Two of the most influential yet overlooked voices of British poetry from the Yellow Nineties to the Modernist Twenties were Anglo-Scot: John Davidson (1857-1909), who hailed from Renfrewshire, and Harold Monro (1879-1932), who was born in Belgium to Scottish parents. Their lives and works overlapped uncannily: both moved to London to pursue literary careers; wrote on unfashionable social themes; were stylistically of the English rather than Scottish tradition; were oddballs of their respective ‘groups’; depressive and alcoholic; and died in their early fifties. Both, too, epitomised and then broke with the poetic conventions of their periods, paving the way for T. S. Eliot and the modernists. Eliot cited Davidson’s outstanding ‘Thirty Bob a Week’ as an early signpost for his own development; and recognised a debt to Monro’s poetry, some of which he published in The Criterion.

But both have won patchy posterities as baton-carriers for later trophybearers Eliot and Christopher Murray Grieve (Hugh MacDiarmid); Monro, even more abjectly, as ‘chaperone’ first, poet second. Each is largely remembered through a handful of partially representative anthology favourites: Davidson for ‘The Runnable Stag’, ‘In Romney Marsh’ and ‘Thirty Bob a Week’; Monro, for ‘Milk for the Cat’ and the weird ‘Overheard on a Saltmarsh’. But their respective oeuvres, brimming with neglected gems, have been underestimated for the sustained impact they had on succeeding generations. As Davidson once prognosticated with aplomb:

The insane past is the incubus: the world is really a virgin world awaking from a bad dream. These are some of the seeds of the new thing I bring, of the new poetry which the world will make.

The often-cited mutual imperfections in the work of both poets are conspicuous due to the exceptional craftsmanship of their finest poems. In Davidson there is sometimes the sense of a mind rampaging ahead of the pen, though this can make for some exhilarating writing. Neither had as consistent a polish as Eliot; but the naïf vitalism of Davidson’s verse and the disarming phantasmagoria of Monro’s shared vulnerabilities and spontaneities that lacked in their inheritor’s. Eliot’s emotional bloom came prematurely in ‘The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, and that poem’s components had already been proscribed on the worry-beads of Monro’s oeuvre.

Davidson and Monro were both verse-progressives; when employing regular rhyme, there was the sense in each of a restless itching towards something more instinctual. Davidson, a prosodic autodidact, appraised ‘rhyme’ as a ‘modern’ sensibility, a ‘property of decadence’, but one that was the manure for ‘a higher manifestation’. He traced its interpolation back a mere seven hundred years to the ‘Minnesingers and the Troubadours in the gorgeous decadence of the last crusades’ who ‘led Poetry out of the study and scriptorium into the court and the camp … arrayed for her novel rôle in the new-fangled frippery’. To Davidson, rhyme was ‘a bedizened harlotry … more convenable than the austere and unadorned beauty of rhymeless verse’; but ‘English blank verse’ was

… a supreme relief of nervous tension, the fullest discharge of emotion, the greatest deliverance of energy; it satisfies the blood and the brain; the bones and the marrow.

Davidson was a revivalist: he sought a reconnection with the verse tradition of antiquity. Eliot felt ‘Davidson wrote too much and sometimes tediously’, but the Scot’s dogged progression into a neo-Miltonic epic blank verse – The Triumph of Mammon – was hugely ambitious and partially successful. It is ironic that a stalwart of the Rhymers’ Club (the verse-equivalent of the Pre-Raphaelites) became a proselytiser for non-rhyming poetry.

Davidson’s ‘near-genius’ (sic) was in his re-alignment of poetic tradition with his times, politicising the character of poetry during one of its starchiest periods: his introduction of ‘prole’ lingo into a largely bourgeois medium (In A Music Hall [1891]; ‘Thirty Bob a Week’) and splashes of urban imagery provided Eliot with the founding-stones of his embryonic aesthetic. But such retro-radicalism originated with Davidson, the Walter Sickert of the pen (Sickert’s What Shall We Do for the Rent? could easily be a companion-piece to Davidson’s ‘Thirty Bob a Week’).

