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"Something must be done," I urged; "you should
stir them up, get them to act."

"No good now," he said, "something may be
done later when the Liberals come in. I've always
been a Radical, you know," he added, a little
proudly, I thought.

I don't know why it never struck me that I should
use any of the papers I edited to puff Davidson into
prominence. I cannot account for my own shame-
ful negligence in this respect. I can only admit the
fact and partially explain it by saying that Davidson
always seemed to me properly appreciated. All the
writers I spoke to about him recognized his genius:
they didn't perhaps put him as high as I did, but one
and all realized that he would be among the English
poets when he died. It seemed almost impertinent
to praise such a master; but this excuse is rather an
apology than the simple truth: the truth is, I never
thought of puffing Davidson any more than Ber-
nard Shaw or Harold Frederic, or anyone who didn't
expressly ask to be noticed. My dreadful negligence
in this respect was brought home to me bitterly when
it was too late, for I was told that Davidson had
been hurt a little by my reticence. Had he said a
word to me I'd have done anything I could : but he


was too proud to ask, I suppose, and I too much en-
grossed in other matters to think even of helping
my friend. The only plea I can urge in mitigation
of my seeming callousness is that today the fight
is so hot for all of us writers and artists, that we
are apt to overlook even sacred obligations if they
are not pressed upon our notice.

About this time my health broke down, and for
some years I was in many difficulties: when I par-
tially emerged in 1904, or 1905, I met Davidson
again, and found him changed: he had grown self-
assertive, and at the same time had developed a cer-
tain bitterness of attitude which seemed out of tune
with his kindly temperament and fair habit of mind.
All men need to have a good conceit of themselves
in order to go through life sanely; we should all
grow thick, hard shells of conceit like lobsters to
protect our sensibilities from rude hands. And if
this is true of all men it is tenfold truer of the writer
and artist who has to persist in being at his best and
doing his best in spite of the amused contempt or
neglect of his contemporaries.

The conditions of life for the poet or artist are a
thousand times severer than most men imagine. In
the usual walks of life — in trade or in the profes-
sions — high talent or industry is associated with re-
ward; the barrister who becomes a learned law-
yer or a great advocate, the doctor who shows
exceptional capacity is almost certain to win position


and a competence; at fifty he can reckon on having
a large income and an easy and honored life. But
the poet or artist has to face an altogether different
experience; the progress he makes in his art divorces
him from popularity; it is ordinary sentiment in ordi-
nary jingle that pays; every step the artist makes of
comprehension and accomphshment removes him
further from the mass of men and from success.
His growth leads him inevitably from the praise of
his fellows to their disdain and hatred. If he feels it
in him to reach the level of Dante or Shakespeare,
he will pass from a certain popularity and respect, to
contempt and dislike and may account himself for-
tunate if the hatred of him does not turn to active
persecution and punishment. And if in spite of all
this, the soldier of the ideal dedicates his soul to the
highest and dares the uttermost, he knows that his
crown will be of thorns, his kingship a derision, his
throne, a cross.

All the time, it is true, he will be buoyed up by the
consciousness that he is in intimate relation with the
soul of things, or, if you will, by his own self-esteem.
It is dangerous to take such self-assurance as a guide,
though it is very difficult not to trust the high self-
estimate which has helped you again and again to
achievement. The higher one climbs the more diffi-
cult and perilous the next ascent. Failure is certain
ultimately: failure and a fall. Sooner or later the
dark hour comes for all of us.


When he was over forty years of age Davidson
reached this pass. Starting from near the bottom of
the social hierarchy, he had won to the very top : he
had made a name as common as Smith immortal ; had
crowned himself in the Temple not made with hands,
eternal in the Heavens, and yet he was confronted
with the vast indifference of the public that cares less
for poets than for acrobats, and exposed to the envi-
ous attacks of venomous poetasters and journalists,
and this at a time when he was without money and
without influence, but with health failing and disease
threatening. It is to Davidson's honor that In that
dread hour he never whimpered or whined or thought
of giving in; instead of abating his high pretensions
as a poet, he set them higher still; he would be a
prophet as well, or rather he was a prophet, and
what was true to him, that he would set forth with all
emphasis. Alas ! in spite of his sincerity and unswerv-
ing devotion to truth, in spite of all his gifts as a
singer, and all his goodness as lover and father and
friend, he could discover no light in the darkness,
no sun, no star. But his courage held; he would sing
all encompassing Night, then, and Nothingness, and
himself set therein sightless yet a god! the only god,

That way madness lies: such pride dwarfs the
mind and maims the soul.

