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'Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven' aspects of Social Darwinism in John Davidson's poetry.

John Davidson is one of the most controversial poets of the late Victorian and Edwardian period. A precursor of modernism, he experimented with new aesthetic forms of representation, broke with many ethical taboos of his contemporaries, and merged political, evolutionary, racist and imperialist thought. Drawing on a wide range of poems and essays taken from the different stages of Davidson's career, this article contests conventional readings of his poetry and socio-philosophical convictions as a progressive development from a liberal, socially critical to a radical, materialist, atheist position. It sets out to demonstrate that the constituent elements of Davidson's Social Darwinist view of the world and philosophy of life, which he brings to the subjects of social class and imperialism, permeates his early writing as well as his later work written under the influence of Nietzsche.

Keywords: imperialism; individualism; modernism; Nietzsche; Social Darwinism


The literary work of John Davidson (1857-1909) (1) has engendered a very mixed response, reaching from vituperative criticism to enthusiastic praise. While William Butler Yeats denigrated him as a blatant failure who had not written a single poem of lasting value, (2) others acclaimed him as 'one of the most popular and most fashionable of our younger poets', (3) or esteemed him as 'arguably the greatest Scottish poet between Burns and MacDiarmid'. (4) T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf and Hugh MacDiarmid declared him a precursor of modernist poetry,[5] and, in their wake, most literary historians have focused their attention on the innovative impetus he gave English poetry in terms of form, diction and subject matter. (6) Although critics have not accorded him the status of a 'major prophet', (7) for which he longed, nor installed him into the canon of the best English poets, it seems to be in keeping with his achievements to assess him as 'one of those minor figures who have influenced the great'. (8)

Literary scholars have varied considerably in their accentuation and evaluation of the political, philosophical and aesthetic aspects of Davidson's versatile lyrical, narrative, dramatic, and non-fictional oeuvre, which addresses all the salient political and socio-cultural issues of the day. It is common practice to divide his life into three distinct phases and discuss it as a development either from a liberal, social reformist position to a radical bourgeois individualism, (9) from an artist pure and simple to a philosophical missionary, (10) or from the loss of faith and escape from the repressive Calvinism of his Scottish family to a materialist-atheist world view. (11) Most critics work from the assumption that the turn of the twentieth century marked a decisive and radical turning-point in both Davidson's life and writing.

This linear interpretation does not do justice to his work's complexity. Although Davidson's socio-philosophical outlook was not fully developed until he had absorbed the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche and the imperialist historian J. A. Cramb, it is my contention that some important themes can be traced back from his late poems and plays through the poems of his middle period in the 1890s to his early novels and plays of the 1880s. In this article, I want to illustrate my proposition by examining Davidson's concern with Social Darwinism, which he brought to the subjects of social class and imperialism. Before proceeding any further, however, some conceptual clarification is required.

The term 'Social Darwinism' is a misnomer, for Richard Hofstadter, Robert Young and Raymond Williams have convincingly argued that the theory of evolution by natural selection must be seen in a wider intellectual and cultural framework and cannot be separated from the social, political and economic issues of the day. (12) The key notions of Social Darwinism had been formulated by Herbert Spencer in the early 1850S (13) long before Charles Darwin presented to the public his biological theory of evolution in his landmark book The Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection (1859). Spencer interprets Thomas Robert Malthus's pessimistic law of population (14) in the light of the Enlightenment and the Victorian belief in progress, applies the notions of 'the struggle for existence' and 'the survival of the fittest' to the political, economic, social and cultural spheres, and defines them as a prerequisite for the progress of civilization, ethics and humankind, as well as for creativity and productivity. In the final decades of the nineteenth century, Social Darwinism underwent a radical transformation. Evolutionary concepts fused with the new theories of race (15) then emerging in the new sciences of ethnology, anthropology and phrenology. (16) Spencer's individualist, optimistic, humanitarian version of Social Darwinism lost in importance while biological studies and theories of social evolution that highlighted the struggle for existence between collectives (social classes, races, nations) gained in significance. In the context of a widespread sense of apprehension and fear of social disintegration and cultural degeneration at the fin de si6cle, the liberal doctrine of laissez-faire was finally replaced by a political authoritarianism which insisted on the legitimation and duty of the state to take steps against imminent social, racial and cultural decline.

Rather than being a coherent, unified theory, Social Darwinism is a fragmented, contradictory concept. Having been shaped by the most diverse influences, it synthesizes Darwinian and Lamarckian theories of evolution, positivism, philosophical materialism, the doctrine of class war, social and biological determinism, racial anthropology, eugenics, the belief in progress, theories of cultural decline and other modern socio-philosophical trends to produce an inconsistent, yet influential force in political, social, philosophical and biological thought. The heterogeneous origins, the vagueness of the evolutionary terms, and the general lack of conceptual clarity enabled both individualist and collectivist political movements to integrate the principal Social Darwinist ideas into their antagonistic ideological systems and instrumentalize them as a tool for justifying their divergent social theories.


Since the 1880s, social reformers, novelists and poets had disclosed and brought to the public eye the social and material misery of the urban and industrial working classes. (17) Davidson's most pronounced contribution to this debate is the two volumes of the Fleet Street Eclogues and the often anthologized poems 'Thirty Bob a Week' (1894) and 'A Northern Suburb' (1897). Written during a period of heightened social tension, they give a vivid description of the working and living conditions of the lower classes in urban London. This criticism of the negative consequences of the industrialization, urbanization and commecialization of Victorian society is a recurring feature of his writing, as the fierce attacks on the dark sides of urban life, the exploitation and oppression of the masses, in poems such as 'Waiting' (1897), The Testament of an Empire-Builder (1902) and 'The Crystal Palace' (1908), clearly demonstrate.

