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John Davidson

John Davidson was a Scottish poet best known for his Ballads and Songs, and Fleet Street Eclogues. In addition to his poetry, Davidson was also a journalist, novelist, and playwright. It was he who completed the first English translations of the works of influential German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

Toward the end of his life, his physical and mental health suffered, and he endured serious financial setbacks that ultimately led to his suicide in 1909.

Biographical fast facts

Date and place of birth: April 11, 1857, Barrhead, Renfrewshire, Scotland

Date, time, place and cause of death: March 23, 1909, at approximately 6:30 p.m., near 6 Coulson's Terrace, Penzance, Cornwall, England (Suicide - drowned)

Sons: Alexander Davidson and Menzies Davidson

Father: Alexander Davidson
Mother: Helen Crockett

Burial: Buried at sea

Error corrections or clarifications

NOTE: Some sources have confused various biographical information on John and his wife with that of other couples by the name of John and Margaret Davidson who also lived in the British Isles in the 1800s.

Biography - Selected writing credits

John Davidson was born to Alexander Davidson and Helen Crockett on April 11th, 1857, in Barrhead, near Glasgow, Renfrewshire, Scotland. A couple of years after John's birth the family moved to Glasgow where his father was the pastor of the Montrose Street Evangelical Union Church. In 1861, the Davidson's moved to Greenock, Scotland, where most of John's childhood would be spent.

The interest he'd shown in literature from a young age grew to become a true passion by his teens. His devoutly religious parents were not thrilled by either his enthusiasm for literature or his drinking. John's scorn for their religious beliefs continued to grow throughout his adolescence and would provide fodder for a number of his later literary works.

He graduated from Highlanders' Academy in 1870, and went to work in the chemical laboratory of Walker's Sugar Company in Greenock. He returned to Highlanders' Academy in 1872, to both teach and advance his own education.

Davidson spent a single session at Edinburgh University (1876-77) before becoming an English teacher at Alexander's Charity School in Glasgow, Scotland (1877-78), Perth Academy (1878-81), Kelvinside Academy in Glasgow (1881-82), and Hutchinson Charity School in Paisley (1883-84).

After working as a clerk for a thread company in Glasgow (1884-85), he resumed teaching at Morrison's Academy in Crieff, before concluding his unremarkable career as an instructor at a private school in Greenock (1888-89). By the time he had settled in London in 1890 to pursue a full-time literary career, he was married and had two young sons. Alexander Davidson (born 1887) was the first child born to John and his wife, Margaret Cameron MacArthur, with son Menzies Davidson following in 1889.

In the early 1890s, he became a member of the legendary Rhymers' Club. "We read our poems to one another and talked criticism and drank a little wine," was how W. B. Yeats later described the club. The London-based group was co-founded by William Butler Yeats and included among its members several individuals associated with the "tragic generation." "The Tragic Generation" was an apt term used to describe a group of literary figures of that era for which failure and early death seemed the tragic norm. Though he socialized with Yeats, John's relationship with other Rhymers' Club members was sometimes strained as a result of his often-conflicting literary views. Yeats once explained that a cornerstone of the Rhymers' was the belief that a poet should work "at rhythm and cadence, at form and style." Other writers associated with the Rhymers' Club include, Lionel Johnson, Ernest Dowson, Ernest Rhys, Arthur Symons, Ernest Radford, John Todhunter, T. W. Rolleston, Victor Plarr, Richard Le Gallienne, George Arthur Greene, Edwin Ellis and even Oscar Wilde.

He initially worked as a reader/reviewer/critic for publisher John Lane, and later worked in that same capacity with publisher Grant Richards. Those publishers were also responsible for publishing much of his work the last fifteen years of his life.

His first major success was Fleet Street Eclogues, which was published in April 1893, followed by arguably his finest work, Ballads and Songs, the next year. It was those two works that brought him his greatest degree of popular and critical acclaim. His adaptation of Francois Coppee's Pour la Couronne was produced in London from February 27, 1896 - May 30, 1896, under the title, For the Crown: A Romantic Play in Four Acts, and was a minor hit. The 1890s proved an extremely productive period for him, with the publication of several volumes of poetry, original plays, short stories, novels and the appearance of well over 100 pieces in a variety of periodicals. This chapter of his life was the most rewarding for him financially and critically.

John Davidson was one of Hugh MacDiarmid's favorite poets. The noted Scottish poet once said Davidson was "the only Scottish poet to whom I owe anything at all." MacDiarmid was not the only luminary John Davidson counted among his fans. Celebrated writer Virginia Woolf was a great admirer of his work and later committed suicide in the same manner as Davidson. T. S. Eliot was yet another distinguished fan of his work who later wrote the preface for John Davidson: A Selection of His Poems (1961).

He continued to turn out a wide variety of writings, but was never again able to recapture the success he experienced with Fleet Street Eclogues and Ballads and Songs.

