John Davidson



Pre-Shakespearianism. *


Literatur: Davidson
Literatur: The Speaker


NOW is "a voice of wailing heard and loud lament"; our young men see visions and dream dreams. All the woe of the world is to be uttered at last. Poetry has been democratised. Nothing could prevent that. The songs are of the highways and the byways. The city slums and the deserted villages are haunted by sorrowful figures, men of power and endurance, feeding their melancholy not with heroic fable, the beauty of the moon, and the studious cloisters, but with the actual sight of the misery in which so many millions live. To this mood the vaunted sweetness and light of the ineffective apostle of culture are like a faded rose in a charnel-house, a flash of moonshine on the Dead Sea. It is now to the light that "the passionate heart of the poet" will turn. In vain the old man cried: –

Authors – essayist, atheist, novelist, realist, rhymester, play your part,
Paint the mortal shame of nature with the living hues of art.
Rip your brothers' vices open, strip your own foul passions bare;
Down with Reticence, down with Reverence – forward – naked – let them stare."

This ironical Balaam-curse has become a message. It must all out. The poet is in the street, the hospital. He intends the world to know that it is out of joint. He will not let it alone. With whatever trumpet or jew's-harp he can command he will clang and buzz at its ear, disturbing its sleep, its pleasures; discoursing of darkness and of the terror that walks by night. "Down with Reticence"   that kills the patient; "down with Reverence"   for whatever has become abominable. Do they delight in this? No; it is only that it is inevitable. Democracy is here; and we have to go through with it.

The newspaper is one of the most potent factors in moulding the character of contemporary poetry. Perhaps it was first of all the newspaper that couched the eyes of poetry. Burns's eyes were open. Blake's also for a time; and Wordsworth had profound insight into the true character of man and of the world; but all the rest saw men as trees walking; Tennyson and Browning are Shakespearian. The prismatic cloud that Shakespeare hung out between poets and the world! It was the newspapers, I think, that brought us round to what may be called an order of Pre-Shakespearianism. It was out of the newspapers that Thomas Hood got "The Song of the Shirt" – in its place the most important English poem of the nineteenth century; the "woman in unwomanly rags plying her needle and thread" is the type of the world's misery. "The Song of the Shirt" is the most terrible poem in the English language. Only a high heart and strong brain broken on the wheel of life, but master of its own pain and anguish, able to jest in the jaws of death, could have sung this song, of which every single stanza wrings the heart. Poetry passed by on the other side. It could not endure the woman in unwomanly rags. It hid its head like the fabled ostrich in some sand bed of Arthurian legend, or took shelter in the paradoxical optimism of "The Ring and the Book." It is true William Morris stood by her when the priest and the Levite passed by. He stood by her side, he helped her; but he hardly saw her, nor could he show her as she is. "Mother and Son," his greatest poem, and a very great poem, is a vision of a deserted Titaness in [108] London streets; there was a veil also between him and the world, although in another sense, with his elemental Sigurds, he is the truest of all Pre-Shakespearians. 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. Will it be of any avail? Poor-laws, charity organisations, dexterously hold the wound open, or tenderly and hopelessly skin over the cancer. But there it is in the streets, the hospitals, the poor-houses, the prisons; it is a flood that surges about our feet, it rises breast-high. And it will be sung in all keys and voices. Poetry has other functions, other aims; but this also has become its province.

Mr Binyon ("London Visions") sings the woman in unwomanly rags. He finds her in Trafalgar Square, notes her, states her with the poet's power and precision: –

Slowly the dawn a magic paleness drew
   From windows dim; the Pillar high in air
Over dark statues and dumb fountains threw
   A shadow on the solitary square.
They that all night, dozing disquieted,
   Huddled together on the benches cold,
Now shrank apart, distrustful and unfed,
   And by the growing radiance unconsoled.
Then one, a woman, silently arose,
   And came to the broad fountain, brimming cool,
And over the stone margin leaning close,
   Dipped hands and bathed her forehead in the pool.
Now as the fresh drops ran upon her brow,
   And her hands knotted up her hair, the ways
Of old lost mornings came to her, and how
   Into her mirror she would smile and gaze

There is a refined terror in this that may reach a joint in the harness of those to whom "The Song of the Shirt" does not come home. In "Salvation Seekers" Mr. Binyon sinks a plummet in "the dark backward and abysm of time." "O demure Mænads, "he sings of the Salvation lasses –

Not of to-day or yesterday your home:
   Your feet have danced on old Cithæron hill
   Mad, leafy revels at the Wine-God's will,
And your flashed bosoms panted in the gloom. . . .
From your own selves a hunger drives you out,
Deep as carth's roots, with music harsh and shout,
   Cries of desire, wild as the sea-gull's wail.

