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Tuesday, 25 May 2010

W. H. Davies: Sheep



When I was once in Baltimore
A man came up to me and cried,
"Come, I have eighteen hundred sheep,
And we will sail on Tuesday's tide.

"If you will sail with me, young man,
I'll pay you fifty shillings down;
These eighteen hundred sheep I take
From Baltimore to Glasgow town."

He paid me fifty shillings down,
I sailed with eighteen hundred sheep;
We soon had cleared the harbour's mouth,
We soon were in the salt sea deep.

The first night we were out at sea
Those sheep were quiet in their mind;
The second night they cried with fear --
They smelt no pastures in the wind.

They sniffed poor things for their green fields,
They cried so loud I could not sleep:
For fifty thousand shillings down
I would not sail again with sheep.

File:Waldschafe retouched.jpg

We found the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad easy to beat, and were at the end of our journey in a very few days. When we entered the cattleman's office, from which place owners and foremen were supplied with men, it was evident to me that Australian Red was well known in this place, hearing him make many enquiries of Washington Shorty, New York Fatty, Philadelphia Slim, and others. At this place I made the acquaintance of Oklahoma Sam, an extremely quiet man, very much respected in that he had a cold-blooded fashion of whittling wood and paring his nails with a steel blade nearly a foot long. Another queer character was Baldy...

We also had on this trip two thousand head of sheep, quartered on the hurricane deck. When we were six days out there came a heavy storm, and the starboard side was made clean, as far as pens and sheep were concerned, one wave bearing them all away. This happened at night, and on the following morning the sheep-men were elated at having less work to do during the remainder of the voyage. The cattle, being protected on the main deck, and between decks, and their breath filling the air with warmth, make the cattleman's lot far more comfortable than that of the sheep-men. The condition of the cattle can be seen without difficulty, but ten or fifteen sheep lying or standing in the front of a crowded pen, may be concealing the dead or dying that are lying in the background. For this reason it is every morning necessary to crawl through the pens, far back, in quest of the sick and the dead, and it is nothing unusual to find half a dozen dead ones. The voyage would not be considered bad if thirty sheep only died out of two thousand...

File:A brown ewe portrait.jpg

The Welsh poet William H. Davies came from mean circumstances. He was born in 1871 in the working class Pillgwenlly district of Newport, in Monmouthshire. His father, an ironmoulder, died when he was two. He was raised by his grandparents, who ran a drinking establishment. In and out of trouble as a lad, he left school, put his hand briefly to his father's trade of ironworking, then apprenticed as a picture framer, but was driven by a restless nature to strike out into the world.

After stays in Bristol and London he migrated to North America in 1893, and for the next six years lived a vagrant's life. He picked up work as a casual labourer and seasonal fruit picker. Saloon adventures and misadventures segued into periods of panhandling and grifting. During these years he made a number of trips back to the British Isles as a deckhand and animal handler on merchant ships bound to Liverpool and Glasgow from Baltimore, where he had been spending his winters.

Davies wrote two poems about sheep are based on later recollections of such a voyage made in 1896. One of them is above. The other is "A Child's Pet":

When I sailed out of Baltimore,
With twice a thousand head of sheep,
They would not eat, they would not drink,
But bleated o'er the deep.

Inside the pens we crawled each day
To sort the living from the dead;
And when we reached the Mersey's mouth
Had lost five hundred head.

Yet every night and day one sheep,
That had no fear of man or sea
Stuck through the bars its pleading face,
And it was stroked by me.

And to the sheep-men standing near,
"You see," I said, "this one tame sheep?
It seems a child has lost her pet,
And cried herself to sleep."

So every time we passed it by
Sailing to England's slaughterhouse,
Eight ragged sheep-men -- tramps and thieves --
Would stroke that sheep's black nose.

By 1899 the rough and ready Davies had become an accomplished "super-tramp", but this phase of his life came to an abrupt end after a mishap on an 1899 journey northward toward the Klondike gold fields. While riding the rods in Renfrew, Ontario, he was dragged under a train he was attempting to hop, and lost a leg.

