The Inquest, by W H Davies

by John Welford 4 months ago in literature

An interesting poem by a lesser-known poet

The Inquest, by W H Davies

W H Davies (full name William Henry Davies) (1870-1940) was a Welsh poet and prose writer who had an adventurous life that included tramping across the United States, as detailed in his “Autobiography of a Super-Tramp”, and losing a leg when he tried to jump aboard a moving train in Canada. This accident, which meant that he had to wear a wooden leg thereafter, meant that he had to return to Britain where he turned his attention to writing poetry.

Although Davies wrote a large number of poems, he is best known for just one, namely “Leisure” which begins: “What is this life if, full of care, / We have no time to stand and stare”. However, there are many more that are worth a look, and “The Inquest”, from his 1916 collection “Child Lovers”, is one of these.

It is a simple story, almost a ballad, told in seven four-line stanzas with an ABCB rhyme-scheme. The scene is set in the first two stanzas:

I took my oath I would enquire,

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.

The third stanza introduces a somewhat bizarre note, made stranger by the last line, which is developed in the stanza that follows:

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.”

The next two stanzas continue the story of the inquest:

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.

In the last lines of both stanzas the word “smiled” is used, but this time it is the mother that is smiling. Earlier, the poet had seen a smile on the face of the dead child, and took this to be a sign that she was trying to tell him something. However, the mother’s first smile, “for our intelligence”, seems to have a different purpose, namely an attempt to convince the jurors that all is well but possibly having the opposite effect.

The mother is at pains to state that the baby was a love-child. This seems odd, because the only conclusion one might draw from that fact is that, because the child was unwanted, that could be a motive for murder. If the coroner were to give a verdict of unlawful death, the mother could find herself on trial for her life.

The mother’s second smile comes after the verdict of misadventure has been given and could therefore be one of relief at having got away with murder.

The final stanza returns to the poet’s doubts:

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.”

This stanza is almost a repetition of the fourth, and it serves to sow doubt rather than certainty. The first time, there was the coroner’s verdict to come, but now there is nothing apart from the verdict that the reader might want to come to on their own behalf. It seems strange that the dead baby should seem “to laugh, and say with glee”, unless “the knowing child” is playing a game with the jurors. What the child knows is that the jurors “will never know”.

The reader is left trying to play the part of the coroner and decide whether or not the child was murdered. What is the relevance of her being a love-child? What is the significance of the mother stating this, and what inferences can be drawn from her smiles? However, at the heart of this little tale is the dead child, and the message that the poet draws from the “shining bright” open eye that “perhaps” it was murdered but that the answer will never be known.

But, after all is said is done, the reader is seduced by Davies’s clever presentation into drawing only one conclusion. Of course she did it!

literature
John Welford
John Welford
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John Welford

I am a retired librarian, having spent most of my career in academic and industrial libraries.

I write on a number of subjects and also write stories as a member of the "Hinckley Scribblers".

See all posts by John Welford