That is a fathom-line which sounds the woe of the world, which at least reaches a certain depth in one of the "seas of agony."

Mr. Victor Plarr ("The Garland of New Poetry") sings of "Solitaires," of the dying Hampden, of men buried in a common grave in the cemetery of Greenwich Hospital, of a grove "recently felled upon waste ground": –

But now these chanting branches, week by week,
   And that poetic wood have been brought low;
With jingling harness-plates and jocund creak
   The wains went to and fro,

Each burdened with its dead, and, day by day,
   With a long human cry some tree stooped down,
And still 'mong outraged nests an axe would play
   To swell the unlovely town!

Mr. Selwyn Image ("The Garland") would rejoice with unconscious nature, but it is with an effort that he casts aside –

                                  the lonely strife,
Goading us on from fatal hour to hour.

and "the brooding eyes of care."

The "woman in unwomanly rags," not now "La Belle Dame sans Merci," has them "in thrall."

Mr. Edmund Holmes's "Silence of Love," a set of fifty fourteen-lined stanzas, is the poem that every poet writes under the spell of Shakespeare's sonnets – a poem Shakespearian in manner but not necessarily so in substance. Most poets burn that poem, or their friends for them. Mr. Holmes's version of it is certainly too good to burn. The idea that a sonnet-sequence worth the paper on which it is written can be produced as an exercise – an idea fostered by the widespread rumour that Shakespeare's sonnets were of this academic nature – is common in youth. The first half of Mr. Homes's book, smoothly flowing and containing admirable lines, but indefinite and turgid in essence, suggests the simulation of passion; about the thirtieth stanza, however, something actual flashes into the verse, or the poet's imagination, fully awake, triumphs over inexperience. Mr. Holmes writes in the person of a lover whom a "stern mandate" holds apart from his mistress, and who consoles himself with the beauty and the sanctity of unfullfilled desire. It is a pale love he celebrates; the frequent frenzy of its utterance is a note of weakness, or, it may be, of inexperience. A shrinking from love, a terror of life, informs the poem; the singer dehumanises love to fit his mood and destiny; this also, it will be seen, is pre-Shakespearian. It is a strenuous statement of anæmic life; either that or, as I have said, an admirable exercise of a young poet whose latent passion awaits experience. I quote a characteristic stanza –

Is it so fated? Must we some some day part,
   Part at love's bidding, part lest love should die?
And when my doom confronts me, will my heart
   Have strenght to say that bitter last goodbye?
Shall I not now, while yet the years conceal
   The tragic outcome of love's tangled play –
Shall I not now, while yet my wounds might heal,
   Forestall the anguish of that fatal day?
No, let me face it all, and live it through,
   Reckless of joy or sorrow, good or ill.
Pain is my pride when love demands its due.
   I fear no fate but treason to love's will.
Nay, if God please, my heart will gladly break
   In love's dear service and for thy dear sake.

Mr. Aleister Crawley ("Songs of the Spirit") has a remarkable mastery of form: –

Like snows on the mountain, unlifted
   By weather or wind as it blows
In hollows the heaps of it drifted,
   The splendour of fathomless snows;
So measure and meaning are shifted
   To fashion a rose.

It is the very sound of Mr. Swinburne; and the whole book is full of it. But Mr. Crawley seems to have it by nature; his style would have been as it is supposing Mr. Swinburne had never written; at any rate, that is suggested by the ease and fluency of the measure.

There are many very pleasant verses in Mr. Toynbee's "On Oaten Flute"; and Mr. Milburn writes in a scholarly manner.



[Fußnote, S. 107]

* "Second Book of London Visions." By Laurence Binyon.  
"The Garland of New Poetry." By Various Writers. London: Elkin Mathews.
"The Silence of Love." By Edmund Holmes. London and New York: John Lane.
"Songs of the Spirit." By Aleister Crawley. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.
"On Oaten Flute and Other Versicles." By William Toynbee. London: H. J. Glaisher.
"Verses." By R. G. Milburn. Oxford: B. H. Blackwell.   zurück





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

The Speaker.
Bd. 19, 1899, 28. Januar, S. 107-108.

Gezeichnet: JOHN DAVIDSON.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).

The Speaker   online



Mit Kürzungen aufgenommen in





Davidson, John: In a Music Hall and Other Poems.
London: Ward and Downey 1891.

