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An essay by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch

Mr. John Davidson

Title:     Mr. John Davidson
Author: Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch [More Titles by Quiller-Couch]

April 7, 1894. His Plays.

For some weeks now I have been meaning to write about Mr. John Davidson's "Plays" (Elkin Mathews and John Lane), and always shirking the task at the last moment. The book is an exceedingly difficult one to write about, and I am not at all sure that after a few sentences I shall not stick my hands in my pockets and walk off to something easier. The recent fine weather has, however, made me desperate. The windows of the room in which I sit face S. and S.-E.; consequently a deal of sunshine comes in upon my writing-table. In ninety-nine cases out of the hundred this makes for idleness; in this, the hundredth case, it constrains to energy, because it is rapidly bleaching the puce-colored boards in which Mr. Davidson's plays are bound--and (which is worse) bleaching them unevenly. I have tried (let the miserable truth be confessed) turning the book daily, as one turns a piece of toast--But this is not criticism of Mr. Davidson's "Plays."

His Style full of Imagination and Wit.

Now it would be easy and pleasant to express my great admiration of Mr. Davidson's Muse, and justify it by a score of extracts and so make an end: and nobody (except perhaps Mr. Davidson himself) would know my dishonesty. For indeed and out of doubt he is in some respects the most richly-endowed of all our younger poets. Of wit and of imagination he has almost a plethora: they crowd this book, and all his books, from end to end. And his frequent felicity of phrase is hardly less remarkable. You may turn page after page, and with each page the truth of this will become more obvious. Let me add his quick eye for natural beauty, his penetrating instinct for the principles that lie beneath its phenomena, his sympathy with all men's more generous emotions--and still I have a store of satisfactory illustrations at hand for the mere trouble of turning the leaves. Consider, for instance, the imagery in his description of the fight by Bannockburn--

Now are they hand to hand!
How short a front! How close! _They're sewn together
with steel cross-stitches, halbert over sword,_
_Spear across lance and death the purfled seam!_
I never saw so fierce, so lock'd a fight.
That tireless brand that like a pliant flail
Threshes the lives from sheaves of Englishmen--
Know you who wields it? Douglas, who but he!
A noble meets him now. Clifford it is!
No bitterer foes seek out each other there.
Parried! That told! And that! Clifford, good night!
And Douglas shouts to Randolf; Edward Bruce
Cheers on the Steward; while the King's voice rings
In every Scotch ear: such a narrow strait
Confines this firth of war!

_Young Friar_: "God gives me strength
Again to gaze with eyes unseared. _Jewels!
These must be jewels peering in the grass.
Cloven from helms, or on them: dead men's eyes
Scarce shine so bright. The banners dip and mount
Like masts at sea...._"

Or consider the fanciful melody of the Fairies' song in _An Unhistorical Pastoral_--

"Weave the dance and sing the song;
_Subterranean depths prolong
The rainy patter of our feet;_
Heights of air are rendered sweet
By our singing. Let us sing,
Breathing softly, fairily,
Swelling sweetly, airily,
Till earth and sky our echo ring.
Rustling leaves chime with our song:
Fairy bells its close prolong
Ding-dong, ding-dong."

--Or the closely-packed wit in such passages as these--

_Brown_: "This world,
This oyster with its valves of toil and play,
Would round his corners for its own good ease,
And make a pearl of him if he'd plunge in.
* * * * *
_Jones_: And in this matter we may all be pearls.

_Smith_: Be worldlings, truly. I would rather be
A shred of glass that sparkles in the sun,
And keeps a lowly rainbow of its own,
Than one of these so trim and patent pearls
With hearts of sand veneered, sewed up and down
The stiff brocade society affects."

I have opened the book at random for these quotations. Its pages are stuffed with scores as good. Nor will any but the least intelligent reviewer upbraid Mr. Davidson for deriving so much of his inspiration directly from Shakespeare. Mr. Davidson is still a young man; but the first of these plays, _An Unhistorical Pastoral_, was first printed so long ago as 1877; and the last, _Scaramouch in Naxos; a Pantomime_, in 1888. They are the work therefore of a very young man, who must use models while feeling his way to a style and method of his own.

Lack of "Architectonic" Quality.

