Sunday, 21 February 2010

IDRIS DAVIES( 6/1/05 -6/4/53) - Poet of the People

A poet I've admired for a while is Idris Davies. He started of writing in Welsh, but later began to write exclusively in the English language in order to reach the masses. Never particularly trendy or fashionable, he had a rather simple style, but as good as any protest singer writing today. I reckon the forbears of his poems were old street ballads and work songs.
Idris Davies was born in Rhymney in the Welsh Valleys, he left school at fourteen and went down the pit , following his fathers footsteps, in the mines he mixed with people who were the most militant and cultivated in the world. After attending lectures on Marxism at his local National Miners Institute and having become inspired by words , he decided to train to become a teacher, after qualification he took up teaching posts in London during the second world war, and after this returned to teach in Wales in the Rhymney Valley.
He dedicated himself to expressing his love of the people and to me was the only poet to cover significant events of the early 20th Century in the South Wales Valleys and the South Wales coalfield.
I regard him as an archetypal poet of the people, a man who happened to have the faculty of dreaming sensibly. He became an enthusiast of culture and was particularly inspired by the works of Shelley, but his chief inspiration were his people, unemployed Welsh miners reduced to begging in indifferent London streets.
His masterpiece was called " The Angry Summer ", a poem in fifty short sections about the general srike of 1926. His verses though simple become slices of reportage from the frontline.

It is a shame some of his shorter poems have been taken out of this context. Some critics saw him as a naive, simple minded, local propogandist poet. This does him a great disservice, he must not be forgotten, he must be celebrated, as he himself celebrated the grandeur and despair of working class resistance to capitalism in Britain between the wars.
He wrote about treachery, he presented pictures of harsh realities, expressing himself with colloquial instructios, he spoke of " the bread of life," "lifes long squalor " " words of your anger and your love and your pride." I see him as a precursor to many a modern folk troubadour. He had passion, he cared, a diary entry of his reads -
" 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 are badly in need of instructions as to the difference between poetry and propoganda... 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?"
His revolt came out of direct experience, out of deep love for his people, yes he didn't do to many fancy verses, but he wrote to connect. He also had humour , he also had candour.
He has since achieved some sort of popularity amongst millions in the wider world, thanks to Peter Seegers setting of Gwalia Desrta XV ( The Bells Of Rhymney ) which became a massive hit for "the Byrds" and has subsequently been covered by many others including "Robin Hitchcock" and " Bob Dylan".
He is a continuing inspiration to forward thinking socially engaged poets, promoting their own views like Idris Davies, with populist devices.
Idris Davies died from abdominal cancer in 1953 aged only 48, a red poet, a proletarian poet. If he was alive today I feel he would most definitely not be voting for the bloody Conservative Party.
The following are a small selection of his better known verses.

Do you remember 1926?

Do you remember 1926? That summer of soups and speeches,
The sunlight on the tidle wheels and the deserted crossings,
And the laughter and the cursing in the moonlight streets?
Do you remember 1926? The slogans and the penny concerts,
The jazz-bands and the moorland picnics,
And the slanderous tonques of famous cities?
Do you remember 1926? The great dream and the swift disaster,
The fanatic and the traitor, and more than all,
The bravery of the simple, faithful folk?
"Ay, ay, we remember 1926," said Dai and Shinkin,
As they stood on the kerb in Charing Cross Road,
"And we shall remember 1926 until our blood is dry."

Mrs Evans fach, you want butter again

Mrs.Evans fach, you want butter again.
How will you pay for it now, little woman
With your husband out on strike, and full
Of the fiery language? Ay, I know him,
His head is full of fire and brimstone
And a lot of palaver about communism,
And me, little Dan the Grocer
Depending so much on private enterprise.

What, depending on the miners and their
Money too? O yes, in a way, Mrs. Evans,
Come tomorrow, little woman, and I'll tell you then
What I have decided overnight.
Go home now and tell that rash red husband of yours
That your grocer cannot afford to go on strike
Or what would happen to the butter from Carmarthen?
Good day for now, Mrs.Evans fach.


Morning comes again to wake the valleys
And hooters shriek and waggons move again,
And on the hills the heavy clouds hang low,
And warm unwilling thighs cral slowly
Out of half a million ruffled beds.
Mrs Jones' little shop will soon be open
To catch the kiddies on the way to school,
And the cemetery gates will chuckle to the cemetery-keeper,
And the Labour Exchange will meet the servant witha frown.

Morning comes again, the inevitable morning
Full of the threadbare jokes, the convenional crimes,
Morning comes again, a grey-eyed enemy of glamour,
With the sparrows twittering and gossips full of malice,
With the colourless backyards and the morning papers,
The unemployed scratching for coal on the tips,
The fat little grocer and his praise for Mr Chamberlain,
The vicar and his sharp short cough for Bernard Shaw,
And the coliery-manager's wife behind her pet geranium
Snubbing the whole damn lot!


High summer on the mountains
And on the clover leas,
And on the local sidings,
And on the rhubarb leaves.

Brass bands in all the valleys
Blaring defiant tunes,
Crowds, acclaiming carnival,
Prize pigs and wooden spoons.