Critics in favour of a conservative reading of Davidson's poetry attest to him an ambivalent or impartial stance in political questions. In support of their view they point to the antithetical, dialogicargumentative structure of the eclogues, the lack of an explicit norm by which they judge the existing conditions, and his conception of irony, which rejects all dogmas and fixed sets of values, norms and beliefs, accepts the universe with all its contradictions, and holds all experience and ways of thinking as equally valid. Davidson, who shares Blake's conviction put forward in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793) that truth and progress ensue from the tension and dynamic interrelationship between contradictory forces, succinctly summarizes his world view of the early and middle 1890s in 'A Ballad in Blank Verse' as follows: 'No creed for me! I am a man apart: / A mouthpiece for the creeds of all the world' (ll. 426-7).

Adherents of this school tend to overemphasize the distanced, ironical tone of the poems and, simultaneously, downplay or ignore Davidson's commitment which evidently succeeds in creating an awareness of social problems and evoking a moral reaction in the reader. They also fail to take into account his poetological concept as sketched in the early novel The North Wall (1885), poems like 'St George's Day' (1895), and the essay 'On Poetry' (1905), where he defines poetry as 'the affirmation of the will to live, the affirmation of the will to power'. (18) Taking sides with Ibsen, Shaw and Gissing, Davidson repudiates both Pater's and Wilde's aestheticism and Yeats's symbolism, (19) persists in the social responsibility of the artist, and demands a realistic art for life's sake which avoids the constraints of naturalism: 'Literature has indeed other functions besides voicing the misery aroused at the sight of suffering millions.' (20) Driven by his ambition to become 'Prince of the powers of the air, lord of the world/And master of the sea', (21) he regards art as a vehicle for promoting ideas and bringing about social and political change. In the epilogue to The Triumph of Mammon he calls 'the statement of the present and the creation of the future ... the very body and soul of poetry',a2 and proclaims it the concern of his Testaments and his tragedies 'to destroy this unfit world and make it over again in my own image'. (23)

To understand the significance and specific character of Davidson's social criticism it is necessary to call to mind the fact that he applies the key notions of the Social Darwinist philosophy to social classes and distinguishes two fundamentally different modes of existence. While he portrays the masses as passively suffering victims of social and economic processes and structures, he represents the social aristocratic elite as free subjects endowed with the power to fashion history and shape their own fate. His disdain for the masses places Davidson firmly in the tradition of the great Victorian social and cultural critics and writers, who, in an era of profound socioeconomic and ideological change, associated the masses with passivity and/or destructive violence. As early as the dramatic monologue 'Thirty Bob a Week', where he expresses feelings of social solidarity which are absent in his later poetry, the persona of a small clerk submits to the Social Darwinist view of the world and philosophy of life by accepting his plight as a necessary constituent of the universal process of evolution in the course of which the misfits are eliminated:
      But I don't allow it's luck and all a toss;
        There's no such thing as being starred and crossed;
      It's just the power of some to be a boss,
        And the bally power of others to be bossed:
      I face the music, sir; you bet I ain't a cur;
        Strike me lucky if I don't believe I'm lost! ...
      They say it daily up and down the land
        As easy as you take a drink, it's true;
      But the difficultest go to understand,
        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. (ll. 7-12,

In 'Piper, Play!' (1895), the masses content themselves with escapist entertainment and amusement as a way of taking their minds off their wretched, meaningless, and futile existence. It provides them for a short time with the illusion of possessing at least a certain degree of liberty:
      Work and play! work and play!
      The order of the universe! ...
      For a little we are free! (ll. 39-40, 48)

'A Northern Suburb' concludes on a dark and pessimistic tone of desperation. The de-individualized, heteronomous slum dwellers it is concerned with hardly appear as a class-conscious collective force capable of improving and transcending their situation, either individually or collectively. Having lost all hopes for a better future, they relinquish their claim to happiness and defer fatalistically to the given circumstances:
      For here dwell those who must fulfil
        Dull tasks in uncongenial spheres,
      Who toil through dread of coming ill,
        And not with hope of happier years -
      The lowly folk who scarcely dare
        Conceive themselves perhaps misplaced,
      Whose prize for unremitting care
        Is only not to be disgraced. (ll. 21-8)

In the years 1896 and 1897, Davidson devoted himself intensively to the study of Nietzsche, whose major works had recently begun to be translated into English. The influence of Nietzsche's philosophy on Davidson's thought is difficult to assess, and Davidson strenuously defended himself against the accusation of being a disciple or prophet of Nietzsche,(24) whom he discredits by lodging bluntly racistarguments: 'You must remember that Nietzsche, the fugleman in this business [the philosophy of the overman], was a Pole. The Poles being the Celts of Eastern Europe, an inferior race, unable to conquer and unable to be conquered, the idea of a higher type of man than they [!] is natural to them.' (25) Notwithstanding his disclaimers, Davidson was undeniably 'the first British man of letters to take serious notice of Nietzsche's thought', (26) and from Godfrida on (October 1898), all his works bear witness to the German philosopher's profound impact on his way of thinking. (27)

After reading Nietzsche, Davidson's view of the masses took on a polemical harshness unknown in his earlier work. This aggressive quality imbues 'The Man Forbid' (1898), the parable preceding the Testament of an Empire-Builder (1902), and 'The Crystal Palace' (1908), one of his latest poems written in the year before his death. In stark contrast to Constance Howell und Margaret Harkness, whose novels abound with active and militant workers, Davidson denounces the lower classes as a horde of mindless, weak-willed, featureless creatures that have descended to a merely instinctive, animal-like level of existence. For him, they are a passive mob, lacking purpose and agency: victims rather than the creators of history.
      For this is Mob, unhappy locust-swarm,
      Instinctive, apathetic, ravenous.
      Beyond a doubt a most unhappy crowd!
      Some scores of thousands searching up and down
      The north nave and the south nave hungrily
      For space to sit and rest to eat and drink:
      Or captives in a labyrinth, or herds
      Imprisoned in a vast arena; here
      A moment clustered; there entangled; now
      In reaches sped and now in whirlpools spun
      With noises like the wind and like the sea,
      But silent vocally; they hate to speak:
      Crowd; Mob; a blur of faces featureless,
      Of forms inane; a stranded shoal of folk. (ll. 132-45)

