Victorian Poetry 43.4 (2005) 497-512
[Access article in PDF]
A Sense of Place:
Landscape and Location in the Poetry of John Davidson
John Davidson (1857-1909) is a displaced figure, alienated from his native Scottish context and equally marginalized within the literary scene of 1890s London. Yet negative influences can inspire challenging and compelling writing. In Davidson's case displacement helped to shape a proto-modernist sensibility within his poetry and consequently he has been praised by writers such as Hugh MacDiarmid, T. S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf for his ability to introduce working-class, urban, and industrial life into the realm of poetry. Hugh MacDiarmid stated emphatically that Davidson was "the only Scottish poet to whom I owe anything at all, or to whom I would be pleased to admit any debt."1 Certainly, Davidson stood out as having a peculiar significance for MacDiarmid in relation to the Scottish literary tradition and he clarifies his debt of influence by explaining:
What Davidson, alone of Scottish poets, did was to enlarge the subject-matter of poetry, assimilate and utilize a great deal of new scientific and contemporary material . . . and, above all, to write urban poetry (a development Scots like Alexander Smith and Thomas Hood had heralded, but which subsequent Scots poets failed to carry on).
Scottish writers of the nineteenth century, like Davidson and James Thomson B.V. (1834-1882), had a distinctive capacity for anticipating modernist themes of alienation and disillusionment, and for presenting these themes in new and experimental ways. In his preface to James Thomson's The City of Dreadful Night Edwin Morgan comments:
If Thomson's reputation has been uncertain, it is tempting to relate this to his being an uprooted Scot living in other places. . . . Similar uncertainties have attended the reputations of Carlyle and Stevenson, of John Davidson, of Robert Buchanan and David Gray. . . . Taken from the point of view of the writers themselves, the question is how easy or difficult it was for a Scottish poet brought up in or migrating to [End Page 497] England at that period to write persuasively in English. . . . The whole change of environment from Scotland to (say) London—the complex of physical, cultural and linguistic changes—may also have forced, under pressure of various kinds, new ways of looking at things, a new awareness of things that an outsider suddenly sees and points out. T. S. Eliot's published tribute to both Thomson and Davidson—perhaps as an incomer himself he was all the more receptive—was that they had a particular kind of modernity, a sort of prophetic modern adumbration, deeply incorporating urban experience into poetry, which he did not find in their English contemporaries. The two Scottish poets were alienated, whether psychologically or geographically or both. . . . [Eliot] saw them as figures of the exile and alienation of the early-modern artist.2
Davidson and Thomson used both landscapes and cityscapes to represent the modern experience, incorporating the subject matter and the social effects of urbanization, industry, science, loss of faith, and alienation into their poetry.
Because of these priorities Davidson's sense of place extends far beyond mere geographical location. Aspects of environment, urban or rural, and landscapes in general were important elements of his poetry. Through them he mediates and reflects upon issues concerning his own identity and purpose both publicly, as a writer, and in deeply personal terms. These elements constitute an effort on Davidson's part to "locate" himself in a more than literal way. His life-long interest in nature, landscape, and environment is used to reflect ambivalent views concerning society and the place of the individual within a changing, increasingly secular, industrial, and competitive world.
T. S. Eliot cited Davidson and James Thomson as having a notable influence upon him, particularly Davidson's dramatic monologue of the struggling Cockney clerk in "Thirty Bob a Week":
I am sure that I found inspiration in the content of the poem, and in the complete fitness of content and idiom: for I also had a good many dingy...