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John Davidson

John Davidson (11 April 1857 – 23 March 1909) was a Scottish poet and playwright, best known for his ballads.

He was born at Barrhead, East Renfrewshire as the son of a Dissenting minister and entered the chemical department of a sugar refinery in Greenock in his 13th year, returning after one year to school as a pupil teacher. He studied at the University of Edinburgh. He was afterwards engaged in teaching at various places, and having taken to literature went in 1889 to London.

He achieved a reputation as a writer of poems and plays of marked individuality and vivid realism. His poems include In a Music Hall (1891), Fleet Street Eclogues (1893), Baptist Lake (1894), New Ballads (1896), The Last Ballad (1898), The Triumph of Mammon (1907), and among his plays are Bruce (1886), Smith: a Tragic Farce (1888), Godfrida (1898). He also wrote novels, including a well-known work of flagellation erotica, A Full and True Account of the Wonderful Mission of Earl Lavender (1895). From 1901 he wrote pessimistic blank verse Testaments. He was given a Civil List pension in 1906.

Davidson disappeared on 23 March 1909, under circumstances which left little doubt that under the influence of mental depression he had drowned himself at Penzance. Among his papers was found the manuscript of a new work, Fleet Street Poems, with a letter containing the words, "This will be my last book." His body was discovered a few months later.

Davidson's poetry was a key early influence on important Modernist poets, in particular T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. Davidon's poem "In the Isle of Dogs", for example, is a clear intertext of later poems such as Eliot's "The Wasteland" and Stevens' "The Idea of Order at Key West".


  • Diabolus Amans (1885), verse drama
  • Fleet Street Eclogues (1893)
  • Contributor to The Yellow Book
  • Ballads and Songs (1894),
  • A Full and True Account of the Wonderful Mission of Earl Lavender (1895)
  • Fleet Street Eclogues (Second Series) (1896)
  • New Ballads (1897)
  • The Last Ballad (1899).


  • John Davidson, First of the Moderns; A Literary Biography (1995) by John Sloan
  • Karl E. Beckson, London in the 1890s: A Cultural History (1992)

This article incorporates public domain text from : Cousin, John William (1910). A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London, J. M. Dent & Sons; New York, E. P. Dutton.

External links



Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

John Davidson (1857-04-111909-03-23) was a Scottish journalist, playwright, fiction-writer and translator, but is best remembered as a poet.


  • Business – the world's work – is the sale of lies:
    Not goods, but trade-marks; and still more and more
    In every branch becomes the sale of money.
    • Smith (Glasgow: Wilson, 1888) p. 26.
  • One must become
    Fanatic – be a wedge – a thunder-bolt
    To smite a passage through the close-grained world.
    • Smith (Glasgow: Wilson, 1888) p. 33.
  • Mere by-blows are the world and we,
    And time within eternity
    A sheer anachronism.
    • "Queen Elizabeth's Day", from Fleet Street Eclogues (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., [1893] 1895) p. 198
  • 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-place.
    • "The Last Journey", from The Testament of John Davidson (London: Grant Richards, 1908) p. 146.
  • That minister of ministers,
    Imagination, gathers up
    The undiscovered Universe,
    Like jewels in a jasper cup.
    • There is a Dish to hold the Sea, reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • My feet are heavy now but on I go,
    My head erect beneath the tragic years.
    • I felt the World a-spinning on its Nave, reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).

Ballads and Songs (1894)

Quotations are cited from the 1st edition (Boston: Copeland & Day, 1894).

  • Unwilling friend, let not your spite abate;
    Help me with scorn, and strengthen me with hate.
    • "To My Enemy", p. 2.
  • Seraphs and saints with one great voice
    Welcomed that soul that knew not fear.
    Amazed to find it could rejoice,
    Hell raised a hoarse, half-human cheer.
    • "A Ballad of Hell", p. 85.
  • And the difficultest job a man can do,
    Is to come it brave and meek with thirty bob a week,
    And feel that that's the proper thing for you.

    It's a naked child against a hungry wolf;
    It's playing bowls upon a splitting wreck;
    It's walking on a string across a gulf
    With millstones fore-and-aft about your neck;
    But the thing is daily done by many and many a one.
    And we fall, face forward, fighting, on the deck.
    • "Thirty Bob a Week", p. 97.

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