Davidson's contempt for Christianity became increasingly visible in his latter works and often produced harsh criticism for both the author and his creations. While he also rejected Darwinism, a wide variety of accepted principles, moral values and nearly all standards of judgment, Christianity remained his primary target. In 1904, he explained: "My purpose in these Testaments is to aid in the overthrow of the rotten financial investment called Christendom: I perceive that this can be done only by purging the world of everything that is meant by spirit, soul, 'other' world, though all the literature and art and religion of the past should go with it."

Publication of his play The Theatrocrat: A Tragedy of Church and Stage in 1905, resulted in brutal and nearly universal criticism. He did not take the disapproval of his work lightly and fired off a round of letters attacking the views of his critics. While he publicly defended his writings, privately he was genuinely hurt that both critics and the public had rejected so much of his later work.

The financial rewards he experienced as a result of his long sought after literary success were minimal and short-lived. John constantly struggled with his finances in the final years of his life and had to depend on friends for support. Even after he was approved for an annual Civil List pension in the amount of 100 pounds in 1906, his income remained inadequate for the needs of his family.

He became increasingly withdrawn as his health -- both physical and mental -- deteriorated. Davidson battled bronchitis, asthma and depression in his final years. By 1908, he was convinced he had only months to live: "I should like to leave my affairs in some shape behind me: I have had very distinct notice that I have barely a year or two to live in now," he wrote in a letter to his friend and publisher, Grant Richards. When death failed to materialize as he anticipated, he took matters into his own hands.

He not only bids a final farewell in the preface of the posthumously published Fleet Street and Other Poems, but also seems to be publishing his suicide note for the world to see: "The time has come to make an end. There are several motives. I find my pension is not enough; I have therefore still to turn aside and attempt things for which people will pay. My health also counts. Asthma and other annoyances I have tolerated for years; but I cannot put up with cancer."

Shortly after 6:30 p.m. on March 23rd, 1909, John Davidson ended his life by jumping into the English Channel from a cliff near his home at 6 Coulson's Terrace, in Penzance, Cornwall, England. His body would not be found for nearly six months. It was his second son, Menzies, who had the unenviable task of identifying his father's dead body when it was discovered September 18th, by a pair of Mousehole fishermen. The recovery of his body allowed for a proper, if belated, burial at sea, September 21st, 1909.

The many references John Davidson made to suicide in his various works were frequently presented as an escape or even a triumph over a cruel world. In light of his own suicide, these passages can resonate with far greater poignancy then perhaps they did with readers before his death.

Following his death, John Davidson's work enjoyed a brief resurgence in popularity. But that success was fleeting, just as it was during his life. He has since been hailed a master of the narrative lyrical ballad and an influential literary reformer who made important contributions to the evolution of modern verse. His melancholy body of work is often rich in scientific imagery, frequently controversial, and while it does vary widely in quality, his work can still stir passionate debate among readers.

Selected writing credits
The North Wall (1885)
Diabolus Amans: A Dramatic Poem (1885)
Bruce: A Drama in Five Acts (1886)
Smith: A Tragedy (1888)
A Romantic Farce (1889)
Scaramouch in Naxos (1889)
The above play was reissued in 1890 as Scaramouch in Naxos: A Pantomime; and Other Plays
Perfervid: The Career of Ninian Jamieson (1890)
The Great Men (1891)
In a Music-Hall and Other Poems (1891)
Laura Ruthven's Widowhood (1892) (written with Charles James Wills)
Fleet Street Eclogues (1893)
Sentences and Paragraphs (1893)
Ballads and Songs (1894)
Baptist Lake (1894)
A Random Itinerary (1894)
A Full and True Account of the Wonderful Mission of Earl Lavender, which lasted One Night and One Day: with a History of the Pursuit of Earl Lavender and Lord Brumm by Mrs Scamler and Maud Emblem (1895)
St. George's Day: A Fleet Street Eclogue (1895)
Miss Armstrong's and Other Circumstances (1896)
The Pilgrimage of Strongsoul and Other Stories (1896)
A Second Series of Fleet Street Eclogues (1896)
New Ballads (1897)
Godfrida: A Play in Four Acts (1898)
The Last Ballad and Other Poems (1899)
Self's the Man: A Tragi-Comedy (1901)
The Testament of a Vivisector (1901)
The Testament of a Man Forbid (1901)
The Testament of an Empire-Builder (1902)
The Knight of the Maypole: A Comedy in Four Acts (1903)
A Rosary (1903)
A Queen's Romance: A Version of Victor Hugo's "Ruy Blas" (1904)
The Testament of a Prime Minister (1904)
Selected Poems (1904)
The Ballad of a Nun (1905)
The Theatrocrat: A Tragedy of Church and Stage (1905)
Holiday and Other Poems, with a Note on Poetry (1906)
The Triumph of Mammon (1907)
Mammon and His Message (1908)
The Testament of John Davidson (1908)
Fleet Street and Other Poems (1909)
John Davidson: A Selection of His Poems (1961)


The most in-depth of more than two dozen sources consulted in preparing this profile, was John Davidson, by Carroll V. Peterson (a.k.a. Dr. Carroll "Pete" Peterson) (1972)

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