In the sad preface to his last work, Fleet Street
and Other Poems, he says: "Men should no longer

St Winifreds.

Fairmile Avenue,



degrade themselves under such appellations as Chris-
tian, Mohammedan, Agnostic, Monist. Men are the
Universe become conscious," and so forth. That
"degrade themselves" is somewhat overpitched. No
one calls himself Christian who does not feel that he
Is thereby doing his best to ennoble himself, and
if Man is the Universe become conscious is there not
hope in that and joy? Man's striving towards the
best is as splendid as the struggle of the flower to
the light, and there is a measure of happiness for
both in the success and the sunshine.

There is some truth in Davidson's gospel of the
man-god, though he vastly overrated its importance.
All we know of God or of the Time-Spirit and
purpose of things is drawn from our knowledge of
ourselves; to himself man is god, and the upward
groping and growth of his own soul is the only
revelation of the Divine which we mortals can know.
This idea overpowered Davidson : he would not be-
lieve that anyone else had ever seen it, or at least
grasped its full significance, he, Davidson, and he
alone, for the first time was the Universe grown con-
scious, and perhaps for the last time; the supreme
purpose being accomplished, the Universe might now
dislimn and return to chaos. In his Testame?tt he
set forth the stupendous presumption:

I dare not, must not die: I am the sight
And hearing of the infinite; in me


Matter fulfils itself; before me none

Beheld or heard^ imagined^ thought or felt;

And though I make the mystery known to men,

It may be none hereafter shall achieve

The perfect purpose of eternity;

It may be that the Universe attains

Self-knowledge only once; and when I cease

To see and hear, imagine, think and feel.

The end may come, and matter, satisfied.

Devolve once more through wanton change, and tides

Of slow relapse, suns, systems, galaxies.

Back to ethereal oblivion, pure

Accomplished darkness. Night immaculate

Augmenting everlastingly in space. . . .

He had lost all measure, he did not see that the
coming to complete consciousness is a sign of maturity
in the individual, and that all the great work, all the
finest achievements come later.

The world is young and not old, mankind a youth
still, in the brisk morning of life indeed, surcharged
with health and vigor, electric with courage and
hope, eyes aglow with heavenly radiance! Instead
of singing himself as the ultimate, Davidson should
have sung himself as herald and harbinger of the
great time coming.

No Thor can drain the ocean ! Davidson was not
content with the fragment of fame he had achieved;
he would have all men acknowledge his greatness;
he was tragically ambitious, impious in self-asser-


tlon ; the Scotch preacher vein In him becoming more
and more dominant choked the sweet poetry.

Every time we met from 1907 onwards there was
deterioration in him : the worse he did, the higher he
put his claims. If one praised his poetry and begged
him to give the world more of it, he pooh-poohed it
all. I reminded him once of how exquisitely he had
written of larks and their singing, and he replied:

"My dear Frank, Shelley did it better, and I have
better things to do, greater songs to sing; which you
will not listen to."

"I'm ready to listen," I cried; but he shrugged his
shoulders and drew silence about him as a garment.
I was full of disquiet and distress about him and
wondered how he would pull through. Then the
news of his pension came and delighted me. It has
come In the very nick of time, I exulted, to save him
from himself : true, It is only £ 1 00 a year ; but that to
Davidson is a great deal, and it is the full and fitting
and perfect reply of the Future to the vile journal-
ists' attacks on him of the moment. Now he Is saved,
I thought, and will surely do better than ever.

A few days later I met him at the door of the
Cafe Royal in Regent Street and congratulated him
warmly. For the first time I thought he posed a
little, was Inclined to be pompous.

