The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 60. John Davidson
The eldest of the group, John Davidson (in whom some fairly sober critics have seen the best poet, not now living, who belonged to the second half of the last century by birth), was not a very early producer and, for a time, confined himself chiefly to unclassified dramas, Scaramouch in Naxos, Bruce, Smith, showing great ability, but too inorganic to establish a reputation. Coming to London when he was a little past thirty, he fell into a better vein of chiefly lyric poetry, which, fortunately, he continued to work, but to which, unfortunately, he was neither able nor, indeed, wholly willing to confine his energies. Attempts at novel-writing, which showed the ill-organised character of his early verse with the same kind of promise; miscellaneous journalism, which was wholly against grain or collar (whichever metaphor be preferred); and a barren rebellious pseudo-philosophy, which had its root in temper not in intellect, partly called him away from the muse, partly spoilt his sojourns without her. He was, to some extent, saved from uttermost need by a small civil list pension, but could not reconcile himself to life (he also thought himself to be threatened with cancer), and committed suicide by drowning. His work, which has a faint resemblance to that of Robert Buchanan, but with much more genius and accomplishment on one side, and to Henley’s, with less leisurely deliberation on another, is, necessarily, rather unequal; but, from the early Fleet Street Eclogues to the posthumous volumes, “splendid gleams” are never wanting, and some pieces give a full and steady light throughout. There is, therefore, hardly any part of Davidson’s poetical work which does not deserve to be read. The blank verse of the early plays possesses a singular originality; while, chaotic and “topsy-turvified” as is the matter, it wanted but a little more art to be triumphantly carried off by the form, and may still be so with a little allowance—no more than reasonable—in the case of any who know poetry when they see it. Of one modern kind of ballad—that which does not aim at being a pastiche of the old kind, but at telling a story lyrically in a fairly simple and ordinary kind of verse—Davidson was a master, and nearly a great master. The Ballad of Heaven is, though, perhaps, he did not mean it to be so, one of the best. His miscellaneous lyrics, where his greatest strength lies, are not poetry for everyone. There is violence—uncritical, but pathetic because not in the least merely affected; there is attempted vulgarity, though it was as impossible for Davidson to be really vulgar as it has been easy for some poets of higher rank in certain ways. There is frequently mistake—that is, say, the poet attacks things that he does not understand and, therefore, makes a mere windmill charge at them. But there is no mere copying or echo; there is a strange command of poetic music and always “the gleam.” Kinnoull Hill, For Lovers, London, The Lutanist may be mentioned in a sort of random choice out of many of his best poems; but, as was said before, he must be read as a whole.