The mismatched elements between the two situations are enough to make the commentary feel absurd at points, but the underlying message is strengthened due to these details. Specifically, if a person cannot feel accomplished in life—if he cannot maintain his priorities and manage his time—then he feels caged. The unbalanced parallel between the narrator’s stance and that of a slave’s perfectly brings this idea to life. You can watch the poem here.
No Master Analysis
Indeed this is the sweet life! my hand
Before a bird has left its nest;
The syntax of the first two lines feels as though the narrator has escaped a life of slavery since the boasting of his current existence being “the sweet life” makes the situation seem as if this were a new discovery. When added to the following sentiment of being “under no proud man’s command,” a logical mind could dive into thoughts of slavery vanishing in favor of “free[dom].” It is worth noting, though, that these ideas are not expounded upon throughout the remainder of the poem. Additionally, Davies himself was financially well enough to attend school and have a sufficient inheritance to move from his home in Wales to New York in his early 20s. These ideas hint that the main theme is not slavery at all—just the frustrations of a working man.
What is interesting with this idea in mind is that work is being treated as something harsh and unwanted, something so demanding that it can strip joy out of life. In this light, while the poem likely is not about slavery, work has been given a representation that is low enough to mimic slavery. This concept, overall, expresses how deeply Davies detests working in certain conditions, and only in seeing the depths of that dislike can the reader fully understand how “sweet life” has become after having stepped away from the “proud man’s command.”
The first thing that Davies addresses in his description of this “sweet life” is that “[t]here is no voice to break [his] rest [b]efore a bird has left its nest.” This is a concept that many people could understand because being able to sleep in can feel rejuvenating. Since the beginning lines hint a more slavery-based frustration, however, this idea loses a bit of strength. If Davies were truly in a slave situation, after all, it is very likely that a harsher qualm could be found beyond just having to wake up early.
Even the title of the poem, “No Master,” sets the reader up for a poem concerning slavery, so after so much preparation for something incredibly cruel, the reader who would have sympathized with Davies would feel a lessened sting from his words. Basically, the setup prepares the reader to say, “It could be worse. It could actually be slavery.”
There is no man to change my mood,
When that dear Sun is shining bright.
The previously mentioned detail of smaller-scale complaints continues as Davies finds numerous things to feel happy about since he has transitioned from his workplace. For instance, “[t]here is no man to change [his] mood [w]hen [he goes] nutting in the word,” and “no man to pluck [his] sleeve” to demand “labour.”
Once more, these are concepts that an average workman would understand and agree with, but when given with such a parallel to slavery, the ideas simply do not seem very threatening or harsh. Any workman can have a bad day to “change [their] mood,” and since slavery often involved physical abuse, having to endure a “pluck [on the] sleeve” is hardly devastating. Again, then, the reader can see—through the comparison of Davies’s described scenario to slavery—that the situation the narrator has escaped was simply not so terrible. Regardless, Davies embraces the approach to show how much he disliked his previous station in life.
What seems to be happening is that Davies is depicting a situation that was not truly horrible—just not what he wanted. If he wants to “go nutting in the wood,” he does not want to be told he must “labour” in another way. He wants brightness in his life that extends beyond the existence he used to know, which can be particularly seen in the final lines of this section: “No man to keep me out of sight, [w]hen that dear Sun is shining bright.” That the “Sun” is capitalized gives it great importance, as a proper noun, and it is a representation of the true issue he took with his past life. It was not that he had a horrible situation. It just needed a little more “bright[ness],” to his way of thinking.
None but my friends shall have command
Upon my time, my heart and hand;
A beggar or a thief, than be
A working slave with no days free.
This final section of ‘No Master’ once more addresses why Davies feels as though his past scenario could have been better rather than proving that it had been poor. In particular, he refers to the one who previously had charge over him as having a “purse-proud throat.” This does not limit the scope of his complaint to slave owners since employers in lucrative businesses could be described in such a way. There is also no indication given that there were retaliations if work was not completed in an acceptable manner.
In fact, the employer, as he seemed to be, did not seem to offer many reactions at all in regard to the “curses” the narrator sent his way. Rather, his reaction to the “cur[sing]” and having to shush his own orders was limited to having them “stick [l]ike burrs” in his “throat.” It seems, then, that the worst consequence the narrator expected from the cessation of “labour” was having the employer keep silent on the matter. When compared to the idea of what a slave would endure, again, this idea loses a large amount of importance.
The paradox, however, continues in that Davies still refers to this new situation of being away from the employer as “free.” This again connects back to ideas of slavery, but the contrast adds an almost satirical quality to the work. What Davies refers to as “free” is “[t]o do such work as pleases” him, as if time is the element that needs to be “free.” While this idea would be understandable from someone wanting more leisure time from a job that does not appeal to them, when compared to what a slave would think of in terms of “free[dom],” it simply does not stack up in severity.
Still, Davis expresses contentment in regard to how his life has changed and how he can now place his focus on “friends” who can “have command [u]pon [his] time, [his] heart and hand.” For them, he will “rise from sleep to help.” This shows, as well, that it was not the “labour” he grudged. He only grudged the nature of the relationship that bestowed him the “labour.” Once more, this is a striking contrast to a slave relationship since more than just the “stranger” quality would have been troublesome, but for whatever reason, the situation was enough for the narrator to feel captive, like “[a] working slave with no days free.”
In this, some sensibility can be found in the poem since priorities and time are valuable assets to a person. While the scenario does not compare in severity to slavery, it does strike a chord with a reader who feels the pressure of having to turn over family time and preferences for the sake of work. Perhaps, with that frame of mind, the exaggerated nature of comparing it to slavery is only meant to highlight how desperately the narrator wanted out of his employment. The exaggeration would then be purposeful to build the narrator’s tension and happiness at finding another way of being rather than an honest comparison of situations.
Overall, the poem reflects a desire to be “free” in happiness and time, and this desire is so strong that it is compared to slavery despite the drastic difference in levels of severity. Though mismatched, the parallel is intentionally unusual to address Davies’s true meaning.
About William H. Davies
William H. Davies, born in 1871 in Wales, lived to become a writer in a number of fields—like poetry and memoirs. His writing only became his focus after losing his leg and settling in London. The University of Wales awarded him an honorary doctorate. He passed away in 1940.