Dust on shabby hedgerows
Behind the colliery wall,
Dust on rail and girder
And tram and prop and all.

High summer on the slag heaps
And on polluted steams,
And old men in the morning
Telling the town their dreams

Consider famous men, Dai bach, consider famous men,
All their slogans, all their deeds,
And folow the funerals to the grave.
Cosider the charlatans, the shepherds of the sheep!
Consider the grease upon the tonque, the hunger of the purse!
Consider the fury of the easy words,
The vulgarity behind the brass,
The dirty hands thstshook the air, that stained the sky!
Yet some there were who lived for you,
Who lay to die remembering you.

Mabon was your champion once upon a time
And his portrait's on the milk-jug yet.
The world has bred no champions for a long time now,
Except the boxing, tennis, golf, and Fascist kind,
And the kind that democracy breeds and feeds for Harringay,
And perhaps the world has grown too bitter or to wise
To breed a prophet or a poet ever again.


There are countless tons of rock above his head,
And gases wait in secret corners for a spark;
And his lamp shows dimly in the dust.
His leather belt is warm and moist with sweat,
And he crouches against the hanging coal,
And the pick swings to and fro,
And many beads of salty sweat play about his lips
And trickle down the blackened skin
To the hairy tangle on the chest.
The rats squeak and scamper among the unused props,
And the fungus waxes strong.

And Dai pauses and wipes his sticky brow,
And suddenly wonders if his baby
Shall grow up to crawl in the local Hell,
And if tomorrow's ticket will buy enough food for six days,
And for the Sabbath created for pulpits and bowler hats,
When the under-manager cleans a dirty tongue
And walks with the curate's maiden aunt to church...
Again the pick resumes the swing of toil,
And Dai forgets the world where merchants walk in morning streets
And where the great sun smiles on pithead and pub and church-steeple.


There's holy holy people
They are in capel bach-
They don't like surpliced choirs
They don't like Sospan Fach,

They don't like Sunday concerts
Or women playing ball
They don't like William Parry much
Or Shakespeare at all.

They don't like beer or bishops,
Or pictures without texts,
They fon't like any other
Of the nonconformist sects.

And when they goto Heaven,
They won't like that too well,
For the music will be sweeter
Than the music played in Hell.


O what can you give me?
Say the sad bells of Rhymney.

Is there hope for the future?
Cry the brown bells of Merthyr.

Who made the mineowner?
Say the black bells of Rhondda.

And who robbed the miner?
Cry the grim bells of Blaina.

They will plunder will-nilly,
Say the bells of Carphilly.

They have fangs, they have teeth
Shout the loud bells of Neath.

To the south, things are sullen,
Say the pink bells of Brecon.

Even God is uneasy,
Say the moist bells of Swansea.

Put the vandals in court
Cry the bells of Newport.

All would be well if-if-if-
Say the green bells of Cardiff.

Why so worried, sisters, why
Sing the silver bells of Wye.


The cost of strangeness/ essays on the English Poets of Wales
- Anthony Conran, GOMER 1982

Idris Davies - Collected Poems GOMER PRESS 1972


"O What can you give me?"- Nigel Jenkins on Idris Davies/ Poetry Wales volume 40 number 4

The Dragon has two tongues - Glyn Jones LONDON 1968


  1. ineresting, had not heard of this poet before, will check him out

  2. I've known about Idris for many years and have his collected poetry. Infact his direct and easily understood poetry speaks to everyone of the life that surrounded him. He inspired one or two of my own poems, one I called 'I have been to Rhymney Idris'. I believe in his simplicity he engages everyone in its eternal historic truth; unlike Dylan Thomas whose prose is so vague and difficult one wonders why he bothered as few understand it and cannot be engaged by it. One of his poems I love is called'Midnight'.
    When the moon is full over Rhymney and the hill sides are silver-grey
    And the old and the young are sleeping, and the scars of the common day,
    Are lost in the haze, I open the small window and stare
    At the forms of the sleeping town,so still, so strangely fair

    Then I wonder if beauty demands that men must be put away
    In graves and tombs before their profoundest peace can fill the night and day
    If all shall be perfect only when towns are under grass
    And nothing is left of our hearts and tongues after the loud years pass.

  3. I return to him quite regularly,it's his understatement that appeals to me, yet some of his poems could have been written in the present time, the message still very clear, the reason for their effectiveness I suppose, he does not drift of the page into the path of obscurity like some other poets do.His passion is evident and abundent. Would be most interested to read your poems.
    best wishes

  4. You can see Idris Davies himself virtualy reading several of his greatest poems at poetryreincarnations at youtube

  5. thank you very much for that.....regards

  6. Brilliant. Never heard of this talented man

  7. cheers, well you have now, thanks for visiting.

  8. Could anyone tell me when High Summer on the Mountains was published? Is it part of Gwalia Deserta?

  9. High Summer on the Mountains was taken from, 'The Angry Summer : A Poem of 1926, stanza 10, available in The Collected Poems of Idris Davies, Gwasg Gomer, my efition, 1972.