Davidson, John: Fleet Street Eclogues.
London: E. Mathews & J. Lane 1893.
PURL:   [2d ed.]

Davidson, John: Sentences and Paragraphs.
London: Lawrence & Bullen 1893.

Davidson, John: Ballads & Songs.
London: John Lane, The Bodley Head; Boston: Copeland &: Day 1894.

Davidson, John: A Second Series of Fleet Street Eclogues.
London: John Lane, The Bodley Head; New York: Dodd, Mead and Co. 1896.

Davidson, John: The Last Ballad and other Poems.
London u. New York: John Lane 1899.

Davidson, John: Pre-Shakespearianism.
In: The Speaker.
Bd. 19, 1899, 28. Januar, S. 107-108.

Davidson, John: The Criticism of Poetry.
In: The Speaker.
Bd. 19, 1899, 4. März, S. 258-259.

Davidson, John: Tête-à-Tête.
James Boswell. Dr. Johnson.
In: The Speaker.
Bd. 19, 1899, 6. Mai, S. 523-524.

Davidson, John: Tête-à-Tête.
Lord Smith. Lord Tennyson.
In: The Speaker.
Bd. 19, 1899, 1. Juli, S. 741-743.

Davidson, John: Tête-à-Tête.
Cosmo Mortimer. Ninian Jamieson.
In: The Speaker.
Bd. 19, 1899, 29. Juli, S. 99-100.

Davidson, John: A Rosary.
London: G. Richards 1903.

Davidson, John: The Man Forbid, and Other Essays.
Boston: The Ball Publishing Co. 1910.

Lindsay, Maurice (Hrsg.): John Davidson, A Selection of his Poems
[inc. preface by T.S. Eliot and an essay by Hugh MacDiarmid].
London: Hutchinson & Co. 1961.

Turnbull, Andrew (Hrsg.): The Poems of John Davidson.
2 Bde. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press 1973.

Sloane, John (Hrsg.): Selected Poems and Prose of John Davidson.
Oxford: Clarendon Press 1995.




Literatur: Davidson

Angeletti, Gioia: Eccentric Scotland. Three Victorian Poets. James Thomson ("B. V."), John Davidson, James Young Geddes. Bologna 2004.

Brandmeyer, Rudolf: Poetiken der Lyrik: Von der Normpoetik zur Autorenpoetik. In: Handbuch Lyrik. Theorie, Analyse, Geschichte. Hrsg. von Dieter Lamping. 2. Aufl. Stuttgart 2016, S. 2-15.

Bristow, Joseph (Hrsg.): The Fin-de-Siècle poem. English Literary Culture and the 1890s. Athens 2005.

Hynd, Hazel: Tradition and Rebellion. The Poetry of John Davidson. Diss. University of Glasgow 2001.

Marcus, Laura u.a. (Hrsg.): Late Victorian into Modern. Oxford 2016.

McCracken-Flesher, Caroline: Fin-de-Siècle Scotland. In: The Edinburgh Companion to Fin de Siècle Literature, Culture and the Arts. Hrsg. von Josephine M. Guy. Edinburgh 2018, S.  181-195.

O'Connor, Mary: John Davidson. An Annotated Bibliography of Writings about Him. In: English Literature in Transition 1880-1920. 20 (1977), S. 112-174.

Robinson, Peter: The Poetry of Modern Life: On the Pavement. In: The Oxford Handbook of Victorian Poetry. Hrsg von Matthew Bevis. Oxford u.a. 2013, S. 254-272.

Sloan, John: John Davidson, First of the Moderns. A Literary Biography. Oxford u.a. 1995.

Thain, Marion: The Lyric Poem and Aestheticism. Forms of Modernity. Edinburgh 2016.



Literatur: The Speaker

Brake, Laurel / Demoor, Marysa (Hrsg.): Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Journalism in Great Britain and Ireland. Gent u. London 2009.

King, Andrew / Plunkett, Andrew (Hrsg.): Victorian Print Media. A Reader. Oxford 2005.

King, Andrew u.a. (Hrsg.): The Routledge Handbook to Nineteenth-Century British Periodicals and Newspapers. London u. New York 2019.

Macleod, Jock: Between Politics and Culture: Liberal Journalism and Literary Cultural Discourse at the Fin de Siècle. In: English Literature in Transition 1880-1920. 51.1 (2008), S. 5-22.

Macleod, Jock: Literature, Journalism, and the Vocabularies of Liberalism. Politics and Letters, 1886-1916. Basingstoke u.a. 2013.



Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer