Poem of the Day: ‘The Inquest’

the Welsh poet W.H. Davies described himself as a super-tramp.

Via Wikimedia Commons
W. H. Davies in 1913, detail of photograph by Alvin Coburn. Via Wikimedia Commons

You can read about the life of the Welsh poet W.H. Davies (1871–1940) in his 1908 memoir, “The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp” — or, at least, you can read his own presentation of his strange hardscrabble, footloose life. Taken from school for an apprenticeship at age 14, he used a small inheritance to break away at 22 and cross the Atlantic, spending several years riding the rails, working odd jobs, and panhandling his way across the United States and Canada. He lost his right leg in a train-hopping accident in 1899, which led him to return to Great Britain, where he poured out books: novels, nonfiction and over 20 volumes of poetry.

Curiously, for a man who had known genuine poverty and lower-class labor, his work occasionally had a late Romantic feel. But it could also have a hard edge: an unflinching honesty about the poor and the lives they lead. So, for example, with “The Inquest,” a 1916 poem about serving on a coroner’s jury. In tetrameter quatrains, rhymed on the second and fourth lines, the poem slips toward horror and the unlikeliness of ever knowing what caused the death of an infant.

The Inquest
by W.H. Davies

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 me 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.”


With “Poem of the Day,” The New York Sun offers a daily portion of verse selected by Joseph Bottum with the help of the North Carolina poet Sally Thomas, the Sun’s associate poetry editor. Tied to the day, or the season, or just individual taste, the poems will be typically drawn from the lesser-known portion of the history of English verse. In the coming months we will be reaching out to contemporary poets for examples of current, primarily formalist work, to show that poetry can still serve as a delight to the ear, an instruction to the mind, and a tonic for the soul. 

The New York Sun

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