Tuesday, April 28, 2015

I hope, like you - the pre-Shakespearian minor poet John Davidson

Now I am reading Ernest Dowson, who would be a logical choice to follow Lionel Johnson – aesthete, Paterian Francophile, died young – but Dowson is still in progress and by chance I read a contemporary who followed a different path, the Scottish poet John Davidson, a Fleet Street hack who somehow developed a fresh style that was less interested in beauty, less pre-Raphaelite, less French.  He called it “pre-Shakespearian,” which was in part a joke and in part a declaration that poetry should be socially reformist:

But the woman in unwomanly rags, and all the insanity and iniquity of which she is the type, will now be sung.  Poetry will concern itself with her and hers for some time to come.  The offal of the world is being said in statistics, in prose fiction: it is besides going to be sung.  James Thomson sang it; and others are doing so…  Poor-laws, charity organisations, dexterously hold the wound open, or tenderly and hopelessly skin over the cancer…  Poetry has other functions, other aims; but this also has become its province.  (1899, pp. 157-8*)

Two notes.  First, James Thomson is better known as Bysshe Vanolis, author of the great The City of Dreadful Night (1874).  I wrote five posts on that poem in 2010.  I should have written ten.  Second, this quotation gives the wrong idea entirely of the poetry Davidson actually wrote, with one major exception, “Thirty Bob a Week,” a white-collar response to Thomas Hood’s 1843 “Song of the Shirt” about the sufferings of the thousands of clerks scraping by in London:

I couldn’t touch a stop and turn a screw,
    And set the blooming world a-work for me,
Like such as cut their teeth – I hope, like you –
    On the handle of a skeleton gold key;
I cut mine on a leek, which I eat it every week:
    I’m a clerk at thirty bob as you can see.  (1894, ll. 1-6)

Kipling worked a similar vein in his Barrack-Room Ballads (1892).  No idea if Davidson had read it, but both writers are working on similar aesthetic problems.

For like a mole I journey in the dark,
    A-travelling along the underground
From my Pillar’d Halls and broad Suburbean Park,
    To come the daily dull official round;
And home again at night with my pipe all alight,
    A-scheming how to count ten bob a pound.  (ll.  13-18)

The poem has fourteen more stanzas in this mode, denouncing the Church, his bosses, and his own foolish decision to marry young (although fortunately his wife is tough, “she’s made of flint and roses, very odd”).  The poem ends with a howl of despair.  The letters included in the edition I read suggest that there may be some autobiography here, that the clerk may have some resemblance to the hack writer:

It’s a naked child against a hungry wolf;
    It’s playing bowls upon a splitting wreck;
It’s walking on a string across a gulf
    With millstones fore-and-aft about your neck:
But the thing is daily done by many and many a one;
    And we fall, face forward, fighting, on the deck.  (ll. 91-6)

As I said above, though, as good as “Thirty Bob a Week” is, it gives the wrong idea about Davidson.  This and another poem from the same year, “The Ballad of a Nun,” made Davidson’s reputation, for whatever good that did him.  The nun poem is, in Victorian terms, daringly sexual, which is one way to sell poems, but is even less characteristic.

So, one more post on Davidson.

*  Page numbers refer to Selected Poems and Prose, ed. John Sloan (Clarendon Press, 1995).  I also read this scanned copy of the 1894 Ballads and Songs, which includes “Thirty Bob a Week” and the shocking nun ballad.

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