The Voice of a Generation Lost Beneath the Earth: Idris Davies and the Legacy he Deserves

Wednesday, 7 July, 2021

On April 6th 1953 the world lost a voice that spoke for the forgotten. It was a voice that was forged form hardship and experience, that shed light on the plight of his contemporaries and paid homage to the sacrifice of his forebearers. The voice belonged to Idris Davies. Born at the dawn of the 20th century, January 6th 1905, in the coal mining community of Rhymney, Wales, he was thrust into an underclass that, despite being vital for the nation, was neglected and buried under the caverns they toiled within.

        Davies was sent to work in the Welsh coal mines, but he had an energy and drive to unshackle himself from the societal constraints life had imposed upon him. As he lacked formal education, he took it upon himself to become learned with his biographer Islwyn Jenkins states, an immense knowledge of poetry. From the abyss of the pits, he rose to gain admittance to the University of Nottingham and go on to lecture, teach, write and broadcast until his tragically untimely death from stomach cancer, aged 48.

        His intellectual rise was extraordinary, but he never forgot his roots. His collection of poems ranges from scathing attacks on the establishment and organised religion he and his community were oppressed by, to the celebrations of the working poor and the beauty of the Welsh valleys he loved to walk in. The poetry of Idris Davies is of particular importance to me. On my mothers’ side, I am descended from generations of coal miners and our roots are in the village of Six Bells, Abertillery: Just 15 miles Southeast of Davies’ hometown of Rhymney.

        A few years ago my mother gave me a collection of his work with a note that said, “never forget your roots.” The lyrical poetry was transfixing as Davies guided me, as Virgil did with Dante, through the hellish and dangerous depths of the coal mines, then onwards to the rolling hills of the valleys, and to the intimidating pulpit where the preacher would chastise his flock. But what the poet did for me personally was build a bridge between myself and my ancestors. George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier had a similar effect, but because Davies’ words were so personal it was the closest I came to having an emotional connection with relatives long since gone.

        It is a tragedy that Idris Davies does not command the same renown as other poets, such as his contemporary and compatriot Dylan Thomas. His body of work is immense, but through a few examples, this author hopes to offer a taste of the beauty, and the anguish, that he used to shed light on the joys and fears of his people.

To those acquainted with the works of Davies, his poetry on themes of politics and society are among his most highly regarded. This is due to the fact that he used his own personal experiences to critique them both. Writing for the BBC, Phil Carradice pointed to his accident within the mines and his participation in the General Strike of 1926 as events that “confirmed his socialist views.” Davies’ magnum opus Gwalia Deserta captures this most prominently. It is towering work that details the lives of those at breaking point, seeking a better future while fighting to maintain the life they had. Davies writes:

My fathers in the mining valleys
Were slaves who bled for beer,
Who had no saviour to acclaim
And whose god was Fear.

Gwalia Deserta, Idris Davies

        Davies acknowledges the previous plight of his forebears, and as such sets himself and his fellow workers within the continuation of a desperate struggle for survival. But Gwalia Deserta also delves into the heartbreak of what they were really fighting for: to give their children something better.

And Dai pauses and wipes his sticky brow,
And suddenly wonders if his baby
Shall grow up to crawl in the local Hell

Gwalia Deserta, Idris Davies

        These few lines of verse succinctly and emotionally encapsulate the struggles of all who were made to venture down into the confines of the Earth. In Gwalia Deserta the poet seeks to both tap into the trials of the present and the fears of the future. In the frontispiece to its first edition in 1938, Davies made the intentions of his writings clear. “The author of this lyrical sequence,” he wrote, “is moved by a fine indignation born of experience. His poem, therefore, is the outcry of a community as well as that of an individual. It expresses the hopes, betrayal, and suffering of the people of South Wales.” These are the words of a writer who felt compelled to use his command of language to bring about greater awareness of the people he grew up with, and the changes that must be made to ensure their future.

        Yet Davies does not always focus on the uncertainty of the times ahead, he also highlights the potential of better times to come. His poem The Socialist Victory is a rallying cry for his fellow comrades:

Blow on your morning bugles,
Sons of the morning hills,
Stand on the graves of your fathers,
See that your day fulfils
All that bled and died for
Who dreamed their blood should bring
A greater, prouder nation
And a greater song to sing.

The Socialist Victory, Idris Davies

        His political leanings are demonstrable within the hard left of the spectrum, but interestingly he had some reservations about the “poets of the left” as he calls them. In a diary entry, he revealingly states that they are, “badly in need of instruction as to the difference between poetry and propaganda.” For Davies poetry could, and indeed should, be used as a means to bring forth plights and call for social change, but must maintain the essence of the art form in all its majesty and power.

© British Heritage Travel

        Davies was not only the poet of doom and gloom however. He was a romantic who was moved by the aesthetic grandeur of nature, and the inner workings of humanities deepest emotions. One of his shortest poems is also my personal favourite because in a few lines he captures the sensibilities of all lovers, while others would take pages to do so. The Heart of a Dreamer explores the complex feelings of all who have known the guilt of being in love with someone whose reciprocated affections are more than yours towards them.

I broke my heart in five pieces
And buried a part by the sea,
And I hid a part in the mountains
And the third in the root of a tree,
And the fourth I gave to a singer
Who shared his wild ecstasy,
But the best I gave to a woman
Who gave all her heart to me.

The Heart Of A Dreamer, Idris Davies

The poem speaks to people in different ways. I look at it in the way I have described it above. My mother, on the other hand, takes a more positive message away. That while our heart breaks throughout life we reserve the best shards for the people we love. This is the genius of Idris Davies. That no matter how many times you pour your eyes over his words, passions and sentiments you drink up new meanings and sentiments within the delicate prose.

        The collection my mother gave me years ago travels with me everywhere. Whether my journey takes days or hours, I always feel the need to open a random page and be transported from the modern world. My introduction and draw to the poet stems from a connection I have with his subjects, but I am also amazed by his poems for their language and technical achievement.

        Before writing this article, I must confess that I had never properly researched the man himself. I felt contented enough to be immersed within his craft. But the more I read about Idris Davies the more I feel the personal connection to my roots. He was sent down the pits aged fourteen, like my great grandfather, and when in his early twenties was involved in a mining accident, just as my grandfather was. Upon learning this I recalled moments from my childhood, sitting at my grandfather’s feet, as he showed me the scars where the pit roof had collapsed on his leg, all the while regaling me with his experiences of working within the mines.

        Even without the connection I feel to his subjects, the poems of Idris Davies never cease to delight. They are a testament to fortitude in the face of adversity, a rally call that gives us hope, and are reflections upon what it means to be human. While he is not as well renowned as Dylan Thomas, John Keats, or Seamus Heaney; he most certainly deserves to be.

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