Saturday, April 6, 2013

I am a socialist

Idris Davies, a Welsh poet best remembered for The Bells of Rhymney, a ballad set to music by Pete Seeger, died 60 years ago today. Diaries of his, archived at the National Library of Wales, have not been edited or published, but one or two extracts found online suggest they might be interesting.

Davies was born in a 1905 in Rhymney, Monmouthshire, a welsh-speaking community. At 14, he followed his father into the coal mines. He lost a finger in a work accident, and became increasingly political, taking part in the General Strike of 1926. When his pit closed, he chose to seek alternative ways of living, and eventually qualified as a teacher. His first appointment was in Hoxton, East London, in 1932.

Davies’ emergence as a poet is said to have conincided with the launch of the magazine Wales, edited by Keidrych Rhys, to which he became a regular contributor. He also contributed to London magazines such as the Poetry Review and The Adelphi. His first volume of poetry, Gwalia Deserta, was published in 1938. This included The Bells of Rhymney, perhaps his most well known verse, which was set to music by Pete Seeger and covered by many other famous singers.

As a conscientious objector, Davies was permitted to continue teaching during the Second World War, and did so in various places. It was at Anstey in Hertfordshire, in the summer of 1941, that he wrote The Angry Summer which is regarded as his finest work. He was moved around from school to school, working in London and then in Treherbert, the Rhondda valley, where he stayed for two years. This is where he completed Tonypandy and Other Poems, accepted by T. S. for Faber and Faber in 1945. It is also where he met Morfydd Peregrine: although they never married, the two were said to be devoted to each other.

Finally, after years of trying, Davies secured, in 1947, a permanent posting at a school back in the Rhymney Valley. He was, though, biographies say, disappointed to find the area had been ravaged by unemployment, emigration, and social deprivation. He died from cancer on 6 April 1953. Wikipedia has an article on Davies, as does BBC Wales and Welsh Icons. The fullest online biography can be found at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) website (though this requires a log-in).

According to the National Library of Wales archive for Davies, he left behind diaries for a number of years (1938, 1940, 1946, 1948, and 1951). These were used by Islwyn Jenkins for his biography of Davies; and the ODNB biography, which refers to Jenkin’s book, says the diaries provide evidence that his relationship with Morfydd Peregrine was sometimes strained.

One diary entry by Davies is widely quoted, on Wikipedia and elsewhere: ‘I am a socialist. That is why I want as much beauty as possible in our everyday lives, and so I am an enemy of pseudo-poetry and pseudo-art of all kinds. Too many “poets of the Left”, as they call themselves, are badly in need of instruction as to the difference between poetry and propaganda. . . These people should read William Blake on Imagination until they show signs of understanding him. Then the air will be clear again, and the land be, if not full of, fit for song.”

The BBC web page (mentioned above) quotes another extract from Davies’s diaries: ‘Any subject which has not man at its core is anathema to me. The meanest tramp on the road is ten times more interesting than the loveliest garden in the world.’

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