Document 914

John Davidson - Free of the Universe?

Author(s): Rosie Bell

Copyright holder(s): Rosie Bell


"Within my heart I'll gather all the Universe, and sing as sweetly as the spheres..."

In the month of March, 1909, John Davidson allowed himself to be gathered within the heart of the universe, a conscious step taken by "the universe made conscious". To Davidson, death was not a one-way ticket to either reward or revenge from an omnipotent god; nor was it the end of life. He gave his material body up:

"As ether to the ether whence it came
Returns again; to darkness, silence, peace,
The wide oblivion of the Universe,
The rapture of the infinite."
Mammon and his Message

As King Mammon, putting forward Davidson's firmly held philosophy of Materialism, says in "Mammon and his Message":

"In us the ether consciously becomes
Imagination, thought, religion and art.
We are the ether, we are the universe,
We are eternity: not sense, not spirit.
But matter; but the whole become self-conscious."

It is, perhaps, not surprising that Davidson, the son of a minister of the Evangelical Union, should seek to sever the confining and constricting bonds of a religion totally at odds with his poetic soul. It would seem to be a condition of being a child that one should question and even challenge one's parents views and beliefs. Davidson's sensuality refused and rejected the constraints of the "Calvinist" environment he was brought up in where the merest glimpse of an ankle was an outrage to Victorian sensibilities. In "The Triumph of Mammon" King Christian, Mammon's father voices the genteel Victorian opinion of sex:

"Sex is sin, is Hell: perdition with its tongues of fire,
Its fangs of frost, is sensuality unending, everlasting
impotence in agony of lustful appetite"

Whilst saying these words, the old king is raising his knife to strike off his son's manhood:

"I shall deliver you from Hell, my son,
And carve your way to Heaven against your will."

It would be very easy to view this incident as autobiographical, even allegorical. It is probable that Davidson saw religion, embodied in the authoritative figure of his own father, as being a potential castrator of his poetry. It is interesting to discover if one accepts the parallel, how insidiously Davidson insinuates his own importance in the universe by paraphrasing Satan's words in "Paradise Lost" when Christian declares

"...Better be mad
In Heaven than sane in Hell."

One is left to question whether Davidson really saw his own act of rebellion against Christianity as heroic as was Lucifer's. As one gains a closer acquaintance with Davidson's ego, one cannot help but assume that he did. However, one of the basic laws of physics shows that an object set in motion by such a force and at such an angle will fall naturally into a pendulum mode and, if one looks at Davidson's writing at different times throughout his life he can be seen to swing from one extreme of faith to another. Even in, perhaps, his most ambitious attempt at repudiating all religious sects in favour of the universal greatness of Man, "The Testament of John Davidson", Davidson betrays his dependence on the cult of Christianity. After destroying all the known gods created in the image of man, from Astaroth to Zeus, Davidson, in the persona of the Narrator, sets himself up as a god: as God the Son, actually. He sees himself as Christ crucified, the image dividing and multiplying like a series of mirrors at a fun fair. The image is then particularised into four reflections: these being of "the Sire, the Son, the Holy Spirit and the Evil One," thereby adding a new dimension to the traditional Trinity which, of course, is easy to do if one holds oneself responsible for the creation of the gods in the first place:

"For I, as Man, was guilty of the gods,
Guilty of God..."

However, from time to time in his work, Davidson can show surprising equanimity in one so unashamedly aristocratic. Religious and philosophical statements can be made via the lowliest characters. In "Mary Jane MacPherson", the heroine, a music-hall singer, voices an opinion that could perhaps be seen to be a bit "high-flown" for one of her profession who, after all, is probably "no better than she should be" when she declares:

"The World's the true God-head, I fear;
Its wealth, power, iniquity seem
The mightiest Trinity here."

This young lady, a former governess, can be seen to embrace a very special form of "materialism", illustrated in the way she warns us to:

"Beware of the tempter who sings
Of other delights than are sold."

It is noteworthy that John Davidson; a son of Scotland; who, although he followed many of his fellow Scots in an exodus to London to make his fortune, wrote very little in the vernacular. He hardly ever uses Scots words and, on the rare occasions when he does, it sometimes seems as if he uses them in spite of himself. In "On a Hill-Top", Davidson foregrounds the whole of the poem in the very first line:

"The airy larks ceased shouting in the lift"

The use of the Scots word "lift" to describe the sky and the description of the birds' singing as "shouting" has the effect of jolting the Reader into an awareness that this poet is flouting convention and bursting asunder the established method of writing about the world of nature. In the eighth line of the same poem he uses the word "frith" for no obvious reason. However, if one researches closely one can detect a slight suspicion of ambiguity. The word "frith" as Davidson uses it in this poem is a metathesis of the word "firth" meaning estuary, or arm of the sea. It can also be glossed as:

"Peace; freedom from molestation; security"

and if one reads the line including the word "frith"

"A bay with boats, a frith most like a lake"

the scene would seem to be set for peace and tranquility. This peace and tranquility is rudely disturbed by the following line:

"with ruby stain spilled on the hither water."

