Davidson, John 1857-1909

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DAVIDSON, John 1857-1909

PERSONAL: Born April 11, 1857, in Barrhead, Renfrewshire, Scotland; committed suicide March 23, 1909, in Penzance, Cornwall, England; married Margaret Cameron MacArthur, October 23, 1885; children: Alexander, Menzies. Education: Attended Edinburgh University.

CAREER: Walker's Chemical Laboratory, staff member, 1870-71; Highlanders' Academy, pupil-teacher, 1872-76; Alexander's Charity School, Glasgow, Scotland, English teacher, 1877-78; Perth Academy, English teacher, 1878-81; Kelvinside Academy, Glasgow, English teacher, 1881-82; Hutchinson's Charity School, Paisley, English teacher, 1883-84; clerk for thread firm, Glasgow, 1884; teacher at Morrison's Academy, Crieff, 1885-86, and Greenock private school, 1888-89; John Lane (publisher), London, England, reader, 1890s; Grant Richards (publisher) London, reader, 1907-09.

AWARDS, HONORS: Royal Literary Fund grant, 1899.


Diabolus Amans: A Dramatic Poem, Wilson & McCormick (Glasgow, Scotland), 1885, Garland (New York, NY), 1978.

The North Wall, Wilson & McCormick (Glasgow, Scotland), 1885, Garland (New York, NY), 1978.

Bruce: A Drama in Five Acts, Wilson & McCormick (Glasgow, Scotland), 1886.

Smith: A Tragedy, Wilson (Glasgow, Scotland), 1888.

Plays, John Davidson (Greenock, Scotland), 1889.

Perfervid: The Career of Ninian Jamieson, Ward & Downey (London, England), 1890.

The Great Men and A Practical Novelist, Ward & Downey (London, England), 1891.

In a Music-Hall and Other Poems, Ward & Downey (London, England), 1891.

(With Charles J. Wills) Laura Ruthven's Widowhood, 3 volumes, Lawrence & Bullen (London, England), 1892.

Sentences and Paragraphs, Lawrence & Bullen (London, England), 1893, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1895.

Fleet Street Eclogues, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1895.

A Random Itinerary, Copeland & Day (Boston, MA), 1894.

Ballads and Songs, Copeland & Day (Boston, MA), 1894.

Baptist Lake, Ward & Downey (London, England), 1894.

Plays … Being an Unhistorical Pastoral; A Romantic Farce; Bruce, a Chronicle Play; Smith, a Tragic Farce; and Scaramouch in Naxos, a Pantomime, Stone & Kimball (Chicago, IL), 1894.

A Full and True Account of the Wonderful Mission of Earl Lavender, Which Lasted One Night and One Day: with a History of the Pursuit of Earl Lavender and Lord Brumm by Mrs. Scamler and Maud Emblem, Ward & Downey (London, England), 1895, Garland (New York, NY), 1977.

The Ballad of a Nun, John Lane (London, England), 1895.

St. George's Day: A Fleet Street Eclogue, John Lane (New York, NY), 1895.

A Second Series of Fleet Street Eclogues, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1896.

Miss Armstrong's and Other Circumstances, Methuen (London, England), 1896.

The Pilgrimage of Strongsoul and Other Stories, Ward & Downey (London, England), 1896.

For the Crown: A Romantic Play in Four Acts, adapted from François Coppée's Pour la couronne (produced in London, England, 1896), Nassau Press (London, England), 1896.

(Reviser) Ernest Rosmer, Children of the King, translation by Carl Armbruster of Die Königskinder, produced in London, England, 1897.

New Ballads, John Lane/Bodley Head (New York, NY), 1897.

Godfrida: A Play in Four Acts, John Lane/Bodley Head (New York, NY), 1898.

The Last Ballad and Other Poems, John Lane/Bodley Head (New York, NY), 1899.

Self's the Man: A Tragi-Comedy, Grant Richards (London, England), 1901.

The Testament of a Vivisector, Grant Richards (London, England), 1901.

The Testament of a Man Forbid, Grant Richards (London, England), 1901.

The Testament of an Empire-Builder, Grant Richards (London, England), 1902.

A Rosary, Grant Richards (London, England), 1903, Dutton (New York, NY), 1904.

The Knight of the Maypole: A Comedy in Four Acts, Grant Richards (London, England), 1903.

The Testament of a Prime Minister, Grant Richards (London, England), 1904.

A Queen's Romance: A Version of Victor Hugo's "Ruy Blas," (produced in London, England, 1904), Grant Richards (London, England), 1904.

Selected Poems, John Lane/Bodley Head (New York, NY), 1904.

(Translator) Miguel Zamaçois, Bohemos, produced in London, England, 1904.