The progenitor of this ‘makar’ migration to London was the earlier dissenting Scots poet James ‘Bysshe Vanolis’ Thomson (1834-1882), whom Davidson – canny of a lineage – championed, and Eliot cited as another influence. Thomson’s life and work was a virtual blueprint for Davidson’s and Monro’s: a Scottish schoolmaster who moved to London, he endured the poverty of poetic apprenticeship, was manic-depressive and alcoholic, tortured by atheistic deathanxieties, and died prematurely at forty-seven. Thomson’s insomnia led him to walk London’s darkened streets, culminating in his lugubrious masterpiece of chiaroscuro, The City of Dreadful Night:

The City is of Night, but not of Sleep;
There sweet sleep is not for the weary brain;
The pitiless hours like years and ages creep,
A night seems termless hell. This dreadful strain
Of thought and consciousness which never ceases,
Or which some moments’ stupor but increases

They leave all hope behind who enter there:
One certitude while sane they cannot leave,
One anodyne for torture and despair;
The certitude of Death, which no reprieve
Can put off long…

Thomson’s tone and pentameter adumbrate Davidson’s. But the latter would leap beyond this, into the hard waters of blank verse, the trans-historical nature of which he discussed in icily prophetic lines:

… the long matured spontaneous expression of a permanent mood of the world which has its crises in reformations and revolutions, and which in the twentieth century will arm itself for action more heated and more terrible than all the wars and persecutions of the past …

This apocalyptic outlook foreshadowed the Vorticists and the post-War Eliot of The Waste Land and ‘The Hollow Men’:

The world is only beginning. We have done nothing, said nothing, sung nothing. The history of past is the history of one empire at a time. Now several empires must compete together.

Like a red-plush Nostradamus, Davidson comes disturbingly close to predicting the First World War; even Hitler’s Blitzkrieg and the Holocaust. Had he survived into the Twenties, he might conceivably have flirted with Fascist ideas, as Eliot did with Thirties Falangism (before converting to a less illiberal Roman Catholicism). The umber palette of Eliot’s Thames meditation in The Waste Land’s ‘III. The Fire Sermon’ has uncanny colouristic and semiotic echoes of Davidson’s ‘The Thames Embankment’ penned thirteen years earlier:

At lowest ebb the tide on either bank
Laid bare the fat mud of the Thames, all pinched
And scalloped thick with dwarfish surges. Cranes,
Derricks and chimney-stalks of the Surrey-side,
Inverted shadows, in the motionless,
Dull, leaden mirror of the channel hung…

In such poems, Davidson prepared a new imagistic ground on which Eliot could later blossom, and overshadow him. But Eliot’s was no conscious obscuring: he openly recognised his debt to Davidson’s ‘Thirty Bob a Week’:

… 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 urban images to reveal. Davidson had a great theme, and also found an idiom which elicited the greatness of the theme, which endowed this thirty-bob-a-week clerk with a dignity… The personage that Davidson created in this poem has haunted me all my life, and the poem is to me a great poem forever.

What struck Eliot most about ‘Thirty Bob’ was Davidson’s ingenious channelling of his own vitriol born from an impoverished, rented life as a poet with responsibilities (a family) through the monologue of a distinctly un-Scottish, lower-middle-class London office clerk, radically orchestrated in a melange of Kipling-pastiche and Cockney idiom:

And it’s often very cold and very wet,
And my missus stitches towels for a hunks;
And the Pillar’d Halls is half of it to let –
Three rooms about the size of travelling trunks.

And we cough, my wife and I, to dislocate a sigh,
When the noisy little kids are in their bunks.