A "ruby stain" is commonly associated with blood. This association is further reinforced by the verb "spilled" as, in the world of poetry, it is blood which is probably most often spilled. Words like "fearless", "steadfast" and "swift" are modifiers associated with battle imagery and, in line 4, we can perceive another example of foregrounding in "thronging night". The use of the word "thronging" can be seen to suggest the assembly of soldiers, or even a mob. When Davidson states:

"...His eye's enchanted ray
Burnished the sunset..."

one can visualise a well-burnished shield which would pair well with the

"...melting glance
Of more ethereal fire, that leapt along
The serried summits like the golden lance
The cloudy champion, thundering, flings among
The huddled, quaking hills."

This titanic struggle between the elements can be viewed perhaps as mirroring the personal, inner struggle which must have often raged in the breast of the writer.

In "The Gleeman", in line 8, Davidson uses another Scots word "shoon":

"His scarlet cloak and sandal shoon..."

In this poem, as in "On a Hill-Top", all is not as it appears to be. From the first description of his "scarlet cloak" it becomes obvious that this:

"Was not the garb that gleemen get."

Davidson constantly foregrounds his imagery throughout his poem, making the Reader stop and think when moving over the text. The pairing of certain nouns with seemingly unrelated modifiers has the effect of focusing the attention of the Reader on to the particular part of the text that the writer wishes to highlight. Surprisingly, this has the effect of making the poem more acceptable to the Reader, who has to make more of a personal contribution to the sense of the text. The disturbance caused by the foregrounding is tolerated by the Reader, who enjoys inferencing and, in a way, entering into the production of the text. In line 35:

"What! you stare with horny eyes..."

is such a surprising statement that one is taken aback. Why should a wandering minstrel, who is, after all, dependent on the good will of his audience, use an animalistic attribute in collocation with a human being. Later, in the same poem, Davidson refers to "the throbbing sky" and "startled mountains", carrying on the feeling of apprehension which itself is soon to be turned around by another example of foregrounding:

"Happy valleys drink the sound."

The rest of the poem outlines a vision of a better society, a world of plenty, free from the taint of sin, where no young person can be compelled to study nor any woman be made to succumb to Man's lustful desires. The message is that Man can free himself from "the primal curse" and become:

"Master of the Universe."

It would seem that when Davidson writes about Scotland, even when writing in English, one usually has a feeling of apprehension. In "Winter in Strathearn" the sinister scene is immediately set by the ellipsis of the subject in the first line

"She crumbled the brown bread, she crumbled the white..."

Even though the poet repeats this line verbatim later in the poem we never do find out who "she" is. In fact, the incremental repetition only serves to remind us that we do not know the identity of the mystery woman. The sense of unease is further heightened by the strong military imagery:

"The starlings sidled with scarlet greaves,
And burnished, black-green harness scrolled
With damaskings of dark old gold"

Why should starlings wear leg armour if not set for battle? Why should Davidson use the line:

"The sparrows swept down like withered leaves"

"Falling" could have been substituted for "withered" with no interference to the metre. When Davidson goes on to describe the landscape, more military imagery comes into play. Anyone who can see:

"The twinkling Earn, like a blade in the snow"

has death on his mind.

In his first novel, "The North Wall", his first published work, Davidson has a perfect little Scottish cameo. It is an exchange between a housekeeper and her friend, referred to by the Narrator as her "gossip". These two ladies are both widows, both fifty, and both very Henrysonian in character. When they indulge in what the Narrator calls "the crack" the conversation turns to the virtues of their respective husbands. Mrs Shaw, the housekeeper's friend, gets so carried away when listing her husband's virtues that her list of superlatives: "cleverest", "godliest", brawest etc is topped by "interestedest." In the tale of the "ganciest, birkiest, sleekest wratch of a moose" this rodent:

"...turn't up his een like a deid blaeck in the dumfoonderest way..."

Davidson uses the word "rotten" for rat and "moosikies" for mice as well as much colourful Scots vocabulary to set the scene:

"There wis nae soon 'but the wag-at-the-wa', tick tickin' like an arteeficial cricket wi' the beesiest, couthiest birr, an' my wains gaun clickety-click, when I heard a cheep, cheep..."

This little section "soups up" what might otherwise have been a very "pedestrian" drama.

Occasionally, Davidson writes about writing. In "Ayrshire Jock" he would seem to be offering up a reason or perhaps even an excuse for his preferring English rather than Scots as a poetic medium. Like many another Scottish poet Davidson seems to deplore the way Burns is almost deified and held as a model of perfection for aspiring young Scots poets. He realises that it is not enough to try to imitate the way of life that Robert Burns forsook his plough. For a poet cannot be made just by following a recipe. The most successful recipes all contain a secret ingredient and, unless one knows the secret, the dish will be a failure. So, "these rhymsters end in scavenging" because although:

"...They swill
Whisky like him, and rhyme; but still
Success attends on imitation
Of faults alone: to drink a gill
Is easier than to stir a nation."

Davidson goes on to discuss the use of language:

"They drink, and write their senseless rhymes,
Tagged echoes of the lad of Kyle,
In mongrel Scotch: didactic times
In Englishing our Scottish style
Have yet but scotched it: in a while
Our bonny dialects may fade hence:
And who will dare to coin a smile
At those who grieve for their decadence?"