The Theocrat: A Tragic Play of Church and Stage, Grant Richards (London, England), 1905.

Holiday and Other Poems, Dutton (New York, NY), 1906.

The Triumph of Mammon, Grant Richards (London, England), 1907.

Mammon and His Message, Grant Richards (London, England), 1908.

The Testament of John Davidson, Grant Richards (London, England), 1908.

Fleet Street and Other Poems, Kennerley (New York, NY), 1909.

The Poems of John Davidson, 2 volumes, edited by Andrew Turnbull, Scottish Academic Press (Edinburgh, Scotland), 1973.


(And translator) Charles Louis, Baron de Montesquieu, Persian Letters, 2 volumes, privately printed (London, England), 1892.

(And selector) Birket Foster, Pictures of Rustic Landscape, Nimmo (London, England), 1896.

William Shakespeare, Sonnets, Sprout (New York, NY), 1909.

SIDELIGHTS: British writer John Davidson was admired by Virginia Woolf and other acclaimed writers of the turn of the twentieth century. Davidson's best-known works were his Fleet Street Eclogues of 1893 and 1894's Ballads and Songs. Holbrook Jackson, in his book The Eighteen Nineties, stated that "the Eighteen Nineties had no more remarkable mind and no more distinctive poet than John Davidson." Along with these accomplishments, Davidson completed the first translations of the works of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche into English.

During his adolescence in Greenock, Scotland, Davidson was often at odds with his parents. His desire to become a writer, combined with his drinking, caused conflict with his father, an Evangelical minister whose religious beliefs Davidson openly criticized. One of Davidson's early poems, "A Ballad in Blank Verse on the Making of a Poet," is concerned with the friction between a poet and his highly religious mother and father. Although he was a member of the parish his father oversaw, his scorn for the Christian faith was growing and eventually became the epicenter of much of his literary work.

Exhibiting an interest in literature at an early age, Davidson wrote his first poem when he was six years old. By the time he reached his teens, he had developed a passion for the work of Shelley and Keats. Due to his parents' religious beliefs, Davidson was not allowed to read selected books on Sundays and started composing his own work to alleviate the boredom. After graduating from the Highlanders' Academy in 1870, Davidson accepted a position at Walker's Sugar Company, where he worked in the labs before returning to Highlanders' Academy in 1872 to study and teach. Leaving Highlanders' a year later, he enrolled at Edinburgh University in courses in Greek and the humanities before embarking on his career as an instructor at various Scottish schools.

While teaching, Davidson became acquainted with a number of literary organizations. He went to lectures at the university and studied under John Nicols. On October 23, 1885, Davidson married Margaret Cameron MacArthur, who bore him two sons, Alexander and Menzies. Having published a number of plays as well as a novel and a dramatic poem by 1888, Davidson was ready to release a collection of poetry, some short stories, and another novel. These early works are often compared to the work of Shakespeare, from whom Davidson borrowed heavily. In these writings, Davidson's contempt for Christianity is clearly visible. Davidson also used his early work to model themes that would continue through his literary career, such as his ostracized hero and the knowledge that life is filled with conflicts.

Moving his family to London in 1890, Davidson had determined he would attempt to make a career out of his literary interests. The Davidson family settled in Hornsey, a northern suburb of London. Their location would be the setting for a number of Davidson's poems. Writing for various newspapers, Davidson also found time to submit articles and some of his poems to literary journals. As a member of the Rhymer's Club, Davidson contributed to various poetry collections published by the organization and socialized with Yeats and Frank Harris.

Davidson found his first success in his poems dealing with the music halls. In 1884, Davidson wrote In a Music Hall, a poem written as six monologues spoken by the people who perform in the music hall. It opens and closes with the narration of the host of the music hall, who invites the reader to listen to the stories of the artists. The self-discovery of these artists is the theme of the poem, and Davidson uses the language of the music halls to give his poem a sense of reality. This allegiance to reality is also noticeable in "Thirty Bob a Week," included in Ballads and Songs (1894). The poem tells the story of a downtrodden clerk who dreams of attaining the social standing of a wealthier man. T. S. Eliot wrote in a preface to a collection of Davidson's work that "the personage that Davidson created in this poem has haunted me all my life, and the poem is to me a great poem for ever."

In 1893 Davidson achieved the success he desired with the publication of his Fleet Street Eclogues, a collection of poems written in the form of Spenser's The Shepheardes Calender (1579). Instead of shepherds, Davidson's poem focuses on the experiences of those who review journalism. However, the intent to impart worldly wisdom is the same as it was in Spenser's work. Davidson examines the effects a world filled with work, filth, and the rushed pace of daily life limits the humans living in its confines. The journalists who inhabit the city are either working their fingers to the bone or living on the street, unable to find work. Depressed by their circumstances, the journalists long for ages past. To escape their plight, they flee into the past or to the unspoiled rural areas. These brief retreats allow them to discover the truths hidden in nature, but after their discoveries, they are forced to return to their ordinary, unbearable lives.