This infusion of earthy working-class verbiage into the traditional ballad form – itself a riposte to the hitherto bourgeois argot of English poetry – prefigures the infectiously authentic pub gossip in The Waste Land’s ‘II. A Game of Chess’; though it is doubtful Eliot was as empirical as his predecessor, according to Maurice Lindsay:

During the first half of the ‘nineties… [Davidson] had considerable sympathy with the poverty in which the working classes in London were enveloped; a poverty the Scottish counterpart of which he had been familiar with at Greenock as a boy. This sympathy led him to study their speech, and adapt it for the purposes of poetry.

Davidson’s mutation from the compassionate ‘Thirty Bob’ to the draconic Mammon is not simply one of intellect, but of soul: the self-scouring course from socialism to antisocial-ism. At one point in Davidson’s verse-play, ‘Mammon’ elicits a moral paradox from the mouth of the Socialist spokesman (Davidson shoehorning in a topical polemic on eugenic-leaning literary leftists George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells?):

Crawford. Unnatural selection:
I mean to say, by mating men and women
As horses are and cattle, poultry, dogs….
….   Then, sterilising fools,
Degenerates, weaklings, all who should not breed.

‘Mammon’ is Davidson’s Superman, planted above the prosaic morality and ‘fishy glow’ of Christianity, and its secular cousin, Socialism:

Communist, anarchist, nihilist – all these
Are wriggling maggots in the fetid corpse
Of Christendom: their sayings Jesus said –

Frustratingly, again, Davidson describes the ‘manure’ but not the ‘higher manifestation’ of his vision.

Davidson’s radical shift in philosophies may have been symptomatic of the unspecified ‘insanity’ that haunted his background (most harrowingly through his brother, whose asylum committal Davidson paid for). In personality, he metamorphosed during his lifetime from a diminutive ‘bird-like’ schoolmaster whom pupils nicknamed ‘Jenny Wren’ into a cantankerous, hubristic recluse. The suggestive aetiology is manic-depression, toxically propped on alcohol. But in spite of his solipsist tendencies, Davidson never lost his political eye, even if it altered its view, as in his tirade against democracy as ‘Mob’ rule, ‘The Testament of Sir Simon Simplex Concerning Automatism’:

And Socialism is decadence, is death:
The Mob expropriates, degrades, destroys;
The Individual conquers, makes, enjoys.

Such feudalistic Quixotry and cudgelling of compassionate politics is a far cry from earlier socio-empathic poems as ‘In the Isle of Dogs’,

Mirrored in shadowy windows draped
With ragged net or half-drawn blind

Like monitors of guilt
By strength and beauty sent,
Disgraced the shameful houses built
To furnish rent.

or his masterpiece, ‘Thirty Bob a Week’:

I ain’t blaspheming, Mr. Silver-tongue;
I’m saying things a bit beyond your art:
Of all the rummy starts you ever sprung,
Thirty bob a week’s the rummiest start!
With your science and your books and your the’ries about spooks,
Did you ever hear of looking in your heart?

Davidson’s ‘anti-Socialism’ however is a misnomer: the materialistic consumer ‘Mob’ he lambasts in ‘The Crystal Palace’ as philistine and ‘Mod’ is a distinctly capitalist breed of Yahoo; Davidson’s truck is more fundamentalist, it is with democracy itself:

Voltaire, the man who worshipped first, who made
Indeed, the only god men reverence now,
Public Opinion. There he sits alert –
A cast of Houdon’s smiling philosophe.

Oscar Wilde, in his contemporaneous dialectic The Soul of Man Under Socialism argued true individualism, the cultivation of authentic human personality, could only be achieved by throwing off the bondage of private property; capitalism permitting only individualisms dictated by the markets. Davidson’s conviction that Man was ‘the universe made conscious’ should have generated a begrudging egalitarianism. But, ironically, given his formative rebellion against his father’s dour religion, it fermented into a Calvinistic atheism: a belief in Man’s inalienable difference, the greatness of some, the worthlessness of others; Social Darwinism. Thus ‘Mammon’ is an antinomian figure, asserting his destiny through patricide and fratricide in Classical Myth style – ‘Get thee behind me, God; I follow Mammon’ he howls in self-worship. Davidson’s rampaging language and pounding tempo drive some disturbingly convincing Socratic dialectics:

Mammon. But I deny your immortality:

Think of the being you despise the most –
Some jack-in-office, parasite or pimp:
Would you have him immortal? – except in Hell?