It is interesting to note the repetition of the theme of Scotch in its various grammatical forms: "Scotch" as the language; "Scottish" modifying the word "style" and the past participle, "scotched" to mean frustrated. Davidson makes sure the Reader realises that he is playing about with the language. Later in the poem he mentions:

" income
Comes from my book, by hook or crook;
So I have found the muses winsome."

He immediately incorporates into the verse:

"That last rhymes bad, the pun is worse;
But still the fact remains the same;
My book puts money in my purse,
Although it never brought me fame.
I once desired to make a name,
But hawking daily an edition
Of one's own poetry would tame
The very loftiest ambition."

The metre of the poem, which is very close to the rhythms of natural speech, adds to the confidentiality of the poem. The way that Davidson directly addresses his Reader, although not new, having been used by such writers as Richardson and Fielding anticipates later writers like Alisdair Gray and John Fowles, who are both very clever at manipulating the Reader.

Davidson in "A Full and True Account of the Wonderful Mission of Earl Lavender" makes one of his main characters discuss the use of language. Mrs Scamler, when relating a story told to her by Mr Gurdon, embellished it thus:

"...and so he sat in blank despair chewing the letter until he thought of going into the bar and putting questions."

When the aforementioned Mr Gurdon denied chewing the letter, Mrs Scamler retorted.

"That's the way I tell the story. Do you suppose it would have the least interest for anybody as you told it to me - leastways if they hadn't the power of putting two and two together as I have; yes indeed and making five of it."

Mrs Scamler goes a bit far sometimes in her attempts at "clever" language. When explaining the reason for her having to chase very hard to catch the object of her affections, Mr Gurdon, she described him as a:

"...mahoganist of the deepest dye..."

Nevertheless, Mrs Scamler must have been a well-read lady, at least as far as Scottish poetry is concerned, for when relating how Mr Gurdon ran away on the eve of their wedding she quoted, of all people, Burns when she said:

"'For pleasures are like poppies spread, you see the flower, the bloom is shed,' as saith the poet."

However, "Earl Lavender" is more than just farcical. This story deals with the subject of flagellation, a subject close to the heart of Davidson, who outlines a chronological progression of this perversion throughout history, insinuating a coincidence with events celebrating the triumph of the common man over the forces of tyranny, like the Magna Carta or the overthrow of the Saracen Empire. He even goes on to mention that the revival of the sect of flagellants "came with the martyrdom of John Huss and Jerome of Prague..." The commissioning of Aubrey Beardsley to do a frontispiece for the book is obviously another attempt to dignify this glorification of flagellation.

There are many references to pain throughout the works of Davidson. It sometimes seems that pain is necessary to him in sexual love. It is possibly even indispensable to him in everyday life. In one of his most questionable testaments, "The Testament of a Vivisector", Davidson concludes the work by stating:

"...In agony unutterable... Pain?
It may be Matter in itself is pain,
Sweetened in sexual love that so mankind,
The medium of Matter's consciousness,
May never cease to know - the stolid bent
Of Matter, the infinite vanity
Of the Universe, being evermore

This poem is arguably the most sickening ever written in the English language. Whereas in "Earl Lavender", the experiencers of pain were human beings who permitted and even enjoyed the pain, in the "Vivisector" the victims are noble beasts with no choice in the matter of their suffering. In this poem, Davidson's Narrator tells of selling his own house to the "cat's-meat-man:"

"...But when he came -
The raw-faced knacker with his knuckly fists -
I ransomed Dobbin, pitying his case
He seemed so cheerful maugre destiny."

The use of the horse's name "Dobbin", which could be conceived as having been bestowed by someone who considered him to be a pet, makes this passage all the more loathsome. Davidson drags out his description of the animal's suffering:

"...Two days
He lay a-dying, and could not die. Endowed
With strength, affection, blood, nerve, hearing, sight;
Laden with lust of life for the behoof
Of Matter; gelded, bitted, scourged, starved, dying -"

Davidson's "Vivisector" also promulgates a theory of Materialism:

"...Matter unknown,
Unknowing, crawled and groped through grade on grade
Of faculty, till Thought came forth at last
With power to sift the elements. Chief end
Of Matter - of the Earth aware in us,..."

Elsewhere in the poem, although still upholding the opinion that he is the "Universe made conscious" Davidson would seem to be imbuing matter with a human-like personality:

"Lord of the riddle of the Universe
Aware at full of Matter's stolid will
In me accomplishing its useless aim..."

He goes on to bring sex into the description of the animals' anguish, showing again his association of pain with pleasure. The comparison of the animal's torture with that of a prostitute's punishment reveals much about the writer's attitude towards sex:

"The whip's-man felt no keener ecstasy
When a fair harlot at the cart's-tail shrieked
And rags of flesh with blood-soaked tawdry lace
Girdled her shuddering loins..."

Words like "ecstasy", "tawdry" and "shuddering", especially the last, which can be seen to have a double association with sex and pain; serve to link the theme of perversion. Davidson also links his proclivity with that of the whip's-man and again, later, with that of the inquisitor thereby, indulging himself by having a "go" at the Church.

