As a young man, suffering from the unfortunate combination of extreme pride and a desperate shortage of money, I identified rather strongly with this poem, though I also couldn’t help feeling that Davidson’s protagonist had had it a bit cushy – taking inflation into account, thirty shillings a week didn’t actually sound too bad a wage for 1894 when the poem was published. And the guy could afford to smoke a pipe! Did he, I wondered, go all day at work on a spam sandwich because if a mortgage deposit was to be scraped together every penny counted? Even now I cannot look a tin of spam in the face. Things did become better for me, though sadly not for Davidson who, ground down by poverty and ill-health, committed suicide by drowning in 1909. I think this is his best poem, but in others too he shows himself to be an interesting original.
Thirty Bob A Week
I couldn’t touch a stop and turn a screw,
And set the blooming world a-work for me,
Like such as cut their teeth — I hope, like you —
On the handle of a skeleton gold key;
I cut mine on a leek, which I eat it every week:
I’m a clerk at thirty bob as you can see.
But I don’t allow it’s luck and all a toss;
There’s no such thing as being starred and crossed;
It’s just the power of some to be a boss,
And the bally power of others to be bossed:
I face the music, sir; you bet I ain’t a cur;
Strike me lucky if I don’t believe I’m lost!
For like a mole I journey in the dark,
A-travelling along the underground
From my Pillar’d Halls and broad Suburbean Park,
To come the daily dull official round;
And home again at night with my pipe all alight,
A-scheming how to count ten bob a pound.
And it’s often very cold and very wet,
And my misses stitches towels for a hunks;
And the Pillar’d Halls is half of it to let–
Three rooms about the size of travelling trunks.
And we cough, my wife and I, to dislocate a sigh,
When the noisy little kids are in their bunks.
But you never hear her do a growl or whine,
For she’s made of flint and roses, very odd;
And I’ve got to cut my meaning rather fine,
Or I’d blubber, for I’m made of greens and sod:
So p’r’haps we are in Hell for all that I can tell,
And lost and damn’d and served up hot to God.
I ain’t blaspheming, Mr. Silver-tongue;
I’m saying things a bit beyond your art:
Of all the rummy starts you ever sprung,
Thirty bob a week’s the rummiest start!
With your science and your books and your the’ries about spooks,
Did you ever hear of looking in your heart?
I didn’t mean your pocket, Mr., no:
I mean that having children and a wife,
With thirty bob on which to come and go,
Isn’t dancing to the tabor and the fife:
When it doesn’t make you drink, by Heaven! it makes you think,
And notice curious items about life.
I step into my heart and there I meet
A god-almighty devil singing small,
Who would like to shout and whistle in the street,
And squelch the passers flat against the wall;
If the whole world was a cake he had the power to take,
He would take it, ask for more, and eat them all.
And I meet a sort of simpleton beside,
The kind that life is always giving beans;
With thirty bob a week to keep a bride
He fell in love and married in his teens:
At thirty bob he stuck; but he knows it isn’t luck:
He knows the seas are deeper than tureens.
And the god-almighty devil and the fool
That meet me in the High Street on the strike,
When I walk about my heart a-gathering wool,
Are my good and evil angels if you like.
And both of them together in every kind of weather
Ride me like a double-seated bike.
That’s rough a bit and needs its meaning curled.
But I have a high old hot un in my mind
— A most engrugious notion of the world,
That leaves your lightning ‘rithmetic behind:
I give it at a glance when I say ‘There ain’t no chance,
Nor nothing of the lucky-lottery kind.’
And it’s this way that I make it out to be:
No fathers, mothers, countries, climates — none;
Not Adam was responsible for me,
Nor society, nor systems, nary one:
A little sleeping seed, I woke — I did, indeed —
A million years before the blooming sun.
I woke because I thought the time had come;
Beyond my will there was no other cause;
And everywhere I found myself at home,
Because I chose to be the thing I was;
And in whatever shape of mollusc or of ape
I always went according to the laws.
I was the love that chose my mother out;
I joined two lives and from the union burst;
My weakness and my strength without a doubt
Are mine alone for ever from the first:
It’s just the very same with a difference in the name
As ‘Thy will be done.’ You say it if you durst!
They say it daily up and down the land
As easy as you take a drink, it’s true;
But the difficultest go to understand,
And the difficultest job a man can do,
Is to come it brave and meek with thirty bob a week,
And feel that that’s the proper thing for you.
It’s a naked child against a hungry wolf;
It’s playing bowls upon a splitting wreck;
It’s walking on a string across a gulf
With millstones fore-and-aft about your neck;
But the thing is daily done by many and many a one;
And we fall, face forward, fighting, on the deck.