But--there is a "but"; and I am coming at length to my difficulty with Mr. Davidson's work. Oddly enough, this difficulty may be referred to the circumstance that Mr. Davidson's poetry touches Shakespeare's great circle at a second point. Wordsworth, it will be remembered, once said that Shakespeare _could_ not have written an Epic (Wordsworth, by the way, was rather fond of pointing out the things that Shakespeare could not have done). "Shakespeare _could_ not have written an Epic; he would have died of plethora of thought." Substitute "wit" for "thought," and you have my difficulty with Mr. Davidson. It is given to few men to have great wit: it is given to fewer to carry a great wit lightly. In Mr. Davidson's case it luxuriates over the page and seems persistently to choke his sense of form. One image suggests another, one phrase springs under the very shadow of another until the fabric of his poem is completely hidden beneath luxuriant flowers of speech. Either they hide it from the author himself; or, conscious of his lack of architectonic skill, he deliberately trails these creepers over his ill-constructed walls. I think the former is the true explanation, but am not sure.

Let me be cautious here, or some remarks I made the other day upon another poet--Mr. Hosken, author of _Phaon and Sappho_, and _Verses by the Way_--will be brought up against me. Defending Mr. Hosken against certain critics who had complained of the lack of dramatic power in his tragedies, I said, "Be it allowed that he has little dramatic power, and that (since the poem professed to be a tragedy) dramatic power was what you reasonably looked for. But an alert critic, considering the work of a beginner, will have an eye for the bye-strokes as well as the main ones: and if the author, while missing the main, prove effective with the bye--if Mr. Hosken, while failing to construct a satisfactory drama, gave evidence of strength in many fine meditative passages--then at the worst he stands convicted of a youthful error in choosing a literary form unsuited to convey his thought."

Not in the "Plays" only.

These observations I believe to be just, and having entered the _caveat_ in Mr. Hosken's case, I should observe it in Mr. Davidson's also, did these five youthful plays stand alone. But Mr. Davidson has published much since these plays first appeared--works both in prose and verse--_Fleet Street Eclogues_, _Ninian Jamieson_, _A Practical Novelist_, _A Random Itinerary_, _Baptist Lake_: and because I have followed his writings (I think from his first coming to London) with the greatest interest, I may possibly be excused for speaking a word of warning. I am quite certain that Mr. Davidson will never bore me: but I wish I could be half so certain that he will in time produce something in true perspective; a fabric duly proportioned, each line of which from the beginning shall guide the reader to an end which the author has in view; something which

"Servetur ad imum
Qualis ab incepto processerit, et sibi constet."

_Sibi constet_, be it remarked. A work of art may stand very far from Nature, provided its own parts are consistent. Heaven forbid that a critic should decry an author for being fantastic, so long as he is true to his fantasy.

But Mr. Davidson's wit is so brilliant within the circles of its temporary coruscation as to leave the outline of his work in a constant penumbra. Indeed, when he wishes to unburden his mind of an idea, he seems to have less capacity than many men of half his ability to determine the form best suited for conveying it. If anything can be certain which has not been tried, it is that his story _A Practical Novelist_ should have been cast in dramatic form. His vastly clever _Perfervid: _or_ the Career of Ninian Jamieson_ is cast in two parts which neither unite to make a whole, nor are sufficiently independent to stand complete in themselves. I find it characteristic that his _Random Itinerary_--that fresh and agreeable narrative of suburban travel--should conclude with a crashing poem, magnificent in itself, but utterly out of key with the rest of the book. Turn to the _Compleat Angler_, and note the exquisite congruity of the songs quoted by Walton with the prose in which they are set, and the difference will be apparent at once. Fate seems to dog Mr. Davidson even into his illustrations. _A Random Itinerary_ and this book of _Plays_ (both published by Messrs. Mathews and Lane) have each a conspicuously clever frontispiece. But the illustrator of _A Random Itinerary_ has chosen as his subject the very poem which I have mentioned as out of harmony with the book; and I must protest that the vilely sensual faces in Mr. Beardsley's frontispiece to these _Plays_ are hopelessly out of keeping with the sunny paganism of _Scaramouch in Naxos_. There is nothing Greek about Mr. Beardsley's figures: their only relationship with the Olympians is derived through the goddess Aselgeia.

With all this I have to repeat that Mr. Davidson is in some respects the most richly endowed of all the younger poets. The grand manner comes more easily to him than to any other: and if he can cultivate a sense of form and use this sense as a curb upon his wit, he has all the qualities that take a poet far.