"....No hallowed awe
That ever rapt a pale inquisitor,
Beholding pangs of stubborn heresy
A-sweat upon the rack, surpassed the fierce
Exalted anguish of my thought."

Davidson's poem in praise of perversion rises to a peak of pornography in the phrase:

"One diapason of intensest pain"

The use of this musical imagery tends to underline the view that Davidson in this poem is making a symphony out of suffering. "Diapason" can be glossed as "grand swelling, burst of harmony" and this is probably how the Narrator feels when he views the death of helpless creatures who die in order that:

"...every passionate Materialist
Who rends the living subject, soon is purged
Of vulgar tenderness in diligent
Delighted tormentry of bird and beast..."

It is interesting to note that, at this point, the Narrator adopts an air of detachment from his deed:

"And, conscious or unconscious of his aim,
Fulfils the will of Matter, cutting out
A path to knowledge, undefiled with use
Or usufruct, by Matter's own resource,
Pain, alkahest of all intelligence.
I study pain - pain only: I broach and tap
The agony of Matter, and work its will..."

The use of medical and alchemical terms like "usufruct" and "alkahest" is probably a "conscious or unconscious" attempt to dignify the Vivisector's odious occupation.

For someone who would seem to embrace what would later be referred to as the concept of free love, Davidson often betrays a very strong puritanical streak. As in the question of his faith, or lack of it, Davidson's opinion on moral matters fluctuates wildly. His autobiographical anti-hero, Mammon on the one hand is heard to declare that:

"Virginity is never, will never be,
Divine. The worship of an incomplete
Existence? - of one half of a being?..."

Carrying on the same theme he later declares that:

"...virginity corrupts the blood,
Distorts imagination, troubles thought;
The ether stagnates in a virgin's mind."

When seducing the faithful Oswald's betrothed, Inga, Mammon puts the finishing touch to the scene by characteristically involving the universe in his despicable crime:

"Before we grow
One Moment older let the universe,
Defeated of its will by your prolonged
Virginity, by satisfied at last.
O, as I hold you in my arms and feel
Your bosom beat, I think that everything
Came into being solely that you and I
Might share together the ecstasy of love."

This sort of attitude towards sex is quite racy, even daring considering the fact that the unfinished Mammon trilogy was written right at the beginning of the twentieth century. Davidson was undoubtedly trying to incorporate much that was modern at the time into this ambitious work, with the inclusion of such innovations as electric lighting and motor cars. These details seem somehow anachronistic set, as they are, beside instruments of torture in a medieval castle, all of these things situated in a fictive landscape more reminiscent of an Arthurian legend. Mammon goes straight from the arms of his new lover to the torture chamber to put Gottlieb, his father's old retainer and adviser, to the torture. What is, perhaps, even more surprising is Inga's attitude towards this repulsive act. When Inga discovers what Mammon has done, she declares:

"...He left my arms straightway
To rack a man! How great."

Oswald, the ineffectual voice of Mammon's conscience, tries to point out the barbarism in his master's proposed act of violence towards the old man. It seems as if he is trying to point out that such acts of torture are not conducive to the sort of image a modern monarch should be building up:

"No modern man could face the rack,
King Mammon:
Refinement strings us to the breaking pitch;
Our anodynes undo our hardihood."

When appeals to reason fail, the faithful Oswald, in a last futile gesture before losing his mind, tries to frighten Mammon into exercising restraint by suggesting that his master may afterwards be haunted, Macbeth-like, by waking and sleeping visions as he had been previously:

"If necessary tragic deeds beset
Your path with bloody visions, what hideous sights
May madden you, what dreams infest your sleep,
If you exact this cold-drawn cruelty,
This monstrous, callous, needless wickedness."

Mammon counters this argument:

"Nothing is needless - nothing men can do.
I mean to tap the reservoir of pain."

Mammon considers himself to be above all moral laws. He is supremely self-confident and resourceful. In the earlier scene when he sees the bodies of his three victims lying on the floor, although he knew they had been buried, Mammon interpreted this phenomenon in a highly scientific manner. He explained to his chancellor, Florimond, that it was because he gazed so long on the spectacle of death that the pictures were etched on his memory like an image on a photographic plate, which, under certain circumstances, could reproduce itself. Being a thoroughly modern man, Mammon could easily explain these ferocious phantoms and pitied those who yielded to superstition:

"What terror once
In damned hallucination lurked when men
Believed in ghosts and necromantic art!
I'll study this delusion when it comes;
Anatomise my visionary dead;
Compel serenity; let thought prevail..."

However, for someone who is supposed to be above all moral restraints, Mammon again betrays his latent puritanism in a clean sweep of his new kingdom. Mammon, with perhaps a hint of what would later develop into fascism, casts out the poor, criminal, lunatic and incurable in his land. The old, and people whose sexual life is over are also prohibited. The prostitutes in the kingdom are summoned and each given a sum of money so that they can either leave the land of Thule or set themselves up in another line of business. Mammon says his judgement on them is not so much that they gave themselves for money but that they refused to create life:

"Your cruellest pain is when you think of all
The honied treasure of your bodies spent
And no new life to show."

