John Davidson was born in Barrhead, Renfrewshire, 1857, a son of the manse whose religion he would soon find the need to rebel against. Much of his childhood was spent in Greenock, quitting school at 13 to work in a laboratory at the Walkers Sugar Refinery there, so girding himself with a life-long interest in science before later returning to his studies. For a year he was at Edinburgh University and spent most of it wandering over Arthurs Seat.
He had written his first ballad at 12 and read his poetry to Swinburne -who declared of him ‘Poet!’- when he was about 20; an event that fatally inspired him. He later wrote twice to Swinburne, importuning him for help with becoming that prophesied poet. His efforts were naïve, arrogant and embarrassing- no reply was to be forthcoming, though he continued to revere Swinburne for the rest of his life.
He worked as a school master over a number of years in Glasgow, Perth, Paisley, Crieff and Greenock, but ‘was not a successful teacher, though he strove earnestly to instil in us a regard for the great authors’, one of his pupils remembered.
Oddly shaped, grumpy and awkward-looking, with a prematurely balding pate and little brown beard, he was known to his students as ‘Jenny Wren’ or ‘Cockabendy’. Years later he was independently described as having ‘large and quickly-moving eyes that make one think of some abnormal bird’s’. Davidson himself looked back on these years as ‘shameful pedagogy’ and ‘hellish drudgery’.
While at Crieff, Davidson married Anne Smith and together they raised two sons. Though she’d stay by him throughout all that would follow, little more is recorded of a woman who, ever-present yet never attested, leaves a curious silence. Davidson himself strives with a masculine sense of exemplar, one which is generally fairly Davidson-shaped, and addresses his reader similarly. Even when he takes on a female character, such as in his Testament of a Nun, she is really there as a synecdoche for religion herself.
His first novel and several dramas were published to little fanfare while he was still teaching in Scotland, but it was enough to resolve the unsettled Davidson, and in 1889, he finally threw in his lot and removed to London, aiming to make his way as playwright, poet, journalist and critic.
In doing so, he followed the career arc of another melancholic Scot who similarly entered the literary circles of the capital to write a wildly varying array of poetry and who also supported himself with journalism. This was James Thomson, who sometimes wrote under the initials B.V. which distinguishes him from the many other Scottish poets named James Thomson.
Thomson had died a few years before Davidson’s arrival in London, the point at which he was introduced to the elder poet’s work, so they never met, yet Thomson’s gothic City of Dreadful Night had a major impact on Davidson and he extolled its virtues to all who would listen. The novelist Frank Harris recalls Davidson as ‘always trying to establish the equitable balance: James Thomson had been neglected, therefore he over-praised James Thomson.’
Davidson became an early associate of the Rhymers’ Club, an infamous, all-male, dining and declaiming fraternity which Davidson, true to form, refused to join outright, despite his deep involvement in. He managed to get into a quarrel with WB Yeats -which Yeats’ father blamed Yeats for- part of which Yeats later recounted as pertaining to a time Davidson brought four ‘Scotsmen’ to a meeting and demanded they all be made members, for which the rest were too polite to decline, instead quietly resolving to disband and never meet again. Yeats took it on himself to instead debar the Scots from the club, for which he seems to have been annoyed at all involved. It is a strange, prejudiced tale that doesn’t endear the teller. What it does show, is that Davidson was intouch with other expats, atleast in his earlier years in London, though who these poets were I don’t think has been resolved.
This is interesting because Davidson’s Scottish identity proves to be one of many contrary dualisms that cannot be resolved and that add to the irony of his nature. Though his poetry might take on the mantle of the London vernacular, he never wrote in Scots, despite retaining his accent, and occasionally spoke out against northern parochialisms. ‘Very few will admit it’, Davidson writes in parodic mood, ‘but in some cupboard or corner every Scot keeps a kilt, a dirk and a chanter’. As Tom Hubbard says, ‘Davidson despised equally the dour philistinism of Scotland and the fashionable languor of London’.
Yet he published a flourish of popular collections and became well-known in the fashionable languor of the literary world; In a Music-Hall (1891), Fleet Street Eclogues (1893) and Ballads and Songs (1894) establishing his name. The poems chronicled urban working-class life, and Davidson’s disgust at the poverty that blighted the ordinary man.
The most famous example from this period is Thirty Bob A Week, written in a strikingly Kiplingesque vernacular, though certainly an original and affecting poem in its own right. Back in 1884, Davidson had taken a break from teaching to become a poorly-paid clerk, a move that had left his family in destitution. ‘I’m a clerk at thirty bob as you can see’ the poem tells us, and so it is his reminiscences which sparked the sympathy for the working Londoners that ‘led him to study their speech and adapt it to the purposes of poetry’, as Maurice Lindsay puts it.