* * * * *

Nov. 24, 1984. "Ballads and Songs."

At last there is no mistake about it: Mr. John Davidson has come by his own. And by "his own" I do not mean popularity--though I hope that in time he will have enough of this and to spare--but mastery of his poetic method. This new volume of "Ballads and Songs" (London: John Lane) justifies our hopes and removes our chief fear. You remember Mr. T.E. Brown's fine verses on "Poets and Poets"?--

He fishes in the night of deep sea pools:
For him the nets hang long and low,
Cork-buoyed and strong; the silver-gleaming schools
Come with the ebb and flow
Of universal tides, and all the channels glow.

Or holding with his hand the weighted line
He sounds the languor of the neaps,
Or feels what current of the springing brine
The cord divergent sweeps,
The throb of what great heart bestirs the middle deeps.

Thou also weavest meshes, fine and thin,
And leaguer'st all the forest ways;
But of that sea and the great heart therein
Thou knowest nought; whole days
Thou toil'st, and hast thy end--good store of pies and jays.

Mr. Davidson has never allowed us to doubt to which of these two classes he belongs. "For him the nets hang long and low." But though it may satisfy the Pumblechook within us to recall our pleasant prophesyings, we shall find it more salutary to remember our fears. We watched Mr. Davidson struggling in the thicket of his own fancies, and saw him too often break his shins over his own wit. We asked: Will he in the end overcome the defect of his qualities? Will he remain unable to see the wood for the trees? Or will he some day be giving us poems of which the whole conception and structure shall be as beautiful as the casual fragment or the single line? For this architectonic quality is just that "invidious distinction" which the fabled undergraduate declined to draw between the major and minor prophets.

The "Ballad of a Nun."

Since its appearance, a few weeks back, all the critics have spoken of "A Ballad of a Nun," and admitted its surprising strength and beauty. They have left me in the plight of that belated fiddle in "Rejected Addresses," or of the gentleman who had to be content with saying "ditto" to Mr. Burke. For once they seem unanimous, and for once they are right. The poem is beautiful indeed in detail:

"The adventurous sun took Heaven by storm;
Clouds scattered largesses of rain;
The sounding cities, rich and warm,
Smouldered and glittered in the plain."

Dickens, reading for the first time Tennyson's "Dream of Fair Women," laid down the book, saying, "What a treat it is to come across a fellow who can _write_!" The verse that moved him to exclaim it was this--

"Squadrons and squares of men in brazen plates,
Scaffolds, still sheets of water, divers woes,
Ranges of glimmering vaults with iron grates;
And hushed seraglios."

It is not necessary to compare these two stanzas. Tennyson's depicts a confused and moving dream; Mr. Davidson's a wide earthly prospect. The point to notice in each is the superlative skill with which the poet chooses the essential points of the picture and presents them so as to convey their full meaning, appealing at once to the senses and the intelligence. Tennyson, who is handling a mental condition in which the sensations are less sharply and logically separated than in a waking vision, can enforce this second appeal--this appeal to the intelligence--by introducing the indefinite "divers woes" between the definite "sheets of water" and the definite "ranges of glimmering vaults with iron grates": just as Wordsworth, to convey the vague unanalyzed charm of singing, combines the indefinite "old unhappy far-off things" with the definite "battles long ago." Mr. Davidson, on the other hand, is describing what the eye sees, and conveying what the mind suspects, in their waking hours, and is therefore restricted in his use of the abstract and indefinite. Notice, therefore, how he qualifies that which can be seen--the sun, the clouds, the plain, the cities that "smoulder" and "glitter"--with the epithets "sounding," "rich," and "warm," each an inference rather than a direct sensation: for nobody imagines that the sound of the cities actually rang in the ear of the Nun who watched them from the mountain-side. The whole picture has the effect of one of those wide conventional landscapes which old painters delighted to spread beyond the court-yard of Nazareth, or behind the pillars of the temple at Jerusalem. My attempt to analyze it is something of a folly; to understand it is impossible:

"but _if_ I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,"--

I should at length comprehend the divine and inexplicable gift of song.

The "Ballad of the Making of a Poet."

But beautiful as it is in detail, this poem, and at least one other in the little volume, have the great merit which has hitherto been lacking in the best of Mr. Davidson's work. They are thoroughly considered; seen as solid wholes; seen not only in front but round at the back. In fact, they are natural growths of Mr. Davidson's philosophy of life. In his "Ballad of the Making of a Poet" Mr. Davidson lets us know his conception of the poet's proper function.

