleasure Idris derived from an encounter rich in goodwill on both sides, and from a conversation carried on in an incredibly expressive lingo involving English, Welsh, French and Breton.

Suffering and Triumph

We could regard Idris Davies’ fate as a sad one, and indeed there were elements of real tragedy in it. During his last illness – so long and wearisome – he suffered greatly, and he died, it would seem, not fulfilled as a poet or as a man, and before his achievement had brought him the recognition he deserved. All this was true and saddening, but there was to his life also its triumphant aspect. His personality was endlessly creative; his gaiety and his endearing guilelessness brought him the affection of many friends; his delight in poetry, both English and Welsh, was unbounded. He had courage and integrity, and of course, he was a poet.

As the Welsh say in honouring a loved one gone, “Heddwch i’w Iwch.” Peace to his dust.

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