This justification of his act is suspicious. When conversing with one of the prostitutes, Snowbird, Mammon asks her if she, or any of her associates have:

"No inextinguishable fierce desire
For vengeance on the author of your fall?"

When questioned as to the identity of this person, Mammon refers to

"He that seduced you."

Snowbird wastes no time in putting Mammon in the picture:

"...You think we women are the kind of things
Men write about? Why, we ourselves seduced
Our own betrayers, every one of us:
Make you no doubt of that..."

An obvious, somewhat violent, transition can be seen to have been made from the idealistic reformer in the first book of the trilogy whose watchword was "Free of the Universe". The new, all-powerful Mammon in the second book seems to forget that his former philosophy held that:

"...Sex is soul,
The flower and fragrance of humanity,
More beautiful than beauty, holier
Than any sacrament, greater than God...
...Being the infinite source of every thought
Worth thinking, every symbol, myth, divine
Delight of fancy."

With Orwellian treachery, Mammon now orders that the prostitutes, whom he had earlier described as the corner stone of Christianity:

" natural and chaste; like beasts
Unconsciously, devoutly bent on offspring."

Davidson, in the persona of Mammon, then goes on to indulge himself in describing to the prostitutes the punishment meted out to:

"A woman taken in adultery,
Far off in some barbaric eastern land..."
...With grisly craft they sew
The living sinner in a bullock's hide
Consorted with a cat, and fling the bale
Upon the beach beside the sounding sea
To shrink and crackle in the sun at noon.
Then frantic woman, frantic beast, they fight
With sob and yell in stifling darkness wrapped,
Till their contracting coffin smothers them,
And the slow tide crawls up to hide the thing."

Mammon remarks on the effect the telling of this horrific tale has on his listeners; as if savouring every thrill of pleasure:

"You catch your breath and shiver as I tell
That awful doom."

He then goes on to warn them:

"...But not less terrible
Is yours, the women set apart and swathed
In dark, dishonour...
...Against the teeth and claws of throttling vice..."

This "u-turn" by Mammon is comparable to that of Napoleon in Orwell's "Animal Farm". The notion that all animals are equal but some are more equal than others equates well with the political situation in Thule. If one accepts the allegorical association of Napoleon with Stalin then a visionary aspect of Davidson's work reveals itself. That he took an active interest in politics is obvious from his work. In "Mammon and his Message"; Mammon, whilst disdaining Nietzsche, saying he led backwards, not forwards, exhibits much that is Nietzchean in his philosophy. Mammon rejected the idea of the Overman, saying he was just another Christ in disguise. It seems obvious that this is exactly the position that Mammon assumes when he siezes power:

"...I'll carve the world
In my own image, I, the first of men
To comprehend the greatness of mankind;
I'll melt the earth and cast it in my mould,
The form and beauty of the universe."

Mammon thinks:

"This socialism is mere misanthropy
Erected to a creed; the evil smell
Of Christendom, long dead and rotten, kept
In salts and sponges to resuscitate
The hopes of hungry malice; the fishy glow
Upon the putrid carcass of religion"

He felt that isocracy, equality of political rights, could never work when men like Caesar, Napoleon and himself were born into the world. These former two worthies seem to have been merely rehearsals for Mammon's inception, "the greatest man of all the ages." With an air of supreme superiority he goes on to declare:

"...prosperously I shall
Adjust the world's polarity to mine."

Mammon sees no harm in his dictatorial attitudes. When Inga tells him that his arrogance is offensive, Mammon replies:

"Greatness is arrogant."

He feels himself to be:

" nature tolerant and mild,
Gracious, affectionate, noble - like a king;
But on me and within me weighs and works
The terrible commission to undo
The world that is."

This aristocratic sense of obligation to be despotic for the common good, unconvincing though it may be, permeates throughout Davidson's plays. In "Self's the Man" the theme of action and self-confidence appears to dominate:

"Be your own star, for strength is from within;
And one against the world will always win."

This opening declaration sets the tone of this play. The dictatorial attitude of Urban, when he becomes a despot for what he sees as purely altruistic reasons, feeling that this state of rule will show the rest of the world how superior is Lomardy carries the theme along. He excuses his actions:

"...There lies
A ruthless obligation on our souls
To be despotic for the world's behoof."

Urban's one tragic flaw is that he was unable to carry the theme to its ultimate conclusion. He should have maintained the stance of dictator, as great men ought to be above the world's opinion. Instead he gave up his affinity, his mistress, Saturnia, to marry his rival's woman. This act of abandonment can be seen as the vehicle of his downfall. Urban acknowledges his self-betrayal and accepts his crushing defeat:

"But having done dishonour to myself
In the great passion by which the world endures,
A bridge without a keystone, all my hopes
Crumble to dust and vanish in the gulf."

