Essays and Reviews
by Terry Whalen
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.
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.
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.
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
is some very nice sarcasm in Mr. Davidson at times;
in "The Hymn of Abdul Hamid," for instance:
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.
here again, in his war song, beginning:
anguish we uplift
A new unhallowed song:
The race is to the swift;
The battle to the strong.
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:
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
"Poet-My object was to give delight."
"Interviewer-Do you consider that a high aim?"
"Poet-I consider it the highest aim of art."
is not far wrong. To give delight is better than to
instruct; it is to educate.
Davidson," Commercial Advertiser, Jan. 14,