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  • Pastoral and the Work of Writing in John Davidson's Fleet Street Eclogues
  • John Lamb

"When they come to die / Good press-men to the country go."1

JOHN DAVIDSON'S Fleet Street Eclogues was first published in 1893 (with a second series following in 1896).2 Loosely modeled on Spenser's The Shepheardes Calendar, Davidson's poems feature a group of "doleful, century-end" journalists and would-be poets musing on and arguing about the vicissitudes of the writer and poet in the age of New Journalism and New Grub Street.3 Running from New Year's Day to Christmas Eve, the eclogues, taken as a whole, juxtapose a vehement indictment of an age of mass-market print and the economy that fuels it with the "happy rural note" of pastoral—of "the sights and sounds of the green country," as one critic put it.4

This article explores the juxtaposition of two types of writing as work—the hack and the poet. One writes for hire, committed to a thankless and often profitless drudgery, prostituting what talent he has in producing the fragmentary and ephemeral—the scrap, the snippet, the tid-bit. In an era when writing is ruled by the marketplace, the journalist's labor is tied to the pejorative notions of trade, and writers parasitically feed off of the work of others trafficking in rumor, lies, and scandal. In the Fleet Street Eclogues the pastoral poet, who must labor in a world where poetry itself has been doomed by the proliferation of newspapers and cheap journals, writes to sustain an image of a natural world not only cut off from the vicissitudes of the modern city and the disease of modern life but apparently from labor as well, a world of work from which the workers appear to have all been extracted.5

But poets, as Davidson knew firsthand, also write for hire. And for the modern pastoral poet, otium—the intellectual and imaginative leisure that was a necessary antecedent to productive literary labor and [End Page 359] that lay at the heart of the essentially poetic character of pastoral from Virgil to Wordsworth—remained perilously close to idleness. If pastoral poetry is, to some extent, always about its own making, it is a kind of work that can often appear as no work at all. Davidson attempts to negotiate the conflict between labor and leisure so central to pastoral by creating a modern Arcadia, a scene of writing and a "realm of action,"6 where the tensions between labor and leisure can be resolved. It is a place where pastoral poetic labor can contribute to the restoration and renewal of writing itself and serve as an antidote to the atomism of both modern, urban life and mass-market print culture.


English journalism was transformed in the 1880s by both technical innovation and heightened commercialization, and by 1890 there were nearly eighteen hundred periodicals in circulation in England. It was Matthew Arnold who coined the term "New Journalism" in an article written for the Nineteenth Century in May of 1887; the "one great fault" of the New Journalism, Arnold declared, was "that it is feather-brained."7 And Davidson appears to have Arnold's indictment in mind when he has the newspaperman-cum-poet Brian declare in "Good Friday":

I love not brilliance; give me words    Of meadow-growth and garden plot,Of larks and blackcaps; gaudy birds,    Gay flowers and jewels like me not.

(I: 203, ll. 17–20)

As Laurel Brake points out, Arnold places the New Journalism "at the bottom of a hierarchy of cultural forms, at the top of which is art, which by his definition, outlives the specifics of history and is accessible only to the cultivated."8 According to its detractors, the New Journalism was a mass-produced cultural commodity written for a mass audience of consumers, a "debased cultural form" driven by a commercial market whose values were seen as antithetical to the standards of literature.9 For Arnold and others, the New Journalism was epitomized by W. T. Stead's Pall Mall Gazette and Review of Reviews (founded with George Newnes in 1890), Newnes's own Tit...


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pp. 359-379
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