Joy is a great theme for blogging. Lots of poets, including many great ones, have written about Joy. Some I rejected because we have looked them quite recently (William Blake https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43665/infant-joy) Or because we keep returning to them ( Emily Dickenson https://bloggingdickinson.blogspot.com/2012/01/tis-so-much-joy-tis-so-much-joy.html) And Wordsworth’s sublime Surprised by Joy might seem a sad take on such a joyful subject.
When I encountered William Henry Davies’ Joy and Pleasure I was unsure at first. It seemed a bit “Victorian morality poem” albeit of a superior sort, Christina Rossetti in a religious, ungoblinificated mood, rather than piously sentimental. But that wasn’t quite it. The more I read it, the more I liked it, though I remained unsure why until I googled him.
W.H. Davies was born in Wales in 1871, so was Victorian in a way although he is generally considered one of the “Edwardian Poets.” But he was a very long way from a pious middle class Victorian paterfamilias. Of working class origins he was apprenticed as a picture frame maker, but didn’t like the work and took to the road as a tramp. In the UK, USA and Canada he lived rough for some years, doing casual work and panhandling and jumping freight trains. It was this hobo practise of riding the rails that stopped this lifestyle in the end as he slipped trying to jump a freight train which severed his leg.
He came back to England and, slowly over time, with many setbacks, his writing became recognised and he ended up being part of high literary society.
His most famous poem is Leisure (1911) which starts with the much quoted lines:
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
Knowing more about his life helped me, I think, understand why the poem transcends the moral homily that it superficially resembles. Davies isn’t moralising about the superiority of joy over pleasure he is telling it how it is, at least for him. As a man who has experienced the extremes of hardship, destitution and crippling injury as well as pleasure and joy, who has shared hooch with fellow hobos, and fine claret with George Bernard Shaw and the Sitwells. The poem, and the comparison, spring from the experience of a man who has really lived.
Joy and Pleasure
Now, joy is born of parents poor,
And pleasure of our richer kind;
Though pleasure’s free, she cannot sing
As sweet a song as joy confined.
Pleasure’s a Moth, that sleeps by day
And dances by false glare at night;
But Joy’s a Butterfly, that loves
To spread its wings in Nature’s light.
Joy’s like a Bee that gently sucks
Away on blossoms its sweet hour;
But pleasure’s like a greedy Wasp,
That plums and cherries would devour.
Joy’s like a Lark that lives alone,
Whose ties are very strong, though few;
But Pleasure like a Cuckoo roams,
Makes much acquaintance, no friends true.
Joy from her heart doth sing at home,
With little care if others hear;
But pleasure then is cold and dumb,
And sings and laughs with strangers near.
William Henry Davies (1871-1940)
This week’s theme is Joy, but as a special bonus, here is Leisure!