Nevertheless, Benjamin Townsend's conclusion that Davidson 'offers stoic resolution in place of social revolution' (28) can claim but partial validity and needs to be modified. From his scepticism about the masses it cannot be inferred that Davidson has surrendered to the status quo and fails to envisage any alternative perspectives. The individual life experiences and destinies he depicts in his poems take on a universal dimension, but he differs from the socialist revolutionary poets Francis Adams and William Morris in that his belief in progress is not tied to the collective existence and potential power of the working class as a social force. 'Waiting' (1897) holds a key position in this respect. The poem illustrates how the strong individual who has proved his fitness in the struggle for survival becomes the paragon of further social development. In the first two verses, which are distinctly reminiscent of William Morris's Chants for Socialists (1885), Davidson focuses exclusively on the social and economic conditions of the workers, situating them in the context of changeable socio-economic power structures. Then the poem changes direction, and the second half suggests an elitist, individualist solution to the social ills:
      Come down from where you sit;
        We look to you for aid.
      Take us from the miry pit,
        And lead us undismayed:
      Say, 'Even you, outcast, unfit,
        Forward with sword and spade!'
          And myriads of us idle
           Would thank you through our tears,
      Though you drove us with a bridle,
           And a whip about our ears!

      From cloudy cape to cape
        The teeming waters seethe;
      Golden grain and purple grape
        The regions overwreathe.
      Will no one help us to escape?
        We scarce have room to breathe.
           You might try to understand us:
             We are waiting night and day
           For a captain to command us,
             And the word we must obey. (ll. 21-40)

It is no longer the collective 'we' that is addressed as the subject and agency of change, but all hopes are directed towards a new aristocratic elite, who are expected to free the masses from their social misery and enable them to lead a meaningful life. In 'A Ballad of a Workman' (1896), Davidson takes a close look at the history of mankind in order to show that any attempt at changing man and society will encounter serious impediments. Although he does not be little environmental determinism, he firmly trusts in the ability of humans to act as conscious beings with purpose and agency, the possession of which allows them to design ways of breaking with the constraints of all kinds of conventions and improving material reality: (29)
      No longer hope appeared a crime:
        He sang; his very heart and flesh
      Aspired to join the ends of time,
        And forge and mould the world afresh. (ll.41-4)

Davidson's belief in the freedom of the will has significant affinities with Alfred Wallace and Thomas Henry Huxley's emphasis on the conscious act of human will rather than on natural selection as the paramount factor of evolution. In 'God and Sin', (30) he opposes all tendencies to make natural processes into a new religious dogma. His speakers take up Schopenhauer's idea of suffering as essential to all life and Nietzsche's amor fati, and, at the same time, transcend these pessimistic, deterministic conceptions by interpreting evolution in an optimistic, voluntaristic way, just as Spencer had done following Lamarck.
      And it's this way that I make it out to be:
        No fathers, mothers, countries, climates--none;
      No Adam was responsible for me,
        Nor society, nor systems, nary one:
      A little sleeping seed, I woke--I did, indeed--
        A million years before the blooming sun. (31)

In Davidson's view the individual willpower manifests itself as will to happiness, will to live and will to know, and in the most extreme case as suicide, which he glorifies as a 'final triumph of individualism over circumstances, a final act of heroic defiance'. (32)

Davidson's subjectivist doctrine of the primacy of the will and his comprehension of creative evolution as a process that finally accomplishes man's aspirations to reason, consciousness and power echo the life force philosophy George Bernard Shaw first sketched in Man and Superman (1905) and then systematically elaborated in Back to Methuselah (1921). It has come a long way from Schopenhauer, who identifies the ceaseless, blind and passionately striving will as the thing-in-itself, the key to the understanding of all things, and the source of endless human suffering. In his influential principal work The World as Will and Idea (1818, 2nd edn 1844), Schopenhauer regards will as metaphysically fundamental, yet ethically evil, and maintains that the individual can assert his freedom only by denying the life impulse. Taking issue with this pessimistic voluntarism, Davidson conceives the will as a positive force that has ethical as well as metaphysical primacy and puts man in a position to assert his individuality, realize his potential and determine his own life. An often-quoted passage in 'A Ballad in Blank Verse' (1894) contains the essence of this apotheosis of the will and the creed of the power of the ego which, as opposed to Nietzsche's egoistic, ruthless superman Zarathustra, does not aim a priori at the domination of others:
      Henceforth I shall be God; for consciousness
      Is God: I suffer; I am God: this Sell
      That all the universe combines to quell,
      Is greater than the universe; and I
      Am that I am. To think and not be God? -
      It cannot be. (ll. 226-31) (33)

The classical exposition of this heroic vitalism is to be found in Carlyle's On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841); thereafter, it became a major leitmotif in Victorian literature and an integral part of Victorian mentality. (34) In Davidson's work, its first traces can be noticed in the plays Bruce (1886) and Smith (1888) and in the novel Perfervid: The Career of Ninian Jamieson (1890). In 'Thirty Bob a Week' (1894), it shows itself in the Lamarckian admiration of individuals who defy their fate, accept responsibility for their past and present, and believe in their agency. Sandy, one of the four speakers in the eclogue 'Lammas' (1896), is the archetypal embodiment of this pre-Nietzschean cult of the hero:
      Escape! I know the manner! Live at speed;
      And call your least caprice the law of God;
      Disdain the shows of things, and every love
      Whose stamen is not hate; self-centred stand;
      Accept no second thought; in every throb
      Your heart gives, every murmur of your mind,
      Listen devoutly to the trump of doom.
      You are your birthright; let it serve you well:
      Be your own star, for strength is from within,
      And one against the world will always win! (ii. 358-67)

The messianic fervour and optimistic vision of salvation at the end of 'Waiting' (1897) represents the next stage of this effusive glorification of power and aristocratic individualism, which is apparently informed by Nietzsche's philosophy of the superman:
      Will no one help us to escape?
        We scarce have room to breathe.
      You might try to understand us:
        We are waiting night and day
      For a captain to command us,
        And the word we must obey. (ll. 35-40)

Nietzsche's influence on Davidson becomes even stronger in poems (35) and plays (36) written at the turn of the twentieth century, before it finally reaches its climax in the six Testaments (38) and in the two Mammon plays, The Triumph of Mammon (1907) and Mammon and his Message (1908), in which 'the hero as materialist'[38] crushes with the utmost brutality the last remnants of Christian civilization and morality. He is the incarnate will to power: ruthless, cunning, cruel, egoistic.

