Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Critical Introduction by Aldous Huxley
John Davidson (18571909)
[John Davidson, born 1857 and educated at Edinburgh University (18767), was for some years a schoolmaster. His first publication was Bruce, a poetic drama (1886). In 1889 he came to London, where he lived by his pen as journalist and writer of fiction. Fleet Street Eclogues (1893, John Lane) first made his reputation as a poet. He was granted a Civil List Pension in 1906. He was found drowned at Penzance in 1909. His output was large. The author of a number of volumes of verse, he was also responsible for many novels and plays.]
TO one at least of the definitions of poetry does the work of John Davidson correspond. It is a criticism of life, a series of essays in human values. What, he asks, is the real worth of this mode of thought, of this course of action? How far are the worlds accepted standards absolutely valid? These are the questions he puts and answers, sometimes in philosophical narratives, sometimes in more directly discursive dialogues and soliloquies. The greater part of Davidsons work is frankly didactic. He is without that disinterested passion for pure psychology which led Browning to expound so many contradictory philosophies of life, simply because the mind of men had conceived them and that all mental activity, as such, deserves consideration. Davidson is a moralist, not a psychologist. He always sets out to prove something, and each poem is an argument in support of his general philosophy.
It has been said: Ye must be born again.
I say to you: Men must be that they are.
In these lines Davidson has given expression to the fundamental article of his creed. His poems are the elaboration of this theme. There is no one infallible prescription which a man must follow in order to lead a good life. Salvation is to be found in the untrammelled development of personality; there are as many roads to it as there are individuals seeking it. The traditional prejudices of thought, the conditions of modern life, at once artificial and sordid, are fetters which cramp human growth, which, worn long enough, will dwarf and distort the spirit of man. We must away with these, says Davidson. Men must be free to work out their own salvation unhindered by an artificial complication of circumstances.
Davidsons philosophy is one of strenuous romanticism, combining as it does the creeds of individualistic anarchy and moral earnestness. He rejects some of the most flashy tenets of romanticismthe idea of genius as the supreme good, and the notion of a spiritual escape out of the material world. He denies the possibility of separating the spiritual from the material, the soul from the body. Men must live in action, reaching good through the purifying ordeal of evil and sorrow. The escape from material active life is an escape from responsibility. Davidsons anarchic individual has a touch of the muscular Christian in him.
We have called Davidson a didactic poet; and if we want to pigeon-hole and classify any farther, we may add that he has the makings of a nature-poet. His natural descriptions display a very genuine appreciation and are often beautiful, though he is apt to bring nature into his poems in order to enforce the somewhat hackneyed moral, God made the country and man made the town. His descriptive methods are those of the seventeenth century. He paints nature in those elaborately anthropomorphic conceits so dear to Crashaw and his contemporaries of the metaphysical school. Such an image as
In chestnut sconces opening wide
Tapers shall burn some fresh May morn,
is an example of the suggestive charm of this sort of description when carried out successfully. And Davidson is generally successful, though his conceits lapse sometimes into mere quaintness, as when he speaks of sun and cloud playing a game of blind-mans buff, in the course of which the sun claims
Forfeit on forfeit, as he pressed
The mountains to his burning breast.
This unevenness, this tendency to slip suddenly from beauty to absurdity, is characteristic of Davidsons whole work. Passages of striking originality alternate with flat conventionalities that are poetical only as poetic diction is poetical. In his Ballads, for instancethose didactic romances enriched with all the ornaments of cultured poetry and as unlike real ballads as well might bestanzas, of a force and brilliance truly poetical, shine out from dull sing-song passages of rhymed prose. In Davidsons work, together with flatness, the other and opposite fault of overemphasis is frequently to be found. In reading him we are likely to be troubled with the sulphurous huff-snuff of a good deal of high-astounding fustian.
But in studying uneven work, it is the business of the appreciative reader to look not at the depressions, but at the poetical elevations. Davidson possesses the Art of Rising as well as the Art of Sinking. The merits which, at the crest of his achievement, he displays are among the cardinal poetic virtues. The terse expression of concentrated thought, imaginative boldness, beauty as well of imagery as of dictionthese are qualities of Davidsons poetry at its best. Add to this his earnest moral purpose, and even the critic who still retains the conception of poetry as a sugared pill of doctrine made palatable by fancy, will subscribe to the judgment which allows Davidson a place among the poets.