"It has done me good," he admitted, "but what
I like about It Is, it Is evidently given for my latest


work. Some glimmering of the truth I've sung has
pierced the darkness; It's a sort of recognition."

"Oh, it's immense," I cried, "an English Govern-
ment gives you money, says one poet is worth sav-
ing, helping: it's extraordinary, it's everything: you
must really be pleased and proud and content. We
are all so glad!"

He took It all with grave dignity, like a monarch
receiving homage, I thought; and holding himself
aloof a little for dignity's sake.

I went on my way wondering how long the intoxi-
cation would last.

Some weeks later I met him again : he was down
In the dumps. When I referred to his pension he
flew out at me.

"What's a hundred a year? How can one live
on it? It's almost an Insult. They give so-and-so
two hundred and me one — It's absurd. ..."

"A good staff, literature," I replied, "but a poor
crutch; still, a hundred a year keeps a roof over
one's head and a door closed against the wolf."

But why, I wondered, couldn't the English Gov-
ernment give so that the gift itself should be dignified
by the giving. Seeing that artists and prophets and
writers have scant reward In the money way, and
if they belong to the future by dint of greatness,
scant honor in the present: why doesn't the House
of Commons, the great Council of the Nation, set
one day or one hour aside each year in which to do


them honor. The names of the selected candidates
might then be put upon the roll of honor and the
thanks of Parliament be accorded to them and re-
corded. Those who seek riches and succeed, who,
therefore, deserve least of their fellow-men, for they
take much and give little or nothing, are awarded
titles and peerages and all the rest of it; but those
who have given their lives and labor to the ser-
vice of man in the most disinterested way get neither
wealth nor honor nor any sort of recognition. All
this, it seems to me, is certain to be altered, and
sooner than we think.

The pension given to Davidson did not encourage
him for long; it was not enough to cover his neces-
sities. I thought his disappointment might be dis-
sipated, and took him for a long talk. We dined and
spent the evening together. Late that night he spoke
for the first time of suicide and his fear of cancer:
he dwelt on the pain, and, above all, on the ignominy
of the smell that accompanies the dreadful disease.
"A stinking death," he called it, with the shuddering
disgust of the artist. I made light of his fears, could
not believe they were well founded, and if they were,
assured him he would meet the Arch-Fear with per-
fect courage as he had met and conquered worse
devils throughout his life. After all, death has to
be faced by all of us!

"But cancer, cancer is disgusting," he cried; "Pve
always loathed and dreaded it. Do all one's fears in


life materialize to torture us? You say all our
prayers are granted, perhaps all our fears, too, get

After we had parted the talk came back to me, I
felt that Davidson was really depressed, and re-
proached myself for not having encouraged him by
demonstrating the unreality of his fear; a vague
anxiety at heart told me it was not well with him.

Here is a verse from that time heavy with hope-
less misery, which shows I had partly divined his

And defeat was my crown !

When, naked, I wrestled with fate
The destinies trampled me down: —

I fought in the van and was great.
And I won, though I wore no crown.

In the lists of the world; for fate
And the destinies trampled me down —
The myrmidons trampled me down.

The darkest page in Cervantes tells how even
Quixote was trampled down by the swine: it is the
same dreadful experience.

When Davidson wrote that verse despair had
taken hold of him : a little while later the news came
that he had disappeared; a little later still that he
had killed himself. The first words of the preface
to his last work. Fleet Street, were pubHshed as the
explanation :


The time has come to make an end. There are several
motives. I find my j^ension is not enough; I have there-
fore still to turn aside and attem^it things for which people
will pay. My health also counts. Asthma and other an-
noyances I have tolerated for years ; but I cannot put up
with cancer.

Here is what I have been able to learn of the
manner of his death:

A year or so before he had taken a small house
in Penzance by the sea and gone there to live with
his wife and younger son. He suffered now and then
from pains in the lower intestines, which he looked
upon as a symptom of some cancerous growth. One
IVlarch evening, after working all day, he went out
to post a batch of proofs to his publisher and never
returned alive.