Rather than indulging in a life of contemplation Davidson's vitalist-materialist heroes exalt the naked deed. They possess aristocratic qualities, such as impulse towards power, strength of will and courage, and with Blake's protagonists they have in common a distinct anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism. To realize their full potential, they must sever their dependence on reason and the intellect and, in true Carlylean style, be guided by their intuitions and emotions.[39] Like Nietzsche's superman, Davidson's strong, powerful, zestful, energetic individual casts off all established values, restraints, rules and codes of behaviour imposed by modern civilization and bourgeois society. The spirit of revolt against conventions and the enhancement of the will to power bring supreme enjoyment. Adopting Urban's motto: 'Power is my chosen bride!',[40] he imposes his will upon the world, creates his own values and morality based on human instincts, drive and will, proclaims the right of the strong to rule, despises and sacrifices the weak and mediocre who bow without resistance to hostile surroundings, impede the improvement of the genetic stock of the human race, and therefore deserve to perish.

This anti-Christian ethic is in full accord with the anti-interventionist social and ethical philosophy of Herbert Spencer and the leading representatives of the Eugenics Society, Francis Galton and Charles Pearson. Like these advocates of unmitigated laissez-faire social policies, Davidson rejects all plans or schemes for social improvement and reforms as inevitably futile and weakening the evolutionary process:
  we beg you to note that your Old Age Pension is your heaviest handicap
  in the competition for power and wealth. In the failures and defeats
  of life, which none escape, even the gallantest among you will be
  tempted to give in: will, sometimes give in, now that dens of
  starvation or the horror of the poorhouse no longer await poverty at
  the journey's end. We question very much if it would not be more
  humane, as it would certainly be greater, to inflict a dire penalty
  on failure instead of awarding it a pension. (41)

In this cult of strength, all truths, moral and ethical standards, transcendent values and beliefs have lost their vitality and validity. Davidson shares Nietzsche's disdain for Christianity, which with all its restrictions and conformist demands smothers the human impulse to life and blocks the free and spontaneous exercise of human instinct and will. Christian morality based on concepts like sin and conscience and on values and ideals such as brotherly love, humility, and compassion, must be obliterated because it is fit only for the weak and the slave. The new man dares to be himself. His will to power means that he has gone beyond the traditional, Christian ideals of good and evil. Davidson's visionary poem The Testament of an Empire-Builder (1902) with its ironic-sarcastic inversion of heaven and hell (ll. 466-685) has obviously been affected by the revaluation of all values which Nietzsche delineates in The Genealogy of Morals (1887) and Davidson already deals with in 'A Ballad of the Exodus from Houndsditch' (1894). Standing on the verge of heaven, the empire-builder looks upon the dwellers of the heavenly paradise whom he associates with all the virtues of Nietzsche's master morality (courage, strength, power, wealth, pride). They include members of the economic, political, social, and clerical elite, 'the great who triumphed easily,/In thought and glance, in word and deed supreme' (ll. 477-8), but also 'those who fought the conquerors/ And would not yield at all' (11. 508-9). In short:
      all who challenged fate and staked their lives
      To win or lose the prize they coveted,
      Who took their stand upon the earth and drew
      Deep virtue from the centre, helped themselves,
      Desired the world and willed what Matter would. (ll. 535-40)

In contrast, hell is the abode of all those who, according to conventional ideas, the reader would expect to reside in heaven. To use Nietzsche and Davidson's words, they have internalized the life-negating slave morality and acquiesced in their marginalization, suppression and exploitation:
      Materials of Hell? The altruists;
      Agnostics; dreamers; idiots, cripples, dwarfs;
      All kinds of cowards who eluded fact;
      Dwellers in legend, burrowers in myth;
      The merciful, the meek and mild, the poor
      In spirit; Christians who in very deed
      Were Christians; pessimistic celibates;
      The feeble minds; the souls called beautiful;
      The slaves, the labourers, the mendicants;
      Survivors of defeat; the little clans
      That posed and fussed in ignominy left
      By apathetic powers; the greater part
      Of all the swarthy all the tawny tribes;
      Degenerates; the desultory folk
      In pleasure, art, vocation, commerce, craft;
      And all deniers of the will to live,
      And all who shunned the strife for wealth and power:
      For every soul that had been damned on earth
      Was damned in Hell - set there, replete with pangs,
      To watch eternally the infinite
      Delight of Heaven, extorted from himself
      And those beside him in the rampire built.
      Eternal justice, it was good to see
      Dives in Heaven and Lazarus in Hell
      Maugre two thousand years of Christendom! (ll. 658-82)

