In holiday mood, a celebration of the timeless thrill of liberation
“School’s Out” may have been Alice Cooper’s first big hit single but did you know it’s also the title of a poem by a Welsh poet born in 1871? If you left school a few decades ago, you’re probably more familiar with the poet as the author of “Leisure”, with its famous opening couplet: “What is this life if, full of care, / We have no time to stand and stare.” No doubt “Leisure” was once, for many young people, their first encounter with printed poetry. The author, of course, is William Henry Davies, sometimes nicknamed “the tramp poet”.
I had all but forgotten about Davies, but last Friday, travelling from Swansea to London, I was leafing through Yeats’s Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892-1935, which I’d picked up secondhand the previous evening in the Dylan Thomas Centre bookshop for the astonishing price of £1.20. As the train drew into a grey and rainy Newport, I reached Yeats’s Davies selection. It’s a generous and representative group: Yeats, I think, must have appreciated the folk-singer in Davies. Besides “Joy and Pleasure”, “Money”, “Truly Great”, “The Sluggard”, “The Best Friend” and of course “Leisure”, was a poem I’d never read before: “School’s Out”. I was charmed, and decided it would make a perfect poem for the Easter week. But it wasn’t until I did some research at home that I learned that Davies had been born in Newport. He’s apparently honoured in his native city by a plaque and a statue inspired by “Leisure”. The nice little coincidence of having accidentally read him afresh not far from his place of birth confirmed my decision.
Davies began writing after a serious accident in which, trying to jump onto an express train in Renfrew, Ontario, he was dragged under the wheels. His work doesn’t usually dwell on the uglier side of vagrancy, but celebrates the pleasure and joy (two emotions which he was at pains to distinguish) to be had from nature and the simple life. His exuberance seems entirely unforced. There is no self-pity, although he endured a good deal of hardship in prisons and doss-houses before accomplishing his dream of publication, and his “leisure” must surely have been painful at times. Limping on a primitive wooden leg, he had good reason to slow down and gaze around him.
Davies delivers homilies in some of his verses, but he is never pompous or pious. He is the poet as everyman, using his eyes, his humour and his common sense; a natural lyricist with a direct line to the rhythmic vitality of our dear unfashionable old friend, the Common Muse.
As often with Davies’s poems, “School’s Out” is glancingly autobiographical. It is not a child’s-eye view, and it was not intended, as far as I know, to be a children’s poem. But then, I’m not entirely sure what a children’s poem is. Before writing for children became an industry, children simply looked over the adults’ shoulders, and found plenty to enjoy.
This little poem could be a medieval lyric: it could be a nursery rhyme or a carol. It’s as timeless as the liberation it delights in. A wry self-mockery reveals to the knowing reader the poet’s personal story: the “old man” he orders to “hobble home” may well be himself. But the dimeter rhythm gives the poem a gusty, bouncing pace, the staccato verses succeeding each other like short sharp flurries of March wind. Everything is in fugue – the children, the animals and birds as they hasten out of the way – and the tramps, at possible risk from so much vitality. Any hint of darkness is banished in the cheery apostrophe of the last two lines. There’s a lovely contrast between the skippety dactyl of “Merry mites” and the surprising, ceremonious spondee, “Welcome”. Perhaps it’s not strictly a spondee, but, in bagging a line all to itself, the word seems to insist on taking two full stresses: well come!
So this Poem of the week welcomes anybody who can remember what Alice Cooper described as one of the best moments in life: “the last three minutes of the last day of school when you’re sitting there and it’s like a slow fuse burning.”
OK, you have to go back after Easter, but for now, children, School’s Out.
If they can,