While Thirty Bob A Week didn’t, for instance, make the cut for his selected poems of 1925, a teenage TS Eliot had read it and would later single it out. ‘I read John Davidson’s poems first’, he wrote, noting that they’d made ‘a terrific impact on me’ and that Davidson had ‘a very important place in the development of my own poetic technique’.
Davidson aimed his urban writing to contend with and illustrate ‘the offal of the world’, an increasingly popular subject in poetry following the Dickensian example in prose. ‘The poet is in the street, the hospital, he intends the world to know that it is out of joint’, he wrote.
Using conventional designations– eclogues, ballads, pastoral &c. Davidson increasingly over-turned each form, repurposing it to his own ends, often ironically, in a way that would become a common trope of modernism.
‘Irony’ he wrote, ‘is the enigma within the enigma’, ‘the open secret, the only answer’, ‘the last word of philosophy, the nearest approach to truth’; ‘Irony affirms and delights in the whole’. Entire books and theses have addressed Davidson from the eye of irony.
By the mid-90’s, his early popularity had evaporated; despite his efforts to emulate the manner and titles of his earlier successes, financial plight soon returned. Even with his incorporation of mild subversions, in the face of failure, Davidson tired of the ‘imitation ballads and artificial epilogues’. Instead he took a hold of a set of philosophies and went after something new-
‘Truth is the reconciliation of antagonisms. Irony integrates good and evil, the constituents of the universe. It is that Beyond-Good-and-Evil, which somebody clamoured for.’
That somebody was Friedrich Nietzsche, a writer Davidson became increasingly preoccupied by, then fell deeply under the spell of.
Though his Last Ballad of 1899 was not infact his final attempt at the meter, it did mark something of a determined shift to the long poems in blank verse which he titled his Testaments. ‘I know nothing so entertaining, so absorbing, so full of contentment’, he explained, ‘as the making of blank verse; it is a supreme relief of nervous tension, the fullest discharge of emotion’.
This shift also marked the beginning of the new century, and looked determinedly to the future, with a heavy incorporation of subjects which had not previously been the preserve of poetry, deriving ‘from the coalescence of diversified jargons and specific terminologies’.
The key for Davidson was ‘to turn the antithetical drives into a source of creativity’ Gioia Angelleti writes. ‘Often he failed. Sometimes his ear let him down; sometimes his images went soft’, wrote Maurice Lindsay, yet it is hard to divine Davidson’s faults from his ironies. Aldus Huxley put the difficulty down to ‘a tendency to slip suddenly from beauty to absurdity’ and Angeletti points out that the ‘stylistic fluctuations in Davidson’s poetry, his juxtaposing lyrical and prosaic, tragic and comic tones, recall the genre hybridism of Carlyle’s writing’. Certainly the wanton schizophrenic clashing of registers in his long, discursive, dramatic monologues are a clear precedent for Modernism, most notably The Waste Land, and the influence on TS Eliot comes by here as no surprise. His contemporary critics saw it on less favourable terms and none of the Testaments proved to be a critical or public success.
So Davidson had no choice but to continue with his hack work in order to support his family. As with his career in teaching, Davidson found he despised the hum-drum task of producing copy, which left him brooding in procrastination. He found himself only able to work ‘in half hours snatched by the hair of the head out of gulfs of ennui and hypochondria’. Journalism proved to be a career for which, he was likewise unsuited to; yet much of what he wrote is now very interesting, and back in Scotland, was received with a degree of reverence.
Around Glasgow and Greenock, Davidson had become something of a literary folk hero in his absence. It seems he ignored various requests relayed by post so that in the end, an emissary was sent to his door. As Neil Gunn relates it, Davidson responded with- ‘“I never see anyone. I am not like other men. People ought to think of these things.”
‘I tried to stammer out that I was sorry to have troubled him’’, the messenger says, ‘‘and that I did not think–’ “There it is- you did not think” Davidson broke in. “You should have thought, you should have said, ‘here is a man different from other men! I must not treat him like other men! I must think, think, think! I must not go knocking at his door and expect to be received’”.’
Davidson had an ‘obstinate prickliness in his nature which grew more barbed as time went on’, Maurice Lindsay writes, and as it turned out, he had further emotional and financial dependents to worry about. In a letter to an acquaintance, WS McCormick writes of Davidson, ‘He lived down in some village, Brighton-way for the past few years- out of London for cheapness’ sake’ for he has ‘handicapped the future by debt … never being able to pull himself out of the miserable condition of having to live off what he had not yet earned’. It seems for years Davidson was also having to support his mother, sister and brother in Edinburgh, the latter being ‘in an asylum for some years’. The letter also reveals that ‘the brother tried to kill the mother with a carving knife’.