Back in England, equipped with a wooden limb, he drifted from shelter to doss-house to Salvation Army hostel, enduring years of extreme penury as a peddler and beggar before finally managing to self-publish his first book of poems in 1905.

His tales of his years as a hobo enliven the colourful (and likely somewhat fictionalized) memoir he would write a few years later, The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp. George Bernard Shaw, who along with the poets Arthur Symons and Edward Thomas was a strong Davies supporter, contributed an introduction. Davies was "taken up," and began a long literary career.

The Autobiography is a work that capitalizes, and enlarges, upon Davies' wide early experience of the world and its several toils and miseries. Some of the more poignant passages concern his attempts to ease the routinely cruel mistreatment of animals on merchant vessels. These betray a gentle heart beneath the rugged surface.

WH Davies - photo courtesy of Seren Books

W. H. Davies: Sheep from Songs of Joy and Others, 1911

W. H. Davies: The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp (excerpts), 1908

View of the mainland from Eigg: photo by griff le riff, 2006

Ovis orientalis f. aries: photo by 3268zauber, 2008, image retouched by AlMare, 2009

Sheep at sea: photographer unknown, n. d., via Poems and Prose, Kendrive, 2006
A brown ewe: photo by Jim Champion, 2007
W. H. Davies: photographer unknown, n. d., via BBC South East Wales Arts


Skip Fox said...

Et in Arcady

Too often such a biography is back-considered. Here we begin in an fallen Arcady of hard work amid the life and death of sheep (far past their verdant hills), horrifying but vital, then the world bit down hard and the privations became very real, the future very bleak. Not simply a backdrop or screen-saver. (Those of us who have been through even a little bit of it understand it as a/the base line reality . . . perhaps what we "deserve.")

Since nostagia is central to the nature of the pastoral, this nostalgia (and pastoral) is far from the sentimental variety even if we only consider that the nostalgia references the time prior to the loss of leg.

(Yes it was a vital period and the notions of the real it gave us are invaluable simply as the contribute to perspective thereafter. In addition, whether it was ever possible for us to become academics or not, it precluded any possibility.)

Curtis Roberts said...

God bless Davies for his kindness to animals and understanding. It’s amazing the things people have to do in this world to make a living (or not). I look forward to reading further. "Not simply a backdrop or a screen-saver". I'll remember that also.

Curtis Roberts said...

Speaking of screen saver (because I need to now), so that's Eigg. Wow. griff le riff made an enchantng portrait photo.

TC said...


Yes, Davies' kindness to animals amid brutal scenes of their mishandling shines out.

I am reminded of Shaakespeare's Sonnet 94:

They that have power to hurt and will do none

Davies' account of the infernal cattle pens in the transatlantic passage provides another version of Pastoral, in the modern industrial context:

It was our duty to keep the cattle standing, and not to allow them to rest too long on their knees; and not [to] let them, on any account, stretch full length in the pens. One reason for this was that a kneeling steer would be overstepped by his nearest neighbour, and if the latter happened to rise, their ropes, which were so fastened as to give them very little freedom, would be tightened and crossed, bringing their heads together in such close proximity that they would make frantic efforts to escape each other's presence. And another reason for not allowing them to lie down for any length of time was that their joints would become so stiff as to make them almost incapable of rising, though goaded by the most heartless cruelty. I used the most humane methods to attain this end, and sought to inspire terror in them by the use of a most ferocious war-cry, which often succeeded. If that failed to raise them, I struck them with a flat stick on the haunches, which they could scarcely feel, at the same time not forgetting to use my voice. Not succeeding in this, I resorted to the old remedy, which rarely fails, standing at their backs and twisting their tails. A bullock can kick in any direction. There is terrible power in his side kick, also his front kick, throwing his hind leg forward with a speed that is remarkable for such an unwieldly animal. But his back kick, when you stand back to back with him, has not the least power to cause hurt. The other watchman and myself had about an equal number of cattle under our charge, and when I was in difficulty he kindly came to my assistance, and I did likewise for him, although he seldom seemed to need other help than his own. We made our rounds about every half hour. Sometimes I found a steer in the alley; by some means or other he had cleared the head board and, still being a prisoner, stood-fastened outside the pen instead of inside. Another time we would find one standing with his tail to the head-board, instead of his head, owing to the rope getting loose, or being broken; after which he had turned himself around to see if there was any way of escape behind him. It required great care, in cases of this kind, to place them again in their original positions.