Given this view of the masses and the social aristocratic interpretation of evolutionary theory, it is not surprising that Davidson, under the influence of Nietzsche's aphoristic work Beyond Good and Evil (1886), condemns Christian theology and ethics, democracy and socialism alike for causing the general decadence and degeneration of mankind. Following Thomas Hobbes, for whom human beings possess an inner essence which he defines as pure egoism, he staunchly rejects their common anthropological assumption of a benevolent and altruistic nature of man. This is contradictory to Spencer's ethical premises. Firmly entrenched in the Enlightenment tradition of liberal individualism represented by John Locke, David Hume and Adam Smith, Spencer judges self-interest and personal striving for happiness positively, but, drawing on the organicist tradition of social theory, ascribes to man social leanings. Spencer concurs with John Stuart Mill in that he comprehends egoism and altruism as antagonistic, mutually controlling and limiting principles, which ideally should be held in a balance since he believed the predominance of one or the other to have destructive effects. Spencer modifies this contention in so far as he expects the reconciliation of the two tendencies to take place in the future, when evolution has reached a higher stage of development in which the 'pursuit of the altruistic pleasure has become a higher order of egoistic pleasure'.42 Davidson's aristocratic, individualist speaker in 'The Testament of Sir Simon Simplex Concerning Automobilism' (1908) protests against the collectivist demands on the individual symbolized by the railway as the harbinger of mass society, and enthusiastically hails the newly invented automobile as signifying the rebirth of individualism and re-establishing a link between the present and the glorious past:
      Class, mass and mob for fifty years and more
      Had all to travel in the jangling roar
      Of railways, the nomadic caravan
      That stifled individual mind in man,
      Till automobilism rose at last!
      Now with the splendid periods of the past
      Our youthful century is proudly linked;
      And things that Socialism supposed extinct,
      Degree, nobility and noble strife,
      A form, a style, a privacy in life
      Will reappear; and, crowning nature's plan,
      The individual and the gentleman
      In England reassume his lawful place
      And vindicate the greatness of the race. (ll. 213-26)

In Spencer's anti-collectivist thrust lie points of contact between Nietzsche and Davidson. Both criticize the Christian and socialisthumanitarian ethic for their endeavour to improve the lot of mankind by fashioning a society based on the notions of universal brotherhood and universal sympathy and on the abstract principles of human happiness and the absence of suffering. For them, the man who is truly free defines his existence according to his own needs and not those needs or standards that have been culturally created by society. By rejecting the cult of woe and creating new values, man can assert his individuality and freedom, become his own master, and be true to himself rather than to another. Man can overcome uniformity and mediocrity, socialism, democracy, trade unionism, and all the other ills inherent to modern industrial society. Like the ultraconservative W. H. Mallock in Aristocracy and Evolution (1898), Davidson insists emphatically on the inequality of man as genetically and psychologically conditioned and inevitably entailing political and social inequality: 'Men are not equal ... Political equality's as vain as personal' (ll. 191, 196).

As the epilogue to Mammon and his Message makes unequivocally clear, Davidson does not think that social revolutionary movements will give a positive impetus to evolution:
   It is not revolution I propose: revolution is nothing. We have had
   revolution again and again: it is chronic in Europe--a readjustment
   of rich and poor, an uneasy turning over of a part of Christendom
   without actual change. Were Socialism a realized ideal tomorrow
   there  would be no actual change ... Socialism, like Christianity,
   proceeds upon the assumption that men are not what they are ...
   Socialism would lay hands upon the earth and its products, upon
   man and his labour, not heroically, in arms by superior craft and
   intellect ... but unheroically, by means of representative government
   (which is no government), by universal suffrage, bargains with the
   mob, and the prate of parliamentarians. (43)

The whole extent of Davidson's radicalism can be gauged from his opposition to the introduction of universal suffrage. Disagreeing with political and feminist reform movements, he combats it as the dominion of inferior man and as an atavistic regression into earlier stages of evolution and civilization: (44)
      I would place
      The franchise on a principle of race,
      And give the Saxon's forward reach a felt
      Prepotence o'er the backward-glancing Celt;
      And if his chauffeur counts as one, why then
      Sir Simon Simplex should be reckoned ten.
      I call Democracy archaic, just
      As manhood suffrage is atavic lust
      For folkmotes of the prime, whose analogue
      In travel was the train, a passing vogue; (45)

In the 'Dedication to The Testament of John Davidson', he comments on the crisis of the English social and political system, which crystallized around three centres of conflict: (1) the radicalization of the trade unions and the rise of the Labour Party shook the hierarchical structures of the class system; (2) the militant suffragettes issued a challenge to the patriarchal system; and (3) the Irish nationalists threatened national unity at the height of jingoistic imperialism. In this situation of disintegration and degeneration, which was exacerbated by the threat of an imminent war, (45) Davidson appealed to the ruling elite to resist the democratic tendencies of the age, prevent mediocre people from making themselves masters, and uphold the hierarchic power structures and unequal property relations in order to keep the lower classes in their place. Symptomatic of a wider social discourse is the close connection between race, class and gender. However, this is not surprising in view of the fact that it was quite common to enlist the same arguments in order to justify the oppression of the colonies, the Irish, the workers and women. In this context, it is worth noting that writers often employed the notion 'white savages at home' to disparage the supposedly irrational, immature Irish and the working class, and disputed that they had the capacity and right to govern themselves, calling for strong leadership by a white, patriarchal elite. Anthropological research readily provided ample evidence to back up assumptions about the subordinate position of blacks and Irish in the racial hierarchy and the inferior social status of women as biologically determined and therefore unchangeable.


The fusion of political, evolutionary and racist thought characterized not only the social and political, but also the imperialist discourse. Historians, politicians and journalists merged Spencer's theses with nationalist dreams and militarist slogans. (47) They considered rivalries in world politics, conquests and wars, the rise and fall of nations and empires, even the whole historical process as a manifestation of the struggle between superior and inferior races, in which the white races proved to be the fittest and strongest. In the competition for shares of the market, resources of raw materials and spheres of influence, the right of the mighty to dominate, suppress and exploit the weak was proclaimed to be a natural law. Urban pointedly reduces the Social Darwinist message in Davidson's tragicomedy Self's the Man (1901) to this formula:
      My lords, it is with nations as with men:
      One must be first. We are the mightiest,
      The heirs of Rome; and with the power there lies
      A ruthless obligation on our souls
      To be despotic for the world's behoof.
      Ruthless, I say; because the destinies
      Admit no compromise: we must be first,
      Though everlasting war cement each course
      Of empire with our blood; or cease to be,
      Our very name and language in dispute. (p. 136)