At the inquest the doctor said he had found what
he thought was a bullet hole in his head.

There is a place on the cliffs where a young man
had thrown himself into the sea some time before
and been drowned. Davidson reached this spot af-
ter nightfall; what decided him none can say: it is
probable that he shot himself through the head while
standing so that his body must fall Into the waves
surging fifty feet below. He was tragically resolved
to make sure.

The regret of all who knew him was intensified by
the fact that he had never been so well-off: he had


not only the £100 a year of the Government; but his
chief publisher, Mr. Grant Richards, had also very
generously undertaken to give him another £100 a
year regularly for his poetry and he could reckon
on translations of plays and occasional articles to
bring him in as much more; but he had come to know
his real value and his true position as seer and steers-
man to the ship, and the contrast between his deserv-
ing and what the world gave was too humiliating.

Besides, he had done most of his work: the kernel
of it was there in The Testaments already written;
despairing Foreword written, too; sufficient explana-
tion : all the silly world deserved ; why should he bear
the horrible dagger-thrusts of pain any longer? —
"the time has come to make an end."

Had he but realized how his desperate deed
would darken the outlook for others, he would have
taken courage and waited for Nature's free-
ing. . . . Dear, brave Davidson!

The coroner's jury brought in a merciful verdict
— "found drowned."

The news shocked the town; every one had been
talking of him and his pension, thinking him lucky
to have got it, when suddenly he threw the money
back in the faces of the givers and left the arena in
disgust. For one moment the desperate act made
men pause and think. Had he been treated badly?
Were these poets not merely "the idle singers of an
idle day" ; but men of character, capable of desperate


resolution, persons to be proud of and to emulate,
and not merely amiable "cranks" to be half pitied,
half despised?

Some pretended he had killed himself because of a
virulent journalistic attack on his Testaments by a rib-
ald poetaster, but that was nonsense. Better than
most men Davidson knew exactly the value and
meaning of such envious slander. Years before, he
had written, "If a poet or any other writer can be
killed by criticism the sooner it is done the better."

But for a moment the world questioned. Then
the tide of life flowed on again and all was as before.
The English troubled themselves as little about the
suicide as they had troubled themselves about the
poet or the prophet. What was his death, after all,
but another man gone "where we all must go"?

One word more, when after some three months of
anxiety, misery and searching on the part of his
sons and wife, the sea gave up its dead and what re-
mained of John Davidson was found on the shore
near Penzance, the eldest son resolved to bury his
father as he would have wished to be buried. With
the native refinement of the artist Davidson had al-
ways hated the idea of being wound in swaddling-
clothes and put In the earth to decay. He had told
his boys whom he had treated as "pals" that he
would prefer to be buried at sea and his sons now
carried out his wishes. They took his remains in a
funeral launch all draped in black and when far out-


side the three miles limit, gave him to the freedom
and sweetness of the deep he loved.

Now what is the true moral or permanent
meaning of Davidson's life to us who remain and to
those who are to come after us? It was undeniably
a great life, a life of splendid accomplishment, of
heroic achievement. Whatever may be thought of
his Testaments and his prose invocation of the
Lords, and his contemptuous depreciation of the
woman's movement, there can be no doubt that John
Davidson was a man of large and liberal mind who
spent himself in devotion to high purposes, a poet
who might have been named Greatheart, whose best
verses have passed into the language and form part
of the inheritance of the race. The Last Journey
Is the finest poem of the sort in English literature,
though both Browning and Arnold have treated the
same subject. The last verses of it reach tragic

My feet are heavy now, but on I go.

My head erect beneath the tragic years.
The way is steep, but I would have it so;
And dusty, but I lay the dust with tears.
Though none can see me weep: alone I climb
The rugged path that leads me out of time —

Out of time and out of all.

Singing yet in sun and rain,

"Heel and toe from dawn to dusk.

Round the world and home again."


Farewell the hope that mocked, farewell despair
That went before me still and made the pace.

The earth is full of graves, and mine was there
Before my life began, my resting-jDlace;

And I shall find it out and with the dead

Lie down for ever, all my sayings said —
Deeds all done and songs all sung.
While others chant in sun and rain,
"Heel and toe from dawn to dusk.
Round the world and home again."

