The Scottish poet John Davidson's life reads like a Gissing novel. No wonder that in The Whirlpool, Gissing went some way towards turning it into one. When Davidson threw up schoolmastering and took the high road to England, he embarked, with wife and sons in tow, upon a life of almost unrelieved penury and frequent nervous illness, ending at last in a dramatic suicide, and burial at sea.
Hacking and potboiling in the New Grub Street, in and out of petty fortune, truculently "Scottish" in a mini-Carlylean kind of way, comb-ative, sensitive, but with a buoyant, if also brittle, sense of humour, he did not make life easy for himself or anyone else. Davidson wrote novels and flirted with the popular theatre in the vain hope of making a fortune. He turned out a great deal of journalism, both for London papers and for the Glasgow Herald. (He was the very model of a doubled Caledonian.) However uncongenial the business of Fleet Street was to a writer with higher ambitions, it still proved inspirational in Davidson's case. "The newspaper," he begins his brief but key essay "Pre-Shakespear-ianism", "is one of the most potent factors moulding the character of contemporary poetry." For Davidson the newspaper was, it seems, the very sign of metro-politan rootlessness and energy. Many of his poems, and some of his very best, existed first as brief essays or reports, generally his own but sometimes by others.
John Sloan's twin projects to retrieve and reappraise Davidson, at this fin de siecle anniversary, are thoughtful and sens-itive. They could not be more welcome, nor the biography more open, more resistant to reductive simplicities than it is, even if "first of the moderns" seems a singularly parochial claim. That is a minor whinge.
A more serious complaint must be levelled at the omission, from the selections of prose, of any examples of journalistic pieces later turned into poems. We ought at least to have been given "Automatic augury and the Crystal Palace" from the Glasgow Herald, ur-text of "The Crystal Palace", probably Davidson's greatest single poem, and not just the briefest paraphrastic taste of it in the biography, supplemented by a letter to Max Beerbohm.
Nonetheless, thanks to Sloan, and also to the recent work of Robert Crawford, no one, except those abandoned and down-trodden legions on today's equiv-alent of "Thirty Bob A Week" and less, now has any excuse for knowing Davidson merely, via T. S. Eliot's praises, as the author of a single poem, or simply as the god at the wrong end of Hugh MacDiarmid's telescope.
The link into modernism Eliot provides is of course worthy of attention. But does it go so very deep? While it is easy to see the appeal for Eliot in Davidson's Prufrockian clerk, or his "nerved pedestrian" flneuring through London's fogs (in the poem "Yuletide", not in Sloan's selection), or of the "drainpipes, sewage, sweepings of the street" in a poem like "Fleet Street", Davidson was not a poet with an appetite for the epiphanic transcendental. As a materialist even MacDiarmid was a waverer beside Davidson. But it was MacDiarmid, of the synthetic English phase, of the poetry of fact and science and all things appropriable and malleably textified, who ultimately found in Davidson matter for the profoundest inspiration.
Andrew McNeillie is commissioning editor for literature and theory, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford.
John Davidson, First of the Moderns: A Literary Biography
Author - John Sloan
ISBN - 0 19 818248 1
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 306