'St George's Day' (1895) is Davidson's first treatment of the theme of empire-building, which was to become a major preoccupation in his later work. His imperial world view draws its main inspiration from Sir Charles Dilke, John Seeley, James Anthony Froude, Hugh E. Egerton and J. A. Cramb, who gave imperialism a certain academic respectability and regarded the British empire as the culmination of world history. With reference to England's national character and historical achievements, Davidson's speakers, Basil, Herbert and Percy, build on Carlyle and Fichte's philosophy of 'might equals right' and ideas formulated by John Ruskin in 'The Future of England' (1869). They expound a self-confident jingoistic programme of expansion, and declare it England's duty, mission and destiny to establish a global empire. (48)

In 'St George's Day' (1895), in the 'Ode on the Coronation of Edward VII., of Britain and of Greater Britain, King' (1902), and in his last poem and 'Imperial Anthem', (49) the 'Song for the Twenty-Fourth of May' (1909), Davidson stays within the confines of the conventional imperialist ethos, which obscures economic, political and strategic motives of expansionist policies while foregrounding humanitarian, civilizing and missionary reasons:
      We crown our King, we crown our sovereign race,
      And garner now the harvest of our blood
      Broadcast in battle for a thousand years,
      The seed, the token, the courageous price
      Of Liberty and Justice for the World -
      Our blood that with imperial purple dyes
      The quartered globe, that stains and turns to wine
      The shadowy depths of ocean's jewelled cup,
      Making a sacrament of all the earth. (50)

The basic trend of these three poems that were written on the occasion of official commemoration days contradicts the message conveyed in The Testament of an Empire-Builder. They should, however, not be mistaken as proof of Davidson's anti-imperialistic attitude. In two letters addressed to Grant Richards and dated 15 and 17 January 1902, he concedes that the 'Ode' was commissioned by the Daily Chronicle and that he seized the opportunity to clear himself of the charge of being a Nietzschean. Moreover, he excuses his use of flat imperialist slogans as due to the uneducated readership that could not be confronted with profound reasonings. Having rejected the offer to write a regular column for the paper, he comments in an undated letter to his publisher:
  I could not keep up a series of poems the matter of which would
  I am consumed with a desire to state the evil of the world as well as
  the good, and I should want a free hand. The Chronicle is not
  adventurous enough, its basis and appeal are entirely bourgeois, so
  much so that I was astonished at the welcome given my Ode, the full
  meaning of which is not on the surface, as you would see--but say
  nothing about. (51)

The observant reader cannot fail to recognize that Davidson ironically distances himself from common cliches and notions, which Rudyard Kipling vividly transfigures in his cycle A Song of the English (1893) and in 'The White Man's Burden' (1899), and eschews any hint at the religious or missionary impulse of imperialism. It is also worth noting that the autobiographical persona Menzies introduces a critical tone by pointing to the function of imperialism as an ideology of integration and class conciliation. (52) In an era of national decline and social disruption, the idea of a homogeneous nation and race served as a stratagem to distract attention from social, political and regional conflicts within Britain, unite the population behind the imperial mission by creating a national purpose with a high moral content, buttress existing power structures, and convey to the isolated, atomized individual a sense of sharing a common destiny and being part of a mythologized collective. As the reiterated line 'There is no England now' (pp. 101-53) indicates, Menzies responds with great scepticism to this construction and conjuring-up of a nation possessing a unified identity.

The poems and plays written under the impression of the crisis in the eastern Mediterranean and the Boer War can be read as a powerful expression of Davidson's unadulterated imperialist views; in them, he makes no effort whatsoever to come up to the readers' expectations. He scorns and ridicules the sentimentalizing and idealizing tendencies he notices in the works of imperialist writers like Alfred Austin, William Watson, Henry Newbolt, and Rudyard Kipling as well as in the historian Cramb's Reflections on the Origins and Destiny of Imperial Britain (1900)--a book he elsewhere incidentally praises as 'the ablest, freshest, most imaginative and therefore most intelligent statement of British Imperialism, and a revelation of the development and future of that idea only possible to a man of genius'. (53) Borne on a wave of militaristic chauvinism, he reverts to Social Darwinist and racist rationalizations of imperialism, the like of which can be traced to John Seeley's description of it as 'a natural growth, a mere normal extension of the British race into other lands'. (54)

In an article published in The Academy (55) and in his introduction to The Theatrocrat, Davidson connects his theory of race with a materialist view of the world, questions the validity of monogenetic theories of the origin of humankind, and concludes 'that Matter has not evolved a finer race of men than the Caucasian; and it is certain that the Caucasian has not evolved a finer breed than the Greeks, the Romans or the English'. (56) In the 'Dedication to The Testament of John Davidson' he develops this idea of the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race further, and has the presumption to make the following excessive claim: 'The Englishman is the Overman: and the history of England is the history of his evolution.' (57) Despite Davidson's statements to the contrary, this passage clearly echoes Nietzsche's overman, and it also recalls Cecil Rhodes, for whom the Anglo-Saxons are 'the greatest governing race the world has ever seen ... the predominant force of future history and universal civilization'. (58) Other races, peoples and nations are scorned and relegated to Davidson's hell, the natural place for losers of all kinds. Their political incompetence and inability to govern and assert themselves in the struggle for survival makes their military subjection and economic exploitation an evolutionary imperative.

Davidson complements the racist-chauvinist dimension of the imperialist world view which Lord Rosebery pinpoints in his dictum 'What is Empire but the predominance of race?' (59) with a heroicvitalist, individualist component. Militarist ideology and activities gained wide acceptance in late nineteenth-century English society. The army rose in the public's esteem, military sentiments and rhetoric spread into civilian life, a militarist ethos extended deeply into all socio-cultural spheres, and came to infuse and be propagated by the educational system, youth movements, churches and missionary societies, as well as all forms of public entertainment, literature, the arts, the press and the popular media. Hand in hand with this militarization of society went the cult of the Christian soldier. Colonial military heroes, such as Robert Clive (1725-74), Charles Gordon (1833-85), Frederick Lugard (1858-1945) and Sir Henry Havelock (1795-1857), were worshipped as the prime examples of the English master race.

