Week 472: Sheep, by W.H.Davies

Following on from last week, another poem with a surprising choice of subject matter: who would have thought that transporting sheep by boat could produce a piece that I for one, not normally much of a W.H.Davies fan, find curiously effective for all its seeming naivety. I think it owes its success to the poet’s empathy with the unfortunate beasts, and that’s fine, but I wonder if it also works by stirring up thoughts of human cargoes, slaves and convicts, also transported by sea in appalling conditions, and with scarcely more notion of where they were or understanding of what lay in store for them than had the poor sheep in the poem.


When I was once in Baltimore,
A man came up 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.


Week 328: The Inquest, by W.H.Davies

W.H.Davies (1871-1940) was a perennial presence in anthologies when I was at school, but I’m not sure how much he is read these days, though the poet Michael Cullup published a thoughtful reappraisal of him recently. Davies suffered from the wrong kind of patronage, being taken up by the Georgians as a ‘nature poet’ when this was not his main strength. Reading him in bulk, you feel that what he really needed (as indeed we all need) was someone to put the boot in, though whether he would have had the discipline and self-knowledge to respond to such treatment is open to question. Yet at his best he had power and originality, as witness this spare and rather grim piece. Somehow I don’t recall this one being in the school anthologies.

The Inquest

I took my oath I would inquire,
Without affection, hate, or wrath,
Into the death of Ada Wright –
So help me God! I took that oath.

When I went out to see the corpse,
The four months’ babe that died so young,
I judged it was seven pounds in weight,
And little more than one foot long.

One eye, that had a yellow lid,
Was shut – so was the mouth, that smiled;
The left eye open, shining bright –
It seemed a knowing little child.

For as I looked at that one eye,
It seemed to laugh, and say with glee:
‘What caused my death you’ll never know –
Perhaps my mother murdered me.’

When I went into court again,
To hear the mother’s evidence –
It was a love-child, she explained.
And smiled, for our intelligence.

‘Now, Gentlemen of the Jury,’ said
The coroner – ‘this woman’s child
By misadventure met its death.’
‘Aye, aye’, said we. The mother smiled.

And I could see that child’s one eye
Which seemed to laugh, and say with glee:
‘What caused my death you’ll never know –
Perhaps my mother murdered me.’

W.H. Davies