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Mr. John Davidson
by [?]

“Servetur ad imum
Qualis ab incepto processerit, et sibi constet.”

Sibi constet, be it remarked. A work of art may stand very far from Nature, provided its own parts are consistent. Heaven forbid that a critic should decry an author for being fantastic, so long as he is true to his fantasy.

But Mr. Davidson’s wit is so brilliant within the circles of its temporary coruscation as to leave the outline of his work in a constant penumbra. Indeed, when he wishes to unburden his mind of an idea, he seems to have less capacity than many men of half his ability to determine the form best suited for conveying it. If anything can be certain which has not been tried, it is that his story A Practical Novelist should have been cast in dramatic form. His vastly clever Perfervid: or the Career of Ninian Jamieson is cast in two parts which neither unite to make a whole, nor are sufficiently independent to stand complete in themselves. I find it characteristic that his Random Itinerary–that fresh and agreeable narrative of suburban travel–should conclude with a crashing poem, magnificent in itself, but utterly out of key with the rest of the book. Turn to the Compleat Angler, and note the exquisite congruity of the songs quoted by Walton with the prose in which they are set, and the difference will be apparent at once. Fate seems to dog Mr. Davidson even into his illustrations. A Random Itinerary and this book of Plays (both published by Messrs. Mathews and Lane) have each a conspicuously clever frontispiece. But the illustrator of A Random Itinerary has chosen as his subject the very poem which I have mentioned as out of harmony with the book; and I must protest that the vilely sensual faces in Mr. Beardsley’s frontispiece to these Plays are hopelessly out of keeping with the sunny paganism of Scaramouch in Naxos. There is nothing Greek about Mr. Beardsley’s figures: their only relationship with the Olympians is derived through the goddess Aselgeia.

With all this I have to repeat that Mr. Davidson is in some respects the most richly endowed of all the younger poets. The grand manner comes more easily to him than to any other: and if he can cultivate a sense of form and use this sense as a curb upon his wit, he has all the qualities that take a poet far.

* * * * *

Nov. 24, 1984. “Ballads and Songs.”

At last there is no mistake about it: Mr. John Davidson has come by his own. And by “his own” I do not mean popularity–though I hope that in time he will have enough of this and to spare–but mastery of his poetic method. This new volume of “Ballads and Songs” (London: John Lane) justifies our hopes and removes our chief fear. You remember Mr. T.E. Brown’s fine verses on “Poets and Poets”?–

He fishes in the night of deep sea pools:
For him the nets hang long and low,
Cork-buoyed and strong; the silver-gleaming schools
Come with the ebb and flow
Of universal tides, and all the channels glow.

Or holding with his hand the weighted line
He sounds the languor of the neaps,
Or feels what current of the springing brine
The cord divergent sweeps,
The throb of what great heart bestirs the middle deeps.

Thou also weavest meshes, fine and thin,
And leaguer’st all the forest ways;
But of that sea and the great heart therein
Thou knowest nought; whole days
Thou toil’st, and hast thy end–good store of pies and jays.

Mr. Davidson has never allowed us to doubt to which of these two classes he belongs. “For him the nets hang long and low.” But though it may satisfy the Pumblechook within us to recall our pleasant prophesyings, we shall find it more salutary to remember our fears. We watched Mr. Davidson struggling in the thicket of his own fancies, and saw him too often break his shins over his own wit. We asked: Will he in the end overcome the defect of his qualities? Will he remain unable to see the wood for the trees? Or will he some day be giving us poems of which the whole conception and structure shall be as beautiful as the casual fragment or the single line? For this architectonic quality is just that “invidious distinction” which the fabled undergraduate declined to draw between the major and minor prophets.