Simultaneously, Social Darwinism supplied arguments to justify imperialist wars. Whereas the non-imperialistic Herbert Spencer was convinced that the ongoing process of civilization and the increasing international dominance of the industrialized countries would lead to a decline in military conflicts and violent forms of the struggle for existence, his followers justified war as an instrument of natural selection, a perpetual law of nature, an unchangeable anthropological trait and a godly trial of the nation, in which the greater competitiveness and superior morals of the strong and the fit finally prevail. Literary apologists of imperialism, such as Francis Thompson, W. H. Henley, Alfred Tennyson, Alfred Austin and Algernon Charles Swinburne, exalted war to a source of personal and national regeneration, saw it as a purifying moral force and an opportunity to develop to the full man's noblest heroic instincts in the struggle between men, nations and races, and welcomed it as the most intensive experience of life and a means of self-realization of the individual soldier whose courage and self-negating dedication to his duty in the service of higher ideals reaches its apotheosis in an aestheticized and sacrificial death. In his Reflections on the Origins and Destiny of Imperial Britain, Cramb bestows on war a sacral aura, comparing the battlefield with an altar, and depicting war, as Helmuth von Moltke had done, as an element of the godly order, a manifestation of the world spirit, and a blessing upon mankind. In Henley's 'The Song of the Sword' (1890), a hymn to struggle, war and heroism, neither Carlyle's and Tennyson's idealist predetermination of imperialism nor Kipling's gospel of mission, duty and service have left any marks. Drawing on German idealism, Carlyle, Ruskin, and Charles Kingsley, Henley glorifies a pure vitalism and plain activism of the kind Arthur Conan Doyle also raises to an absolute in many ballads.

Davidson shares Henley's opinion that England owes its might to heroic individuals, to 'warriors, kings, statesmen, financiers, explorers', (60) 'doers, endurers, fighters, poets, kings'. (61) As prime historical models of 'our splendid robbers' (62) he names Warren Hastings, Robert Clive and Cecil Rhodes. They are embodied by Urban in Self's the Man with his credo, 'The empire of the world,/No less, is my ambition', (63) and by the speaker of the Testament of an Empire-Builder:
      Then, being English, one of the elect
      Above all folks, within me fate grew strong.
      The authentic mandate of imperial doom
      Silenced the drowsy lullaby of love,
      (Though now my turbid blood and nerves disused
      Complain of mystery unrevealed, and haunt
      Imagination day and night with looks -
      With beckoning looks, soft arms and fragrant breath;
      For even in Heaven each ransomed soul frequents
      A private, an inevitable Hell!)
      Undid my simple, immature design,
      And made me--What! tenfold a criminal?
      No other name for Hastings, Clive, and me!
      I broke your slothful dream of folded wings,
      Of work achieved and empire circumscribed,
      Dispelled the treacherous flatteries of peace,
      And thrust upon you in your dull despite
      The one thing needful, half a continent
      Of habitable land! The English Hell
      For ever crowds upon the English Heaven.
      Secure your birthright; set the world at naught;
      Confront your fate; regard the naked deed;
      Enlarge your Hell; preserve it in repair;
      Only a splendid Hell keeps Heaven fair. (ll. 702-25)

Although Davidson unduly idealizes the man of naked deed for whom action itself constitutes identity, meaning and purpose, he distances himself from the jingoistic enthusiasm for war and from the conventional image of heroism as propagated by the public school code. (64) Kipling emphasizes the effort and self-sacrifice his zealous, responsible, hard-working, altruistic men take upon themselves in order to confer on less fortunate nations the benefits of civilization and the Pax Britannica without having any hope of material compensation, gratitude, or lasting success. In contrast, Davidson exposes as romanticizing illusions all attempts to pass colonial rule off as an act of mercy of civilization or a kind of permanent humanitarian intervention, aimed at granting the colonies democracy, liberty, justice, happiness, wealth, security and technological and infrastructural achievements. Challenging the argument that the British ran the empire not for their own benefit but for the benefit of those they ruled, he also takes issue with Lord Curzon over the notion of the empire as 'the call to duty and the means of service to mankind', (65) contests Ruskin's belief that imperialism can offer an alternative to materialism, and reveals both (secular) civilizing and (religious) missionary claims as ideological ploys that serve to cover up political and strategic interests as well as the desire for economic and financial enrichment. (66)
      Get gold, get Gold; and be the Golden Age!
      So signals Matter from the ends of the earth
      Where'er her chosen people pitch their tents.
      Religion, chivalry, crusade, romance,
      Or war for war's own sake, or art for art,
      Freedom for Man, and Justice for the World
      Are not; or are contained in this--Get Gold!
      One nation must be richer than the rest:
      Let it be ours! it must, it will be ours. (67)

The assessment of war is another area where Davidson leaves the general consensus and advances an astonishingly differentiated reasoning. On the one hand, he shares the Hobbesian pessimistic view of human nature, considers war as endemic to civilization and a necessary evil in evolutionary history, and agrees with Cramb in defining it as 'a phase in the life-effort of the State towards complete self-fulfilment': (68)
      Let Socialists deny, mistaking peace,
      That only with the world will warfare cease;
      When we behold the battle-flags unfurled
      We know the fates phlebotomise the world,
      And alternate with peace's patent pill,
      The old heroic cure for every ill. (69)

On the other hand, Davidson unmasks the political and economic motives of the ruling class, and refutes traditional ways of rationalizing military conflicts. In several poems that parody Kipling's style he derides the assessment of war as a civilizing, humanitarian force:
      Because, although red blood may flow,
      And ocean shake with shot,
      Not England's sword but England's Word
      Undoes the Gordian Knot.
      Bold tongue, stout heart, strong hand, brave brow
      The world's four quarters win;
      And patiently with axe and plough
      We bring the deserts in. (70)

