Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets



Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


John Davidson*


Several years ago Mr. John Davidson caught the ear of the world with "The Ballad of a Nun," a very succinct and forceful poem. With a light heart he set himself to duplicate that achievement-so far without success. For though Mr. Davidson has given a good many clever ballads since then, he has never quite touched that high-water mark of his art. The failure ought to be sufficient proof of his genius. Had the poem been the work of a versifier, the product of some inferior power we are accustomed to insult with the name of talent, it may have been equalled as many times as you please. Not so this "Ballad of a Nun." It stands alone as a masterly bit of poetry.

But this is no reason for depreciating Mr. Davidson's other work. In Godfrida, a play in four acts, and The Last Ballad and Other Poems, he challenges attention again. Mr. Davidson's genius is a curious blend of artist and revolutionary-of Tennyson and Morris. His devotion to beauty keeps him from being perfectly realistic; and his passion for humanity and the amelioration of society keeps him from being thoroughly artistic. This is the dilemma of every artist, however, surrounded on every side with the tumult and distractions of modern life, so relentless and so inscrutable, he cannot escape for a moment its pressing needs. Its unsolved problems nag him at every turn. There is no corner of the earth reserved now for the abode of a leisurely comfortable muse. To pass days of unvexed devotion to the serene cause of some lofty art is nearly impossible. The strife is getting too hot, the issue too near. The solution of practical difficulties becomes daily more and more imperative. This means we have less and less time for inquiry in curious realms of fine art. In a strait that will not bear postponement, we ask of art what it can do for us. We look to it not so much for amusement and delight, as for aid and direction. A man like William Morris, with a consistent love of the beautiful, is driven by the stress of the times to make his endeavors more and more practical. It is not enough for him merely to write his mediŠval fairyland poems; he must try to make a mediŠval fairy land of the world about him. That may have been an iridescent dream, a very false and foolish ideal for society to follow. But since it was the only solution he had to offer for our troubles, the tendency was to make trial of it.

Again, a poet like Arnold, finding no clue to lead him out of this human workhouse, ceases to write altogether. He had no remedy to offer, and since the malady was apparently fatal, it seemed decenter to retire from the consultation of the doctors. Browning is engrossed with the more profound theories of psychology and the drama of the soul. Mr. Watson has not yet exhausted himself of the praiseworthy effort to reach the conclusion of his own thought. While perhaps the happiest artist is some man like Mr. Kippling, who, with an abounding genius for seeing things, still finds himself in perfect harmony with a great tidal contemporary force such as imperialism. He is unshaken by our lesser doubts. There is no room in his working day for any divided aims.

The artist like Mr. Davidson, on the other hand, who does not handle human problems discursively and directly like the didactic poets; who wishes to be more artistic than that, and who yet is distracted by the difficulties of civilization, finds himself in no happy plight. I fear that with the one exception of "The Ballad of a Nun" one cannot help feeling something ineffectual and superfluous in his allegorical ballads. It is not a trifle incongruous to lend the zest of poetry to themes which have at heart so little of the gusto of conviction. To be thoroughly imbued with the manifest triumph of force is to write (if one have the genius, of course) splendid ballads of war and commerce. But to have inherited a single grain of the sick fatigue and languid doubt of the last generation is to make such pŠans impossible. However, as the master singer says, "there are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays; and every single one of them is right." There is some encouragement there.

There is some very nice sarcasm in Mr. Davidson at times; in "The Hymn of Abdul Hamid," for instance:

    "Though journalists proclaimed
    That things were at the worst;
Though ministers were blamed;
    Though poets sang and cursed;
Though priests in every church
    Prayed God to shield the right,
He left them in the lurch;
    They were afraid to fight!
Words, words they slung; while we,
    Indifferent to the cost.
Fulfilled God's high decree
    In slaughtering the lost.

Or here again, in his war song, beginning:

    "In anguish we uplift
    A new unhallowed song:
The race is to the swift;
    The battle to the strong.

I am inclined to think that Mr. Davidson may find himself most at home after all in the writing of poetic dramas. The allegory is not the happiest of media for inculcating lessons, while direct didacticism is equally undesirable to the artistic temper. In a prologue to Godfrida Mr. Davisdon gives us his idea of romance:

"Interviewer-What do you mean by romance?"
"Poet-A pertinent question. I mean by romance the essence of reality. Romance does not give the bunches plucked from the stem; it offers the wine of life in chased goblets. I have molded and carved my goblet to the best of my art; and I have crushed wine into it. To leave this Euphumism; I take men and women as I know them-the brain-sick Isembert, Ermengarde, the healthy Godfrida, Siward; but that I myself realize them and make them more apparent and more engaging to the audience. I place them in an imaginary environment, and in the colors and vestments of another time.."
"Interviewer-What is your object in writing this play?"
"Poet-My object was to give delight."
"Interviewer-Do you consider that a high aim?"
"Poet-I consider it the highest aim of art."

That is not far wrong. To give delight is better than to instruct; it is to educate.

"John Davidson," Commercial Advertiser, Jan. 14, 1899 [back]