Davidson's constant return to the theme of revolution, even reformation, this need to change the world, can be seen as a manifestation of an oedipal neuroses. Like D H Lawrence, Davidson exhibits a recurring revolt against his father. These two writers felt that, in order to escape from paternal repression, they had to change or even to destroy existing ways of thought and moral conventions. In terms of Christianity, Man's original sin is undoubtedly an offence against God the Father. In order to atone for this sin of disobedience, God the Son sacrifices his own life. The giving of one's life is very often done in expiation of the taking of another, according to the laws of retaliation. In this case, the crime which must be expiated is the murder of the father. This ritual murder goes back to primordial times and is paralleled in many cultures. The abdication is sometimes accompanied by assimilation as many tribes also as an intrinsic part of the ritual and as a mark of the highest respect, ate their parent. The Christian eucharist has obvious parallels. Davidson repeats this ritual often in his writings. In his "Ballad in Blank Verse of the Making of a Poet", which is largely autobiographical, the young hero renounces God and, when he imparts this good news to his father, his father dies of a broken heart. This can be seen as a double murder, God and his father felled with one stroke. In this poem, reference is again made to Nietzsche, who Davidson adopts and renounces so many times throughout his career. In a way, Nietzsche could even perhaps be set in a paternal mould for Davidson as he alternately embraces and rejects him as he does his real father. In the poem, after having first adopted the Nietzschean ideas, Davidson then renounces them as being another:

"new religion, bringing new offence,
Setting the child against the father still."

The doctrine of self-centredness, of self-realisation, prevelant in Davidson's time, owed as much to Carlyle, Morris and Ruskin as it did to Nietzsche but probably the last was the most unashamedly aristocratic of the bunch which would fit in beautifully with Davidson's own philosophy.

"It always creates the world in its own image;
it cannot do otherwise; philosophy is this
tyrannical impulse itself, the most spiritual
Will to power, the will to "creation of the world,"
the will to the cause prima."
Friedrich Nietzsche

In the second of his Testaments, "The Testament of a Man Forbid" Davidson, in the thinly-veiled disguise of his persona again makes a stand against the world, urging society to cast off the art, philosophy and religion of the past:

"There was besides an ape who lost his tail
That he might change to man. Undo the past!"

Society, in this case, stands firm against this attack and the man is cast out. The landscape he wanders through is dead and so, perhaps, is he:

"I haunt the hills that overlook the sea..."

As a substitute for the human company he now lacks, the hero anthropomorphises the world of nature he is forced to inhabit alone:

"The Universe,
Systems and suns and all that breathes and is...."

However, with characteristic indecision, Davidson swings the other way. Although he elsewhere opines that snow is alive and capable of human-like suffering, in this monologue, Davidson's narrator considers the snow to be a meshwork shroud, the land is perished, wisps of knotgrass are dank and dead, like:

"faded locks on mouldering skulls"

As he progresses through the seasons, he is unconvincing in his celebration of each transition. He does not use traditional images associated with Spring. In Davidson's spring landscape the west wind:

"...thunders through the budding hedge"

One wonders why Davidson's summer wears a:

"tear-sprinkled blush"

Autumn gets a "bare" mention, which contrasts strongly with Spring's heavily "brocaded" and "damascened" attire. This intense clothes imagery seems entirely out of place unless one sees the earth as some kind of Hindu widow dressing in her best before committing suttee with her husband, the sun, the two of them to be consumed by and then reborn in the flames.

"...the willing earth
Leaps to the bosom of the sun to be
Pure flame once more in a new time begun..."

The hero of this testament finds a peace and beauty in nature that he wishes to share with others:

"Good people, honest people, cast them off
And stand erect for few are helped by books.
What! Will you die crushed under libraries?
Lo! thirty centuries of literature
Have curved your spines and overborne your brains!
Off with it - all of it! Stand up; behold
The earth; life, death, and day and night!
Think not the things that have been said of these;
But watch them and be excellent, for men
Are what they contemplate."

Davidson seems to reveal a kind of inner conflict, a fight between the poet and scholar and the hapless hermit. In a later passage, which is perhaps one of the finest examples of blank verse written in English, he betrays this dualism:

"...Undo the past!
The rainbow reaches Asgard now no more;
Olympus stands untenanted; the dead
Have their serene abode in earth itself,
Our womb, our nurture, and our sepulchre.
Expell the sweet imaginings, profound
Humanities and golden legends, forms
Heroic, beauties, tripping shades embalmed
Through hallowed ages in the fragrant hearts
And generous blood of men; the climbing thoughts
Whose roots ethereal grope among the stars,
Whose passion-flowers perfume eternity,
Weed out and tear, scatter and tread them down;
Dismantle and dilapidate high heaven."

Whilst attempting to incite revolution and enjoining people to cast aside what he considers outmoded ideas and plan a future which does not depend on following a historical pattern or on aping the deeds of dead heroes, Davidson shows quite clearly his dependance on this procedure. Had he not studied this:

"patched-up world of heirlooms"

he would be unable to discuss the homes of two such divergent sets of deities as the Norse gods of Asgard and the Greek gods of Olympus. He even goes as far as demolishing the great cosmic tree of the hindu gods with its branches on earth and its roots in heaven.

