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John Davidson Biography | Poet

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DAVIDSON, JOHN (1857-1909), British poet, playwright and novelist, son of the Rev. Alexander Davidson, a minister of the Evangelical Union, was born at Barrhead, Renfrewshire, Scotland, on the 11th of April 1857. After a schooling at the Highlanders’ Academy, Greenock, at the age of thirteen he was set to work in that town, by helping in a sugar factory laboratory and then in the town analyst’s office; and at fifteen he went back to his old school as a pupil-teacher. In 1876 he studied for a session at Edinburgh University, and then went as a master to various Scotch schools till 1890, varying his experiences in 1884 by being a clerk in a Glasgow thread firm. He had married in 1885, and meanwhile his literary inclinations had shown themselves, without attracting any public success, in the publication of his poetical and fantastic plays, Bruce (1886), Smith; a tragic farce(1888) and Scaramouch in Naxos (1889). Determining at all costs to follow his literary vocation, he went to London in 1890, but at first had a hard struggle. There his prose-romance Perfervid (1890) was published, one of the most original and fascinating stories of “young blood” and child adventure ever written, but for some reason it did not catch the public; and a sort of sequel in The Great Men (1891) met no better fate. He contributed, however, to newspapers and became known among literary journalists, and his volume of verse In a Music-Hall (1891) prepared the way for the genuine success two years later of his Fleet Street Eclogues (1893), which sounded a new and vigorous note and at once established his position among the younger generation of poets. He subsequently produced several more books in prose, romantic stories like Baptist Lake (1894) and Earl Lavender (1895), and an admirable piece of descriptive landscape writing in A Random Itinerary (1894); but his acceptance as a poet gave a more emphatic impulse to his work in verse, and most attention was given to the increasing proof of his powers shown in his Ballads and Songs(1894), Second Series of Fleet Street Eclogues (1895), New Ballads (1896), The Last Ballad, &c. (1898), all full of remarkably fresh and unconventional beauty. In spite of the strangely neglected genius of this early Perfervid, it is accordingly as a writer of verse rather than of prose-fiction that he occupies a leading place, with a decided character of his own, in recent English literature, his revival of a modernized ballad form being a considerable achievement in itself, and his poems being packed with fine thought, robust and masterful in expression and imagery. Meanwhile in 1896 he produced an English verse adaptation, in For the Crown (acted by Forbes Robertson and Mrs Patrick Campbell), of François Coppée’s drama Pour la couronne, which had considerable success and was revived in 1905; and he wrote several other literary plays, remarkable none the less for dramatic qualities,—Godfrida (1898), Self’s the Man (1901), The Knight of the Maypole (1902) and The Theatrocrat (1905), in the last of which a tendency to be extraordinary is rather too manifest. This tendency was not absent from his volume of Holiday and Other Poems(1906), containing many fine things, together with an “essay on blank verse” illustrated from his own compositions, the outspoken criticisms of a writer of admitted originality and insight, but not devoid of eccentric volubility. But if the identification of “eccentricity” and “greatness” by Cosmo Mortimer in Mr Davidson’s own Perfervid sometimes obtrudes itself on the memory in considering his more peculiarly “robust” and somewhat volcanic deliverances, no such objection can detract from the genuine inspiration of his best work, in which the true poetic afflatus is unmistakable. This is to be found in his poems published from 1893 to 1898, five years during which his reputation steadily and deservedly grew,—the Fleet Street Eclogues, with their passionate modern criticism of life combined with their breath of rural beauty, and such intense ballads as those “Of a Nun,” and “Of Heaven and Hell.” In his ethical and didactic utterances, The Testament of a Vivisector and The Testament of a Man Forbid (1901), The Testament of an Empire Builder (1902), Mammon and his Message (1908), &c., the fine quality of the verse is wedded with a certain fervid satirical journalism of subject, less admirable than the detachment of thought in the earlier volumes. In later years he lived at Penzance, provided with a small Civil List pension, but otherwise badly off, for his writings brought in very little money. On March 23rd, 1909, he disappeared, in circumstances pointing to suicide, and six months later his body was found in the sea.

See an article by Filson Young on “The New Poetry,” in the Fortnightly Review, January 1909.


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