Davidson, John (DNB12)

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DAVIDSON, JOHN (1857–1909), poet, son of Alexander Davidson, minister of the Evangelical Union, by his wife Helen, daughter of Alexander Crockett of Elgin, was born at Barrhead, Renfrewshire, on 11 April 1857. Put to school at the Highlanders' Academy, Greenock, his education was soon interrupted. At the age of thirteen he entered the chemical laboratory of Walker's sugar house at Greenock (1870), and in 1871 became assistant to the town analyst there. In these employments he developed an interest in science which became an important characteristic of his poetry. In 1872 he returned for four years to the Highlanders' Academy as a pupil-teacher, and, after a year at Edinburgh University (1876-7), received in 1877 his first scholastic employment at Alexander's Charity, Glasgow. During the next six years he held positions in the following schools : Perth Academy (1878-81), Kelvinside Academy, Glasgow (1881-2), and Hutchinson's Charity, Paisley (1883-4). He varied his career by spending a year as clerk in a Glasgow thread firm (1884-5), and subsequently taught in Morrison's Academy, Crieff (1885-8), and in a private school at Greenock (1888-9).

Davidson's first published work was 'Bruce,' a chronicle play in the Elizabethan manner, which appeared with a Glasgow imprint in 1886. Four other plays, 'Smith, a Tragic Farce' (1888), 'An Unhistorical Pastoral' (1889), 'A Romantic Farce' (1889), and the brilliant 'Scaramouch in Naxos' (1889) were also published while he was in Scotland. In 1889 Davidson abandoned school work, and next year went to London to seek his literary fortune. Besides writing for the 'Speaker,' the 'Glasgow Herald,' and other papers, he produced several novels and tales, of which the best was 'Perfervid' (1890). But these prose works were written for a livelihood. Davidson's true medium was verse. 'In a Music Hall and other Poems' (1891) suggested what 'Fleet Street Eclogues' (1893) proved, that Davidson possessed a genuine and distinctive poetic gift. The second collection established his reputation among the discerning few. His early plays were republished in one volume in 1894, and henceforward he turned his attention more and more completely to verse. A volume of vigorous 'Ballads and Songs' (1894), his most popular work, was followed in turn by a second series of 'Fleet Street Eclogues' (1896) and by 'New Ballads' (1897) and 'The Last Ballad' (1899). For a time he abandoned lyric for the drama, writing several original plays which have not been staged and translating with success Coppee's 'Pour la Couronne' in 1896 and Victor Hugo's 'Ruy Bias' in 1904, the former being produced as 'For the Crown' at the Lyceum Theatre in 1896, the latter as 'A Queen's Romance' at the Imperial Theatre. Finally Davidson engaged on a series of 'Testaments,' in which he gave definite expression to his philosophy. These volumes were entitled 'The Testament of a Vivisector' (1901), 'The Testament of a Man Forbid' (1901), 'The Testament of an Empire Builder' (1902), and ' The Testament of John Davidson' (1908). Though he disclaimed the title of philosopher, he expounded an original philosophy which was at once materialistic and aristocratic. The cosmic process, as interpreted by evolution, was for him a fruitful source of inspiration. His later verse, which is often fine rhetoric rather than poetry, expressed the belief which is summed up in the last words that he wrote, 'Men are the universe become conscious ; the simplest man should consider himself too great to be called after any name.' The corollary was that every man was to be himself to the utmost of his power, and the strongest was to rule. Davidson professed to reject all existing philosophies, including that of Nietzsche, the German philosopher, as inadequate, but Nietzsche's influence is traceable in his argument. The poet planned ultimately to embody his revolutionary creed in a trilogy entitled 'God and Mammon.' Only two plays, however, were written, 'The Triumph of Mammon' (1907) and 'Mammon and his Message'(1908).

In 1906 he was awarded a civil list pension of 100l.; but poverty and ill-health made life burdensome. Late in 1908 Davidson left London to reside at Penzance. On 23 March 1909 he disappeared from his house at Penzance. He had committed suicide by drowning in a fit of depression. His body, which was discovered by some fishermen in Mount's Bay on 18 Sept., was, in accordance with his known wishes, buried at sea. In his will he desired that no biography should be written, none of his unpublished works published, and 'no word except of my writing is ever to appear in any book of mine as long as the copyright endures.' In 1885 Davidson married Margaret, daughter of John M' Arthur of Perth. She survived him with two sons, Alexander and Menzies. Davidson was a prolific writer. Besides the works cited, he wrote: 1. 'The Great Men, and a Practical Novelist,' 1891. 2. 'Laura Ruthven's Widowhood,' a novel (with C. J. Wills), 1892. 3. 'Sentences and Paragraphs,' 1893. 4. 'Baptist Lake,' a novel, 1894. 5. 'A Random Itinerary,' 1894. 6. ' The Wonderful Mission of Ear) Lavender,' a novel, 1895. 7. 'Miss Armstrong's Circumstancas,' a novel, 1896. 8. 'Godfrida,' a play, 1898. 9. 'Self's the Man,' a tragi-comedy, 1901. 10. 'The Knight of the Maypole,' 1903. 11. 'A Rosary,' 1903. 12. 'The Theatrocrat: a Tragic Play of Church and State,' 1905. 13. 'Holiday and other Poems,' 1906. 14. 'Fleet Street and other Poems,' 1909. He translated Montesquieu's 'Lettres Persanes' (1892) and contributed to Shakespeare's 'Sonnets' (Renaissance edition, 1908) an introduction which, like his various prefaces and essays, shows him a subtle literary critic. Davidson's portrait was drawn by Walter Sickert and by Robert Bryden. A caricature by Max Becrbohm appeared in 'The Chapbook,' 1907.

[The Times, 27 and 30 March, 1 and 19 April, 20 and 22 Sept. 1909; Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edit.]

F. L. B.