This tree is rescued by Hugh MacDiarmid along with so many of Davidson's images, especially the cosmological ones. In "A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle," the thistle is seen as yggdrasil, the Norse version of the cosmic tree. In this epic poem, MacDiarmid promotes his Caledonian autisyzygy, gleaning ideas from both Davidson and Coleridge, who had a theory that the "creative process" operates by "the balance or reconcilement of opposite or discordant qualities."

The cosmic tree pops up first in "A Moment in Eternity", written by CM Grieve before he assumed the MacDiarmid mantle. MacDiarmid credits Davidson with enlarging the subject matter of poetry in his utilisation of scientific and contemporary material, and as if to show that imitation is, indeed, the sincerest form of flattery, MacDiarmid turns this tendency to good account in much of his own work. As Glen stated:

"To MacDiarmid, not only are all subjects fit subjects for poetry but all language - be it exceedingly recondite, technical, scientific, or any form of specialist language - is suitable for poetry if it is the only language capable of effectively expressing a particular idea."

"The Testament of John Davidson" seems to take off at the point at which The Testament of a Man Forbid leaves off. After being cast out by society, the hero builds a celestial lodge. As if realising that a mere lodge is no fit abode for

"... the first of men
To be and comprehend the Universe"

Davidson promotes it to a palace in the very next line. The use of the verb "banqueted" looks like an attempt at convincing the reader, if not himself, that the outcast is having a marvellous time in the company of cosmic entities like "light and sound, the substance of the stars". Unfortunately, it merely serves to underline the fact that he is alone and moreover feels it as the word "banquet" has connotations of companionship and cheer. In this work, as in some much of his work, Davidson brings in weaving imagery. On this occasion, he couples it with musical imagery to good effect:

" feel myself
Ethereal fabric, exquisitely spun,
Entranced and wreathed of light and sound, the warp
And woof of matters; flesh and blood, a lyre
Of tuneful colours; every nerve, a strain
Of spheral music; body, mind and soul,
Material intensity evolved
From unseen atoms..."

There is such a necessary discipline attached to these two occupations that they seem to sit badly with the world-denying philosophy earlier propounded by the outcast. Within a very short space of time, he admits that he is losing his ability to:

"Resolve the discords of imagined spheres"

and to:

"Enharmonize divergent galaxies"

His rule in the elemental world is very short-lived and obviously not too enjoyable either because the former king of the cosmos finds himself with thoughts of death, perhaps even of suicide and he tells us that:

"I left my palace in the Milky Way,
My outlook in the skies, and sought the earth;
For men must still descend to earth to die."

This passage is very revealing. Davidson, the supreme egoist must have had a subconscious awareness that his work and his superior attitude towards the rest of humanity was self-defeating in a way.

Many of the thoughts expressed in this final testament had earlier been expressed elsewhere in Davidson's work. The hero in "Smith", one of Davidson's early plays, instructs his beloved to

"Obey your nature, not authority"

He follows on with a denunciation of the traditional social values:

"The hydra-headed creeds; the sciences,
That deem the thing is known when it is named;
And literature, thought's palace-prison fair;
Philosophy, the grand inquisitor
That racks ideas and is fooled with lies;
Society, the mud wherein we stand
Up to the eyes..."

The weaving imagery appears here, too, with the world itself appearing as:

"...a flying shuttle,
Weaving a useless web of mystery
That shrouds itself..."

In "Scaramouch in Naxos", Scaramouch, the Showman, outlines his own feelings about his place in the scheme of things in the universe:

"It is my vocation. It may be an inferior calling, but there are worse. It is not so honourable as being a God; doubtless, but it is a decent kind of beggary."

Quiller-Couch, when acting as assistant editor of "The Speaker", stated that "the poet should choose to deal only with the beautiful and uplifting." One wonders how much this was aimed directly at Davidson, with whom "Q" had what Townsend describes as "a warm controversy". It is obvious that Davidson had no intention of keeping his work within these strict thematic confines. Apart from the use of much blank verse and other divergent verse forms, Davidson's subject matter ranges widely from themes of empire-building, politics and macrocosmic matters to those of the contemplation of a single flower in "A Highway Pimpernel" or an impoverished clerk's life in "Thirty Bob a Week". Davidson exhibits a strong pythagorean tendency to outline the universal antisyzygy. The opposition of the masculine and feminine; good and evil, beauty and ugliness is necessary in a balanced universe.

Much of Davidson's work has fallen into obscurity and is unread. There is one poem, however, that most literary scholars have read "Thirty Bob a Week". T S Eliot acknowledges a debt to Davidson, placing him with two other poets of the 'nineties - Arthur Symons, and Ernest Dawson. Eliot says from these three he got the idea that he could write in a colloquial idiom. He credits "Thirty Bob a Week" as having a very important place in the development of his own poetic technique.

In this poem Davidson uses a ballad form highly reminiscent of a music-hall song. This style is more obvious if the poem is read aloud. Indeed, it is difficult to read this poem aloud without falling into some kind of tune. The internal rhyme in the penultimate line of each stanza lends a bob and wheel effect to the verse as it swings around to greet the last line.

"If the whole world was a cake he had the power to take,
He would take it, ask for more, and eat them all."