The brilliant verbalism is sustained throughout, but the polemic gets thinner, as in this anti-Socialist rant:

Your famous Gulliver, in Laputa found
A yellow-faced projector up to the eyes
In merd, pursuing the most ancient study
…how to reduce
The excrement of men to food again:
A symbol for your socialists, who smear
The proud and wealthy world with nastiness,
Still fumbling at the emunctories of the state

(I mean its economic processes)
And churning up the stuff of the latrines
(The broken men, the skilless and unskilled,
The unemployed, the unemployable)
In quest of menstruums to decoct from dung
The sweetness of the rose…

The scatological nods to Gulliver’s Travels are not the only Swiftian features: there is too a rhetorical tone akin to the Malthusian satire A Modest Proposal … ‘Mammon’ is a ranting Anti-Christ, a Vorticist god:

… I, Mammon, mean to make
This mighty world a hundredfold itself.
There shall be deeper depths of poverty,
A more distressing toil, more warlike war,
An agony of spirit deadlier
Than that which drenched Gethsemane with blood …

This mortal god proclaims with satanic arrogance: ‘The world will yet know more essential personalities than Buddha and Christ …’ It is an anti-Christian eschatology, turning the tables of damnation on any deemed to beatify weakness and defame natural vitalities as ‘sins’. Davidson the visionary is quarried from the darker, aphorismic Blake of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. But Mammon reads like a mind gormandising on its own philosophical entropy: the more Davidson glorifies the finite vitality of Man, the more his tone betokens impending extinction. The lack of articulation of his panacea-society is the more disappointing for a writer who could ‘state facts in terms of poetry’ that left ‘scars on one’s consciousness’ (James Douglas). The frustrated abruptness of Davidson’s vision is perhaps suited to its arrested development. The figurative tirades have the unfinished promise of abandoned scaffolding. Unlike the exquisite marquetry of Eliot’s poetry, Davidson’s leaves a porous impression on the page, as if in penultimate draft; but this naïveté gives his work a jagged edginess.

Davidson was sometimes sidetracked by his own autodidactic marginalia, especially on the overlap of science and poetry (again, way ahead of his time). One example is his rumination on ‘A speculative writer’s’ assertion that the eye was ‘a degenerative organ, the malversation of some higher perceptive power’, its ‘tympanic membrane’, a ‘combination of mirror and sound-board’, implying the ‘ear was originally intended for vision as well as audition’. Davidson goes on:

… the reader of poetry knows … the optic nerve responds like a taut string to the rhymes that vibrate in the membranous labyrinth of the ear.

He then suggests that due to this aural ‘malversation’, modern man is tone-deaf to blank verse.

The later vulgarities of Davidson’s views might in part be explained by his background. He had a less auspicious start in life than his Harvard-groomed inheritor (and, indeed, the Cambridge-educated Monro): a grammar-schooled ‘son of the manse’, he slogged his way through demeaning jobs – clerk in a sugar factory, recalcitrant ‘Grub Street’ hack – before making his mark on the page. And later, his energies would be eroded again by poverty after a rapid decline in his poetic popularity; an eventual Civil List pension, swallowed in debts. This cocktail of asthma, depression and privation exacerbated his already brittle temperament. Nevertheless, it is still difficult to reconcile the compelling, idiomatic monologue of a down-at-heel London clerk in ‘Thirty Bob a Week’ – which contains some of the most powerful poverty-tropes in the English language – with the Nietzschean viscera of Mammon.