Following Fleet Street Eclogues with A Second Series of Fleet Street Eclogues (1896), Davidson continued to write of a world caught between the actual and the imagined world. He put forth his belief that only in the physical world can the eternal survive. He also expresses his faith in cosmic irony that is only resolved in the face of contradiction. Using a number of literary forms, including the drinking song, the historical ode, and a discussion of philosophy, Davidson combines contrasting forms of linguistics to produce a work filled with differing viewpoints and life experiences. Through this combination of technical forms, Davidson gives a complete overview of the burdens placed upon writers during the 1890s, and the poems as a whole are considered one of Davidson's best efforts. William Archer, in his Poets of the Younger Generation (1902), comments that these poems possess "an originality of thought, a freshness of vision, a wealth and vivacity of imagination, and in many cases a free and buoyant lyric movement."

During his career, Davidson experimented with the form of the ballad, using it to good effect in In a Music-Hall, published in 1891. These ballads are based on the ballads of Walter Scott, as well as on Davidson's own translation of various German ballads. The stories are expected to have a traditional conclusion, but Davidson shocks his readers with a radically different outcome, often related to a decision to remain with tradition or to uncover their own virtue through their anguish and passion. In his final ballad, "A Ballad of Lancelot," Davidson goes deeper into the psychology of his characters and investigates the tensions found in a single intellect.

As he became more popular, Davidson found his life disrupted by family difficulties after his father's death. After his mother passes away in 1896, he moved to Shoreham in Sussex, where he suffered a total breakdown and was restricted from work by his doctor for one year. Returning to London in 1898, he settled in Streatham in the south of London. Davidson's works following his two great successes, Ballads and Songs and Fleet Street Eclogues, were not as popular as these two collections. He found that his works in prose were largely ignored and only four of the plays he translated were ever produced, while none of his original plays were performed.

Finally, Davidson began to create his testaments, which were large monologues of blank verse dealing with such subjects as man's evolution and various acts of violence. There were a total of five testaments, in which someone about to perish gives the reader his views on life, going back to a single moment of great importance. Although it is doubtful that the testaments were among Davidson's best work, he is credited with using blank verse creatively and effectively within these monologues.

During his final years, Davidson rejected the public that had refused to embrace him and shut himself off from most outside contact. His health suffered, and he was unable to keep up his social relationships. He supported himself through the assistance of a grant from the Royal Literary Fund and a pension from the Civil List and seemed to be battling depression. After leaving the Star Hotel on March 23, 1909, Davidson was not seen again until his body was discovered in the sea with a wound in the skull. Although it looked to be a suicide, he was considered "found dead" and later buried at sea.

Davidson never managed to recreate the popular acclaim of Ballads and Songs and Fleet Street Eclogues, although at the start of the twentieth century his work enjoyed a brief resurgence. Regardless of his critical standing, Davidson's work with various forms of poetry was an important contribution to more modern verse.



Archer, William, Poets of the Younger Generation, 1902, Scholarly Press, 1969.

Davidson, John, John Davidson: A Selection of His Poems, preface by T. S. Eliot, edited by Maurice Lindsay, Hutchinson (London, England), 1961.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 19: British Poets, 1880-1914, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1983.

Fineman, Hayim, John Davidson: A Study of the Relation of His Ideas to His Poetry, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1916.

Jackson, Holbrook, The Eighteen Nineties: A Review of Art and Ideas at the Close of the Nineteenth Century, 1913, Humanities Press, 1976.

Reference Guide to English Literature, second edition, St. James Press (Chicago, IL), 1991.

Quiller-Couch, A. T., Adventures in Criticism, Scribner's (New York, NY), 1896.

Thompson, Francis, The Real Robert Louis Stevenson and Other Critical Essays, edited by Rev. Terence L. Connolly, S. J., University Publishers Incorporated, 1959.

Townsend, J. Benjamin, John Davidson: Poet of Armageddon, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1961.

Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Volume 24, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1987.

Weygandt, Cornelius, The Time of Yeats: English Poetry of To-Day against an American Background, 1937, Russell & Russell, 1969.


Academy, January 5, 1895; November 7, 1908.

Athenaeum, September 4, 1886, p. 314.

Bookman, January, 1906, pp. 178-179.

Cambridge Journal, May, 1952, pp. 499-504.

New Republic January 12, 1918, pp. 310-312.

New Statesman, March 24, 1961, pp. 478-479.

Scottish Literary Journal, December, 1984, pp. 71-82.*

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