Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Facet, angle, colour, beauty, form - John Davidson, minor poet

John Davidson must be the most material Victorian poet.  One element is ideological.  Davidson was an atheist, sometimes an angry atheist, and atheism at this time meant a commitment to Darwin and science.  See the long poem “A Ballad in Blank Verse of the Making of a Poet” in the 1894 Ballads and Songs, in which the poet’s religious parents are wrong, but the smug young poet is cruel, with the overall tone being ironic rather than self-pitying.

That title, though, is more what I mean by “material,” that even a poem is a thing in itself.  Davidson was a great observer.

from Two Dogs

Two dogs on Bornemouth beach: a mongrel, one;
With spaniel plainest on the palimpsest,
The blur of muddled stock; the other, bred,
With tapering muzzle, rising brow, strong jaw –
A terrier to the tail’s expressive tip,
Magnetic, nimble, endlessly alert.  (ll. 1-6, 1908)

And for 108 more lines, the poet plays fetch with the dogs – “I seized the prize.  A vanquished yelp / From both; and then intensest vigilance” – with a gesture towards wisdom only in the last few lines.  Mostly, a man plays with dogs on the beach.

Davidson, in this mode, often sounds like our contemporary:

from Thames Embankment

As gray and dank as dust and ashes slaked
With wash of urban tides the morning lowered;
But over Chelsea Bridge the sagging sky
Had colour in it – blots of faintest bronze,
The stains of daybreak...
At lowest ebb the tide on either bank
Laid bare the fat mud of the Thames, all pinched
And scalloped thick with dwarfish surges…  (ll. 1-5, 9-11, 1908)

I should keep going – the next word is “cranes,” a permanent feature of today’s London skyline.  I felt like I had leapt forward not fifteen years but a hundred from “Thirty Bob a Week.”  Poems that look and sound very much like this are published now in Poetry and The Hudson Review.

The poems are good prose.  In the Selected Poems and Prose book, the strangest footnote recurs: “Based on a prose article.”  “Two Dogs” is based on ’A Railway Journey’, Glasgow Herald, 1907.  I have never before come across such a thing, such a poet.  Poem after poem, “based on a prose article.”

“Based on a prose article, ‘Urban Snow’”:


‘Who affirms that crystals are alive?’
    I affirm it, let who will deny: –
Crystals are engendered, wax and thrive,
    Wane and wither: I have seen them die.

Trust me, masters, crystals have their day
    Eager to attain the perfect norm,
Lit with purpose, potent to display
    Facet, angle, colour, beauty, form.  (1907)

I suspect this poem might also be about poetry.

Davidson’s nature poems are outstanding.  See “In Romney Marsh” (1894), full of brilliant conceits, like

The darkly shining salt sea drops
    Streamed as the waves clashed on the shore;
The beach, with all its organ stops
    Pealing again, prolonged the roar.  (ll. 25-8)

He is a fine satirist.  See “The Crystal Palace” (1905), in which he and Max Beerbohm, wander around that “portentous toy,” mocking the crowd, the building, the statue of Voltaire, the restaurant, and the Reading-room:

Three people in the silent Reading-room
Regard us darkly as we enter: three
Come in with us, stare vacantly about,
Look from the window and withdraw at once.  (ll.  293-6)

Although I read this and think “the Crystal Palace had a Reading-room, how civilized.”  Davidson’s satire has been defeated by the passage of time.  They thought they were decadents!

I want to include, before moving on from Davidson, a bit of an 1891 letter describing Davidson’s pals at the Rhymers Club: Wilde, Lionel Johnson, Ernest Dowson, everyone, and “W. B. Yeats the wild Irishman, who lives on water-cress and pemmican and gets drunk on the smell of whisky, and can distinguish and separate out as subtly as death each individual cell in any literary organism” (175).

Minor poet, pshaw.


  1. Davidson looks interesting--I like the headless lines in "Snow" and also the lines on the marsh, cleverly ending the stanza with a strong variation in the first foot, and then the strong vowels and pronounced pause that push home the sense. And the first two have some attractive close looking, as well as a lot of sound pleasing to the ear, either because quick and lovely or compressed and closely married to sense (as in "the fat mud of the Thames, all pinched / And scalloped thick with dwarfish surges....")

    Poor thing! I read a tiny bit of biography, and his life sounded so melancholy, his decline and end so sad.

  2. Davidson is very interesting. At this point a poet of Selected Poems, not Collected, but so what?

    He was the most surprising discovery of my wandering in the 1890s. His biography is too sad.

  3. Yes, awfully sad and pitiable.

    I have been reading some more of him online--good discovery, though some of what I found is more in the purple mode. Finding something lost is my favorite thing about other people's blogs! Yours, anyway.

  4. Davidson is best, or at least most interesting, when he suppresses the purple stuff, which just makes him a derivative version of his Rhymers Club pals.

    D. G. Myers thought that the recovery - or at least the reading of - the lost or soon-to-be-lost was the greatest achievement of book blogging.

    1. Oh, well, then... I am in very good company. Sometimes the dead come along better with us than the living.