In spite of being a property-sceptic shop-proprietor, Monro’s politics resisted misanthropic corruptions: an ethical socialism combined with clipped turns-ofphrase and polemical overtones drew parallels with Orwell. This is most apparent in their shared hate-motif, the ‘aspidistra’: while Orwell subverted it as a banner in Keep the Aspidistra Flying! (1936), Monro, a decade earlier, immortalised the aspiring pot-plant in his scouring critique of suburban conformity, ‘Aspidistra Street’:

Sure, the lovely fools who made Utopia
Planned it without any aspidistra.
There will be a heaven on earth, but first
We must banish from the parlour
Plush and poker-work and paper flowers,

And the gloomy aspidistra
Glowering through the window-pane,
Meditating heavy maxims,
Moralising to the rain.

Here Monro echoes Davidsonian negativism: instead of describing his ‘Utopia’, he describes all the things it is not. But where Davidson focussed on dismantling macrocosmic obstacles, Monro hones on microcosmic symbols of consumer society ripe for the stripping, urging a pogrom on ‘Anti-macassars, vases, chiffoniers’. In ‘Bitter Sanctuary’, Monro constructs in poetry the neurotic, ‘middle-class’, interiorised society into which Eliot can later slip Prufrock effortlessly as into a doll’s house:

She lives in the porter’s room; the plush is nicotined.
Clients have left their photos there to perish …

She pokes her head out to greet new clients, or
To leave them (to what torture) waiting at the door.

Such tonal scope, phrasal polish and melodic ‘broken’ rhyme are qualities one would normally term ‘Eliotonian’:

Watch the flunkeys bring the coffee;
Watch the shepherds on the downs,
Lords and ladies at their toilet,
Farmers, merchants, frothing towns.

The poem’s episodic sequencing and sprouts of dialogue between two sots in a pub (original title, ‘The Alcoholics’) prefigure the disconnected conversation of Eliot’s ‘couple’ in The Waste Land:

O yet some face, half living, brings
Far gaze to him and croons:
He: “I’m changing into stone.”
She: “Would I were! Would I were!”

Monro and Davidson both rode on the intellectual tension-release of Darwinism, though acclimatised differently to the implications of a Godless cosmos. Davidson championed Man as the new God; then spiralled into misanthropy. Monro turned thanatophobic – ‘It is taking me nothing less than appalling time to get accustomed to the idea of no individual mortality’ – and wore away his nerves through alcohol and overwork.

Davidson’s own quota of Gaelic gloom was offset by an outward bellicosity and gusto. He sparred with W. B. Yeats, the only other firebrand among the otherwise frail, tubercular talents of the Rhymers’ Club. But Davidson’s bravado and anti-establishment chip were born from a fear of obscurity. He obviated a morbid awareness of his own limitations – ‘The fires are out… and I must hammer the cold iron’ – by lambasting the poetastery of others:

The want of poetical power is the impelling force in the case of most versifiers. They would fain be poets, and imagine that the best way is to try to write poetry and to publish what they write. … Equus asinus still believes that the possession of an organ of noise is sufficient, with a little practice, to enable him to sing like a nightingale.

But Davidson’s outspokenness wasn’t a pose. A fellow master at Kelvinside Academy once eulogised that ‘even the name he gave … was itself a statement of … stolid integrity and worth’ (‘Harold Monro’ too has an orotund solidity). Like Gissing’s Edwin Reardon in New Grub Street (1891), Davidson was temperamentally incapable of hackwork. He was every bit his own aesthete as Blake was. But unlike Blake, Davidson’s egoistic ‘credo’, rooted in science and Nietzsche, could not countenance incapacity. On 23 March 1909, Davidson drowned himself off the coast of Penzance, where he was ostensibly taking his ‘cure’. Ever prolific, he left a paper-trail of suicide notes, some in poem-form: ‘I felt the time had come to find a grave:/I knew it in my heart my days were done’ (‘The Last Journey’). A letter to his publisher included with his final manuscript itemised his motives with chilling detachment:

