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Mr. John Davidson
by [?]

Making, of course, full concessions to the demands of poetical treatment, we may assume pretty confidently that Mr. Davidson intended this “Ballad in Blank Verse of the Making of a Poet” for a soul’s autobiography, of a kind. If so, I trust he will forgive me for doubting if he is at all likely to fulfil the poet’s office as he conceives it here, or even to approach within measurable distance of his ideal–

“A trembling lyre for every wind to sound.”

That it is one way in which a poet may attain, I am not just now denying. But luckily men attain in many ways: and the man who sits himself down of fixed purpose to be an Æolian harp for the winds of the world, is of all men the least likely to be merely Æolian. For the first demand of Æolian sound is that the instrument should have no theories of its own; and explicitly to proclaim yourself Æolian is implicitly to proclaim yourself didactic. As a matter of fact, both the “Ballad of the Making of a Poet” and the “Ballad of a Nun” contain sharply pointed morals very stoutly driven home. In each the poet has made up his mind; he has a theory of life, and presents that theory to us under cover of a parable. The beauty of the “Ballad of a Nun”–or so much of it as stands beyond and above mere beauty of language–consists in this, that it is informed, and consciously informed, by a spirit of tolerance so exceedingly wide that to match it I can find one poem and one only among those of recent years: I mean “Catherine Kinrade.” In Mr. Brown’s poem the Bishop is welcomed into Heaven by the half-wilted harlot he had once condemned to painful and public punishment. In Mr. Davidson’s poem, Mary, the Mother of Heaven, herself takes the form and place of the wandering nun and fills it until the penitent returns. Take either poem: take Mr. Brown’s–

“Awe-stricken, he was ‘ware
How on the Emerald stair
A woman sat divinely clothed in white,
And at her knees four cherubs bright.
That laid
Their heads within their lap. Then, trembling, he essayed
To speak–‘Christ’s mother, pity me!’
Then answered she–
‘Sir, I am Catherine Kinrade.'”

Or take Mr. Davidson’s–in a way, its converse–

“The wandress raised her tenderly;
She touched her wet and fast-shut eyes;
‘Look, sister; sister, look at me;
Look; can you see through my disguise?’

She looked and saw her own sad face,
And trembled, wondering, ‘Who art thou?’
‘God sent me down to fill your place;
I am the Virgin Mary now.’

And with the word, God’s mother shone;
The wanderer whispered ‘Mary, hail!’
The vision helped her to put on
Bracelet and fillet, ring and veil.

‘You are sister to the mountains now,
And sister to the day and night;
Sister to God.’ And on her brow
She kissed her thrice and left her sight.”

The voice in each case is that of a prophet rather than that of a reed shaken by the wind, or an Æolian harp played upon by the same.

* * * * *

March, 1895. Second Thoughts.

I have to add that, apart from the beautiful language in which they are presented, Mr. Davidson’s doctrines do not appeal to me. I cannot accept his picture of the poet’s as “a soulless life … wherein the foulest things may loll at ease beside the loveliest.” It seems to me at least as obligatory on a poet as on other men to keep his garden weeded and his conscience active. Indeed, I believe some asceticism of soul to be a condition of all really great poetry. Also Mr. Davidson appears to be confusing charity with an approbation of things in the strict sense damnable when he makes the Mother of Christ abet a Nun whose wanderings have no nobler excuse than a carnal desire–savoir enfin ce que c’est un homme. Between forgiving a lapsed man or woman and abetting the lapse I now, in a cooler hour, see an immense, an essential, moral difference. But I confess that the foregoing paper was written while my sense of this difference was temporarily blinded under the spell of Mr. Davidson’s beautiful verse.

It may still be that his Nun had some nobler motive than I am able, after two or three readings of the ballad, to discover. In that case I can only ask pardon for my obtuseness.