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PAGE 2

Mr. John Davidson
by [?]

Smith: Be worldlings, truly. I would rather be
A shred of glass that sparkles in the sun,
And keeps a lowly rainbow of its own,
Than one of these so trim and patent pearls
With hearts of sand veneered, sewed up and down
The stiff brocade society affects.”

I have opened the book at random for these quotations. Its pages are stuffed with scores as good. Nor will any but the least intelligent reviewer upbraid Mr. Davidson for deriving so much of his inspiration directly from Shakespeare. Mr. Davidson is still a young man; but the first of these plays, An Unhistorical Pastoral, was first printed so long ago as 1877; and the last, Scaramouch in Naxos; a Pantomime, in 1888. They are the work therefore of a very young man, who must use models while feeling his way to a style and method of his own.

Lack of “Architectonic” Quality.

But–there is a “but”; and I am coming at length to my difficulty with Mr. Davidson’s work. Oddly enough, this difficulty may be referred to the circumstance that Mr. Davidson’s poetry touches Shakespeare’s great circle at a second point. Wordsworth, it will be remembered, once said that Shakespeare could not have written an Epic (Wordsworth, by the way, was rather fond of pointing out the things that Shakespeare could not have done). “Shakespeare could not have written an Epic; he would have died of plethora of thought.” Substitute “wit” for “thought,” and you have my difficulty with Mr. Davidson. It is given to few men to have great wit: it is given to fewer to carry a great wit lightly. In Mr. Davidson’s case it luxuriates over the page and seems persistently to choke his sense of form. One image suggests another, one phrase springs under the very shadow of another until the fabric of his poem is completely hidden beneath luxuriant flowers of speech. Either they hide it from the author himself; or, conscious of his lack of architectonic skill, he deliberately trails these creepers over his ill-constructed walls. I think the former is the true explanation, but am not sure.

Let me be cautious here, or some remarks I made the other day upon another poet–Mr. Hosken, author of Phaon and Sappho, and Verses by the Way–will be brought up against me. Defending Mr. Hosken against certain critics who had complained of the lack of dramatic power in his tragedies, I said, “Be it allowed that he has little dramatic power, and that (since the poem professed to be a tragedy) dramatic power was what you reasonably looked for. But an alert critic, considering the work of a beginner, will have an eye for the bye-strokes as well as the main ones: and if the author, while missing the main, prove effective with the bye–if Mr. Hosken, while failing to construct a satisfactory drama, gave evidence of strength in many fine meditative passages–then at the worst he stands convicted of a youthful error in choosing a literary form unsuited to convey his thought.”

Not in the “Plays” only.

These observations I believe to be just, and having entered the caveat in Mr. Hosken’s case, I should observe it in Mr. Davidson’s also, did these five youthful plays stand alone. But Mr. Davidson has published much since these plays first appeared–works both in prose and verse–Fleet Street Eclogues, Ninian Jamieson, A Practical Novelist, A Random Itinerary, Baptist Lake: and because I have followed his writings (I think from his first coming to London) with the greatest interest, I may possibly be excused for speaking a word of warning. I am quite certain that Mr. Davidson will never bore me: but I wish I could be half so certain that he will in time produce something in true perspective; a fabric duly proportioned, each line of which from the beginning shall guide the reader to an end which the author has in view; something which