The time has come to make an end. …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…

There is a similar morbidity to one of Monro’s final tropes: ‘Roll up the long scroll, far too long unrolled’. An un-reconciled atheist, Monro obsessed on the inescapable prospect of – to quote Larkin in his very Monrovian ‘Aubade’ – ‘nothing to think with/Nothing to love or link with’:

I am alive – this I.
I let my fingers move along my body.
Realisation warns them, and my nerves
Prepare their rapid messages and signals.
While Memory begins recording, coding,
Repeating; all the time Imagination
Mutters: You’ll only die.

– ‘Living’

Monro’s modicum of genius is in his distillation of death-anxieties into quotidian symbolism:

When I returned at sunset,
The serving-maid was singing softly
Under the dark stairs …

– ‘Great City’

‘How far is this twilit city from “the drowsy golden Georgian dream”, and how near to the post-war mood of The Waste Land’, noted Ruth Tomalin. Monro’s oeuvre has been misperceived as ‘period’ poetry; closer examination reveals a sharply polemical and surreal mind ‘helping poetry in a new modern idiom’. Belgian-born, Scottish-sired, homosexual, alcoholic, it seemed Monro’s destiny to hop-scotch through a series of ma de grass-like society guises (including a mutually platonic second marriage). A tribute by F. S. Flint sums up his enigma:

Harold Monro was a dark Scot, and from the complication of that ultimate origin flowed … his virtues and his vices both as a man and a as a poet. …He was a living contradiction in terms, not only … as a poet and shopkeeper, but also in everything else. It is hardly possible to state one of his characteristics without immediately being reminded that in him too was its opposite. He was hard-working and lazy; … unconventional and conventional; a bohemian and a bourgeois …

These contradictions made for a mercurial oeuvre. His self-appointment at the beating heart of the metropolitan literati as owner of the country’s first Poetry Bookshop could be viewed as a convoluted attempt to ‘lose’ himself in the shadows of others’ accomplishments. But Monro’s shadowiness distinguished him: friends such as Arundel del Re were left with indelible glimpses of a shy chaperone often seen drawing aside the curtains at the back of his poetry shop with ‘stiff little soldierly bows and a slight wave of the hand’.

Given Davidson’s existentialism, his suicide could be viewed as the ultimate self-affirming act, one of the obscure variegations of suicidal ideation (see Al Alvarez’s The Savage God). Davidson opted for oblivion both literally and literarily: he curiously requested that none of his poetry be re-published until the period of copyright (seventy years) had elapsed. Maurice Lyndsay claimed this seriously hampered Davidson’s posthumous reputation, since by the time of his suicide most of his volumes had gone out of print. But it was with the later disinterring of his unfinished Fleet Street and Other Poems (1909) that more truncated snatches of Davidson’s ripening genius came to light. If Davidson had not taken the ultimate leap, at fifty-two, it is arguable he would have ended his days via the same slowacting poisons as Monro, who died two days into his fifty-third year, the day after the Ides of March. Both died in the month directly preceding Eliot’s ‘cruellest’.

Posterity is a fickle mistress: it buries some names only later to exhume them from critical neglect for later generations. It is important for today’s English poets – mindful of their partly Welsh but mainly Irish-shaped mainstream of the past forty years – not to forget the Scottish surge that pushed British poetry into hitherto uncharted waters (and beyond, through MacDiarmid, Edwin Muir, Joseph MacLeod). Davidson and Monro loom large on an Anglo-Scot map – adumbrated by the ghost of James ‘BV’ Thomson – that marked the spot for British modernism to take root. They influenced a line of major poets – Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, David Gascoyne, George Barker, Stephen Spender, Alun Lewis, and, most crucially, T. S. Eliot, who was to become both augmenter and obscurer of their own immortalities.

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