What shall be said of the man who could write
like that? Davidson will live with Burns,, it seems to
me; he is not so great a force: he has not Burns's
pathos nor his tenderness nor his humor; but he
does not write in a dialect: he is a master of pure
English, and his best work touches extremes of
beauty and tragic sadness. His appalling end, too,
is a sort of natural canonization; suicide carries with
it the sanctity of supreme suffering, and such majestic
singularity defies oblivion.

This Is part of Davidson's reward, that his name
will be remembered for ever, and his unhappy fate
will be used to make life easier for men of genius
in the future. We must never forget, too, that if ar-
tistic creation is the most difficult, most arduous,
most nerve-shattering toil in the world, yet when even
partially successful it has the highest recompense in
triumphant joy, the glory of the spirit. Our friend,


too, had his moments of exultation and ecstasy when
he hved on the topmost height of man's achievement.

But people say that Davidson was a failure, and
talk of his suicide as proof of weakness. Whistler,
they assert, won through to success and wealth,
whereas Davidson gave up the fight in despair, there-
fore Davidson was a smaller man. Such argument
takes no account of the fact that perhaps of all ar-
tists success is easiest to the painter and hardest to
the poet or writer. The painter's art is universal
and appeals to all men, whereas the writer's appeal
is limited to those of his own speech. Whistler was
honored in France and his work bought for the
Luxembourg long before he was even taken seriously
in England or America. Davidson had no such out-
let: he had to win in England or lose altogether.
Moreover, thousands of people can see beauty in a
picture for one who loves poetry, and a picture can
be finished in a week, whereas a poem of the same
importance will take half a year.

Davidson, in my opinion, was quite as big a man
as Whistler, a nobler character, indeed, with just as
deep and fair a mind, just as splendid an artistic en-
dowment; his courage, too, was as high; but the test
he was put to was a thousandfold severer. Whistler
often earned fifty pounds in an afternoon : he lived
habitually at the rate of a couple of thousand pounds
a year, whereas Davidson could hardly earn a tenth
of that sum. There were always people of great po-


sitlon who were eager to ask Whistler to lunch or
dinner. At forty he was one of the personages in
London; men pointed him out as he passed in the
street, there was a "legend" about him. Davidson,
on the other hand, was as little regarded as a butler
or a bootblack. One of the rarest and most superb
flowers of genius of our time, he was almost totally
neglected: the fact does not say much for the garden
or the gardeners.



IT was in the autumn of 1907 that Edgar Jepson
introduced me to Richard Middleton in the
office of Vanity Fair. A big man and perfectly self-
possessed, his burly figure, thick black beard and fur-
rowed forehead made him look ten years older than
he was: five and thirty, at least, I thought him till I
caught the laughing, boyish gleam in his grey-blue
eyes. He had assisted Jepson in the editing of the
paper while I was in America, and on my return he
helped me for some little time. He was casual, cheer-
fully unpunctual, careless rather than critical in cor-
recting other men's work, and these ordinary short-
comings were somewhat harassing. One day he re-
marked in the air, that if he could get paid for poetry
he'd prefer writing to editing. I was a little sur-
prised: I had not thought of him as a poet; but we
soon came to an arrangement His first verses sur-
prised me; there was the singing quality in them, a
happy ease of melody, a sureness and distinction of
phrase which proved that he was indeed a poet. Bet-
ter still, his best verses did not echo his forerunners;
imitative cadences there were, of course ; a few bor-



rowed graces; but usually the song was his own and
not derived — a true poet.

One day I asked my assistant why there had been
no poetry of Middleton's in the last week's impres-
sion : had he sent nothing?

"Oh, yes," was the reply, "he sent in two or three
poems as usual, but they were too free, I was afraid
they'd shock Mrs. Grundy, so Fm about to return

Needless to say that made me eager to read them :
one was "The Bathing Boy." I published it
promptly, and told Middleton what I thought, that

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Online LibraryFrank HarrisContemporary portraits → online text (page 9 of 20)