TC said...

Up till the fourth night we had experienced no bad weather, and the cattle had been quiet and requiring little care. On this particular night my attention had been drawn several times to a big black steer, which, time after time, had persisted in lying down. At last, in pity for the poor beast, I let him rest, thinking to get him into a standing position at the last moment, when I went off duty, after calling the foreman and his men. But when that last moment came I failed in all my efforts to raise this animal, whose joints, I suppose, had become stiff after a prolonged rest. I was not therefore greatly surprised when the foreman came, after I had gone off duty, to the forecastle, with the complaint of having found a number of cattle lying down, and one, he said, in particular, which must have been lying down half of the night. 'When I left the cattle,' I said, 'nothing seemed to be wrong.' 'Come up and see this one,' he answered. I followed him on deck, and there I saw several cattlemen standing in front of a pen, in which I recognised the big black steer. He was now lying full length in the pen, the others having had to be removed for his convenience. 'See this,' said the foreman, 'this creature should be standing. Twist his tail,' he continued, to a cattleman, who at once obeyed. During this operation another cattleman fiercely prodded the poor creature's side with a pitchfork, which must have gone an inch into the body. At the same time another beat the animal about the head with a wooden stake, dangerously near the eyes. The animal groaned, and its great body heaved, but it made no attempt to move its legs. 'Wait,' said the foreman then, 'we will see what this will do.' He then took out of his mouth a large chew of tobacco, and deliberately placed it on one of the animal's eyes. My heart sickened within me, on seeing this, and I knew that I would have to be less gentle with these poor creatures to save them the worst of cruelty. In a second or two the poor beast, maddened by pain, made frantic efforts to rise, tried again and again, and after seeing its great sides panting, and hearing a number of pitiful groans, it succeeded in the attempt.

(Chapter X: The Cattleman's Office)

TC said...


Thinking about your useful observation on this --

"Here we begin in an fallen Arcady of hard work amid the life and death of sheep (far past their verdant hills), horrifying but vital, then the world bit down hard and the privations became very real, the future very bleak" --

At one point early on in his hardscrabble chronicle of six years of vagabondage in the fallen Arcadia of North America, Davies encounters a veteran 'bo named Brum, who helps him learn the ropes. Here in the chequer'd verisimilitude of the fable it is plain the Golden Age has given way forever to brass:

"Brum explained afterwards, when it was too late, that trespassing on the railroad was always considered a very serious offence during this month of the year, when men were returning with their small earnings from the hop fields; which were not sufficient to enable them to travel as passengers. He explained that trespassing on the railroad was not only overlooked, but was openly encouraged when men had to pick hops to fill their pockets; but as soon as those pockets were filled by picking hops, the local magistrates lost no time in giving the police strict orders to fall to, arrest and detain, so that a picker's pocket might be picked by them of his little earnings." (Chapter VII: Law in America)

Davies is offered a glimpse of the vagrant's vision of the New Arcady by Brum, who explains (perhaps with a cocked eye, fabrication within narrative is another trick of the pastoral) that the paradise of bindlestiffs is the state of Michigan, where a transient may get himself arrested and jailed more quickly than in any of the other states. Thus provided free food and lodging for the winter, a no-account might at least temporarily secure a life of paradise (when compared, that is, with the privations and perils of panhandling and petty crime).

The rails in Davies' tale are iron-y.

And reflecting more upon these shades here.