McCormick and others provided him with financial support and later made sure he received a small pension. Davidson wrote to them for their kindness in ecstatic terms-
We are sliding down an icefloe, tilted at an angle of forty-five degrees, at a frightful rate of acceleration; the ice was catching fire with the friction and the gulf yawned and sucked its tongue and licked its boltered chops almost within snapping distance. Hay presto! The Fund claps its fundament on the other end of the floe; we are hoisted to equilibrium, snatched up and planted once more on terra firma, and we haven’t found our feet or our heads yet.
Davidson wrote that his crusade for the ‘liberation of mankind from religion’ broke his mother’s heart as it took him further into angry isolation, a subject he considered unflinchingly in his long poem ‘A Woman and her Son’. From childhood, he had absorbed the rhetoric of the protestant proclamation which his father had used, and he had long repurposed it to ironic ends. Davidson seems to have assumed a persona for himself which might fairly fit the description of a Nietzschean William Blake; an eccentric, cosmological, atheist seer.
Man must rejoice in being, in the mystery of matter for he is the Universe made conscious.
But there’s no mystery hidden in the unknown,
There’s nothing in the unknown; there’s no unknown.
While Davidson saw ‘that pain is normal and pleasure little more than an accident’, Lindsay suggests he was an ‘Outsider who, however much he protests that he likes being ‘outside’, protests too much’. Frank Harris wrote that ‘instead of abating his high pretensions as a poet, he set them higher still; he would be a prophet as well’ … ‘the worse he did, the higher he put his claims’.
Ill and impoverished, in 1907, Davidson moved to Cornwall, only to pine for London in quite unremediable terms-
Here in Penzance, the wallflower blooms on the back-kitchen walls in March, arum-lillies grow like weeds, and flowering geraniums climb the house like virginia-creepers; but all that is not novelty and one season exhausts it: only primeval, everlasting things are interesting, and these frequent the flanks of mountains and the streets of cities.
So it was from Penzance that he wrote ‘The Crystal Palace’, perhaps his most ironic take on the dualism of urban life. ‘I hope, to live to finish my Testaments and Tragedies, but I may have to die before, and at any moment now, for reasons that concern myself alone’ he stated.
Again, a writer and admirer attempted to come to his aide. George Bernard Shaw recalled how ‘I urged Davidson to cast aside all commercial considerations and write the great poem I believed he had in him, expressing to the full his Lucretian Materialism.’ In recognition for his financial assistance, Davidson instead tried to produce what he felt would be a commercial success, so that he could repay the debt, but as Shaw discovered, ‘The melodrama was quite useless’ … ‘Meaning to do him a service I had killed him’.
It was nine months after his disappearance that Davidson’s body was found floating in the sea off Penzance, but his introduction to his final book, Fleet Street and other Poems, which he sent to his publisher on the day he disappeared, reads as something of a mundane suicide note-
The time has come to make an end. There are several motives. I find my pension is not enough; I have therefore still to turn aside and attempt things for which people will pay. My health also counts. Asthma and other annoyances I have tolerated for years; but I cannot put up with cancer.
Though Davidson was a smoker, there is no evidence for this ‘cancer’ and critics have generally assumed it to be hypochondria. Equally, it may have been a formulated excuse for what is unconscionably unkind to those who are left behind.
There was also a will, in part stating ‘let all men study and discuss in private and in public my poems and plays, especially my Testaments and Tragedies’, but that ‘no one is to write my life now or at any time’- yet here it is once more, for, as Maurice Lindsay contends, ‘we exceed our rights when we seek to dictate posterity.’
Despite Davidson’s distaste for his homeland, Hugh MacDiarmid has claimed him to be ‘The only Scottish poet to whom … I would be pleased to admit any debt’ before reeling off a list of others he also seems keen to give his dues to. ‘What Davidson, alone of Scottish poets, did was to enlarge the subject matter of poetry, to assimilate and utilize a great deal of new scientific and other contemporary material’; yet MacDiarmid’s emotional response to Davidson lies deeper than that, as he would tell in his short poem, ‘Of John Davidson’-
I remember one death in my boyhood
That next to my father’s, and darker, endures;
Not Queen Victoria’s, but Davidson, yours,
And something in me has always stood
Since then looking down the sandslope
On your small black shape by the edge of the sea,
A bullet-hole through a great scene’s beauty,
God through the wrong end of a telescope.