"I am a man apart:
A mouthpiece for the creeds of all the world;
A soulless life that angels may possess
Or demons haunt, wherein the foulest things
May loll at ease beside the loveliest;
A martyr for all mundane moods to tear;
The slave of every passion; and the slave
Of heat and cold, of darkness and of light;
A trembling lyre for every wind to sound.
* * * * *
Within my heart
I'll gather all the universe, and sing
As sweetly as the spheres; and I shall be
The first of men to understand himself...."

Making, of course, full concessions to the demands of poetical treatment, we may assume pretty confidently that Mr. Davidson intended this "Ballad in Blank Verse of the Making of a Poet" for a soul's autobiography, of a kind. If so, I trust he will forgive me for doubting if he is at all likely to fulfil the poet's office as he conceives it here, or even to approach within measurable distance of his ideal--

"A trembling lyre for every wind to sound."

That it is one way in which a poet may attain, I am not just now denying. But luckily men attain in many ways: and the man who sits himself down of fixed purpose to be an Æolian harp for the winds of the world, is of all men the least likely to be merely Æolian. For the first demand of Æolian sound is that the instrument should have no theories of its own; and explicitly to proclaim yourself Æolian is implicitly to proclaim yourself didactic. As a matter of fact, both the "Ballad of the Making of a Poet" and the "Ballad of a Nun" contain sharply pointed morals very stoutly driven home. In each the poet has made up his mind; he has a theory of life, and presents that theory to us under cover of a parable. The beauty of the "Ballad of a Nun"--or so much of it as stands beyond and above mere beauty of language--consists in this, that it is informed, and consciously informed, by a spirit of tolerance so exceedingly wide that to match it I can find one poem and one only among those of recent years: I mean "Catherine Kinrade." In Mr. Brown's poem the Bishop is welcomed into Heaven by the half-wilted harlot he had once condemned to painful and public punishment. In Mr. Davidson's poem, Mary, the Mother of Heaven, herself takes the form and place of the wandering nun and fills it until the penitent returns. Take either poem: take Mr. Brown's--

"Awe-stricken, he was 'ware
How on the Emerald stair
A woman sat divinely clothed in white,
And at her knees four cherubs bright.
That laid
Their heads within their lap. Then, trembling, he essayed
To speak--'Christ's mother, pity me!'
Then answered she--
'Sir, I am Catherine Kinrade.'"

Or take Mr. Davidson's--in a way, its converse--

"The wandress raised her tenderly;
She touched her wet and fast-shut eyes;
'Look, sister; sister, look at me;
Look; can you see through my disguise?'

She looked and saw her own sad face,
And trembled, wondering, 'Who art thou?'
'God sent me down to fill your place;
I am the Virgin Mary now.'

And with the word, God's mother shone;
The wanderer whispered 'Mary, hail!'
The vision helped her to put on
Bracelet and fillet, ring and veil.

'You are sister to the mountains now,
And sister to the day and night;
Sister to God.' And on her brow
She kissed her thrice and left her sight."

The voice in each case is that of a prophet rather than that of a reed shaken by the wind, or an Æolian harp played upon by the same.

* * * * *

March, 1895. Second Thoughts.

I have to add that, apart from the beautiful language in which they are presented, Mr. Davidson's doctrines do not appeal to me. I cannot accept his picture of the poet's as "a soulless life ... wherein the foulest things may loll at ease beside the loveliest." It seems to me at least as obligatory on a poet as on other men to keep his garden weeded and his conscience active. Indeed, I believe some asceticism of soul to be a condition of all really great poetry. Also Mr. Davidson appears to be confusing charity with an approbation of things in the strict sense damnable when he makes the Mother of Christ abet a Nun whose wanderings have no nobler excuse than a carnal desire--_savoir enfin ce que c'est un homme_. Between forgiving a lapsed man or woman and abetting the lapse I now, in a cooler hour, see an immense, an essential, moral difference. But I confess that the foregoing paper was written while my sense of this difference was temporarily blinded under the spell of Mr. Davidson's beautiful verse.

It may still be that his Nun had some nobler motive than I am able, after two or three readings of the ballad, to discover. In that case I can only ask pardon for my obtuseness.

[The end]
Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch's essay: Mr. John Davidson