Even in this poem which seems, at first, to be furnished with a hero from the common stock, we find another avatar of the universe personified. The humble clerk recognises his universal stature:

"...No Adam was responsible for me..."

...A little sleeping seed, I woke - I did, indeed -
A million years before the blooming sun

I woke because I thought the time had come;
Beyond my will there was no other cause..."

The final notion Davidson leaves us with in this poem is perhaps that of the futility of human existence:

"...With millstones fore - and aft about your neck;
But the thing is daily done by many and many a one;
And we fall, face forward, fighting on the deck."

We can discern many hints of impending suicide in Davidson's work. In The Testament of John Davidson he remarks:

"Who kills himself subdues the conqueror of kings:
Exempt from death is he who takes his life."

and later in the same poem:

"...and thus are men supreme:
No other living thing can choose to die."

but when the hero takes himself off to a mountain-top to die alone, he wrestles with himself, realising his importance in the scale of things and how great a void would be left in the ether were he to die:

"...My death more terrible in death - in me
More terrible than in all the world beside;
For when I die the Universe shall cease
To know itself."

This wavering of purpose can be seen as being parallel with the fluctuation of a man's sexual potency. If the sexual drive can be viewed as the basic, energising force in man then the falling off of that drive could tend to lead one to a lessening of the will to live. The hero has obviously experienced a resurgence of the life force at this turning point as he goes on to explain the reason for his change of mind:

"That I might be and know and feel myself
Eternity incarnate in the powers
Material that eat and drink and love,
Beget, imagine, labour, think, invent,
The multitudinous atonement knit
In brain and blood, in marrow, seed and soul
Of all the substance of the Universe.
Wherefore I drove my vision through the world
As in the turf my fingers dug; I drew
The wind's sonorous tune into my ears
As whirlpools suck the sea down; drank the air
In pregnant sighs and lusty bosomfuls;
And felt the mountain underneath me throb."

The cosmic carnality of the above passage is vivid and powerful. The highly sexual imagery of words like "drove" "suck" and "throb" leave little to the imagination. The "pregnant sighs" and "lusty bosomfuls" follow on Davidson's favoured theme of the fecundity of nature. In "Smith", the sexual imagery is more covert, perhaps even unconscious: when Smith and Hallowes, both facets of Davidson's own personality, discuss how to court the good opinion of the world, Smith, in Neitzschean fashion, declares:

" must become
Fanatic - be a wedge - a thunder-bolt,
To smite a passage through the close-grained world."

The suicides in "Smith" are problematic. That of Hallowes can be seen as being touched with a certain air of nobility but the "lovers' leap" at the end of the play seems to be a bit contrived in order to add to the drama. After all, a man as single-minded as Smith should have been able with the help of his wilful and willing beloved, to either persuade her father or evade pursuit. Davidson breaks convention in this play. Neither one of his lovers is either dead or under threat of death as in "Romeo and Juliet" or its pornographic parody "Tis Pity She's a Whore". The Reader is left with the feeling that probably some other course could have been followed rather than the despairing dive they decided upon.

There are also hints of suicide in Davidson's Ballads. In his "Ballad of a Coward" which is, as usual, highly autobiographical, we find again the notion that the loss of the persona would upset the delicate balance of nature.

"...And should I take my life, the deed
Would disarray the universe."

In "A Ballad of Hell", Davidson's heroine, a suicide, again breaks convention by striding out of Hell. This can also be seen as a rehearsal of Davidson's ultimate fate. One can trace a feeling of acute uncertainty in every mention of suicide. It is easy to observe that Davidson was never really sure of what lay beyond the grave. However, he obviously decided to take his chances in the great game of cosmic canasta. This is possibly best summed up by one of the entertainers in "In a Music Hall" who declares with gay abandon:

"It's better to lose one's soul,
Than never to stake it at all."

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APA Style:

John Davidson - Free of the Universe?. 2024. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved 14 June 2024, from

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Information about Document 914

John Davidson - Free of the Universe?


Text audience

Adults (18+)
Audience size 3-5
Writer knew intended audience

Text details

Method of composition Handwritten
Year of composition 1985
Word count 7928
General description University dissertation

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Other N/A

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Author details

Author id 866
Forenames Rosie
Surname Bell
Gender Female
Decade of birth 1940
Educational attainment University
Age left school 15
Upbringing/religious beliefs Catholicism/Atheism
Occupation Travel agent
Place of birth Glasgow
Region of birth Glasgow
Birthplace CSD dialect area Gsw
Country of birth Scotland
Place of residence Glasgow
Region of residence Glasgow
Residence CSD dialect area Gsw
Country of residence Scotland
Father's occupation Bus Driver
Father's place of birth Glasgow
Father's region of birth Glasgow
Father's birthplace CSD dialect area Gsw
Father's country of birth Scotland
Mother's occupation Cleaner
Mother's place of birth Glasgow
Mother's region of birth Glasgow
Mother's birthplace CSD dialect area Gsw
Mother's country of birth Scotland


Language Speak Read Write Understand Circumstances
English Yes Yes Yes Yes All circumstances
Italian Yes Yes Yes Yes
Scots Yes Yes Yes Yes