April 7, 1894. His Plays.
For some weeks now I have been meaning to write about Mr. John Davidson’s “Plays” (Elkin Mathews and John Lane), and always shirking the task at the last moment. The book is an exceedingly difficult one to write about, and I am not at all sure that after a few sentences I shall not stick my hands in my pockets and walk off to something easier. The recent fine weather has, however, made me desperate. The windows of the room in which I sit face S. and S.-E.; consequently a deal of sunshine comes in upon my writing-table. In ninety-nine cases out of the hundred this makes for idleness; in this, the hundredth case, it constrains to energy, because it is rapidly bleaching the puce-colored boards in which Mr. Davidson’s plays are bound–and (which is worse) bleaching them unevenly. I have tried (let the miserable truth be confessed) turning the book daily, as one turns a piece of toast–But this is not criticism of Mr. Davidson’s “Plays.”
His Style full of Imagination and Wit.
Now it would be easy and pleasant to express my great admiration of Mr. Davidson’s Muse, and justify it by a score of extracts and so make an end: and nobody (except perhaps Mr. Davidson himself) would know my dishonesty. For indeed and out of doubt he is in some respects the most richly-endowed of all our younger poets. Of wit and of imagination he has almost a plethora: they crowd this book, and all his books, from end to end. And his frequent felicity of phrase is hardly less remarkable. You may turn page after page, and with each page the truth of this will become more obvious. Let me add his quick eye for natural beauty, his penetrating instinct for the principles that lie beneath its phenomena, his sympathy with all men’s more generous emotions–and still I have a store of satisfactory illustrations at hand for the mere trouble of turning the leaves. Consider, for instance, the imagery in his description of the fight by Bannockburn–
Now are they hand to hand!
How short a front! How close! They’re sewn together
with steel cross-stitches, halbert over sword,
Spear across lance and death the purfled seam!
I never saw so fierce, so lock’d a fight.
That tireless brand that like a pliant flail
Threshes the lives from sheaves of Englishmen–
Know you who wields it? Douglas, who but he!
A noble meets him now. Clifford it is!
No bitterer foes seek out each other there.
Parried! That told! And that! Clifford, good night!
And Douglas shouts to Randolf; Edward Bruce
Cheers on the Steward; while the King’s voice rings
In every Scotch ear: such a narrow strait
Confines this firth of war!
Young Friar: “God gives me strength
Again to gaze with eyes unseared. Jewels!
These must be jewels peering in the grass.
Cloven from helms, or on them: dead men’s eyes
Scarce shine so bright. The banners dip and mount
Like masts at sea….”
Or consider the fanciful melody of the Fairies’ song in An Unhistorical Pastoral—
“Weave the dance and sing the song;
Subterranean depths prolong
The rainy patter of our feet;
Heights of air are rendered sweet
By our singing. Let us sing,
Breathing softly, fairily,
Swelling sweetly, airily,
Till earth and sky our echo ring.
Rustling leaves chime with our song:
Fairy bells its close prolong
–Or the closely-packed wit in such passages as these–
Brown: “This world,
This oyster with its valves of toil and play,
Would round his corners for its own good ease,
And make a pearl of him if he’d plunge in.
* * * * *
Jones: And in this matter we may all be pearls.