Detesting the sentimental, romantic extolment of warlike activities so often found in literature and official propaganda, he paints a grimly realistic picture of war which in 'Wordsworth's Immorality and Mine' he characterizes as 'empowered immorality'. (71) In his 'War-Song', arguably his most famous poem on the theme of war, he depicts vividly the brutality, misery, destruction and decay of human values that are the inevitable concomitants of the endless cycle of the war machine:
      In many a mountain-pass,
        Or meadow green and fresh,
      Mass shall encounter mass
        Of shuddering human flesh;
      Opposing ordnance roar
        Across the swaths of slain,
      And blood in torrents pour
        In vain--always in vain,
        For war breeds war again! (ll. 57-65)

Finally, Davidson satirically contrasts the ideological justification and moral-ethical claims of the ruling class with the actual behaviour of ordinary soldiers who visibly contravene the soldierly ethos drawn up by Kipling. While the poet laureate of imperialism, particularly in his Barrack-Room Ballads (1892), celebrates the common soldier, intending to evoke positive associations and sympathy in the reader, Davidson focuses on negative aspects and portrays the army as a mindless, apathetic, brutalized, dehumanized horde of murderers who spinelessly submit to their superior ranks.


The radicalization of his social and political philosophy made John Davidson one of the most controversial poets of the late Victorian and Edwardian period. His whole work is imbued with a strong socio-critical impetus, but as Carlyle demonstrated before him, the indictment of social ills, bourgeois democracy and capitalism is not tantamount to progressive politics, but reconcilable with a reactionary and authoritarian stance as well as an aristocratic, elitist vision of the free development of the individual favoured by evolution. Davidson attacked the conventional opinions of his day because they served as barriers to a fuller and richer human experience. He merged racist and imperialist ideas, hated parliamentary government, liberals, conservatives, communists and socialists, mocked bourgeois idealism, did not share in the vision of progress characteristic of the Western intellectual tradition, and condemned Christian morality and theology. This alone, however, cannot sufficiently account for the hostility he encountered among critics, readers and publishers, for he was not the only writer of high renown to break with Victorian taboos and develop new aesthetic forms of representation. What distinguished him was that he followed the implications of the ruling ideology, values and norms through to their logical conclusions, pointedly highlighted their consequences, and exposed all ideological attempts to veil political and material interests.

Twentieth-century European history has irrefutably discredited both Davidson's hero and power worship and his racist-imperialist attitude. Thomas Hardy's and Thomas Henry Huxley's claim in Evolution and Ethics (1893) that those who survive in the struggle for existence need not be the best in an ethical sense proved to be only too well founded during this time. Despite two world wars, the central tenets of Social Darwinism have not been ruled out as the basis of a social ethic. While openly racist patterns of thought are nowadays mainly confined to discourses in socio-biology and extreme right-wing movements, the concepts of the 'struggle for existence' and 'the survival of the fittest' have experienced a notable revival, due to the almost universal acceptance of neo-liberal economic and social theories by the leading political parties in the market-driven liberal democracies of the West, and have reaffirmed the nature of Social Darwinism as an ideological instrument for strengthening the status quo and justifying interventionist policies on a global scale.

RAIMUND SCHAFFNER (*) Universitat Heidelberg

(*) Address for correspondence: Anglistisches Seminar, Universitat Heidelberg,

Kettengasse 12, 69117 Heidelberg, Germany;



(1.) The quotation in the title is taken from John Davidson, 'On Poetry', in Andrew Turnbull (ed.), The Poems of John Davidson (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1973), II, p. 533. All poems and the essays 'On Poetry' and 'A dedication to The Testament of John Davidson' are cited from this standard edition of Davidson's poetical works.

(2.) See William Butler Yeats, Autobiographies (London: Macmillan, 1955).

(3.) Jane T. Stoddart, 'An interview with Mr John Davidson', Bookman, 1 (February 1895), p. 87.

(4.) Tom Hubbard, 'John Davidson's Glasgow', Scottish Review (November 1983), p. 13.

(5.) See T. S. Eliot, 'Preface', in Maurice Lindsay (ed.), John Davidson. A Selection of his Poems (London: Hutchinson, 1961). Virginia Woolf, 'John Davidson', The Times Literary Supplement (16 August 1917), p. 390. Hugh MacDiarmid, 'John Davidson: influences and influence', in Lindsay, John Davidson, pp. 47-54.

(6.) For Davidson's reception, see Mary O'Connor, John Davidson (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1987), pp. 136-42.

(7.) Carroll Peterson, John Davidson (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972), p. 143.

(8.) O'Connor, John Davidson, p. 139.

(9.) See Andrea Kinsky-Ehritt, 'Zur Gesellschaftskritik im poetischen Werk von John Davidson (1857-1909)' (dissertation Potsdam, 1986).

(10.) See Holbrook Jackson, The Eighteen Nineties: A Review of Art and Ideas at the Close of the Nineteenth Century (Hassocks: Harvester Press, 1976).

(11.) See Peterson, John Davidson. The most important biographical studies on Davidson are R. D. MacLeod, John Davidson: A Study in Personality (Glasgow: W. & R. Holmes, 1957). J. Benjamin Townsend, John Davidson: Poet of Armageddon (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961). Andrew Turnbull, 'Introduction', in Turnbull (ed.), The Poems of John Davidson, pp. xiii-xxxiv. John Sloan, John Davidson, First of the Moderns: A Literary Biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).

(12.) See Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955). Robert Young, 'Malthus and the evolutionists. The common context of biological and social theory', Past and Present, 43 (1969), 109-45. Robert Young, 'Darwinism Is Social', in David Kohn (ed.), The Darwinian Heritage (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), pp. 609-38. Raymond Williams, 'Social Darwinism', in Problems in Materialism and Culture: Selected Essays (London: Verso, 1980), pp. 86-102. For a first orientation on the debate about the question of whether Darwin's theory contains a sociophilosophical dimension and whether he judges cooperation to be an important factor in the evolutionary process, see James Allen Rogers, 'Darwinism and Social Darwinism', Journal of the History of Ideas, 33 (1972), pp. 265-80. Paul Crook, 'Social Darwinism: the concept', History of European Ideas, 22 (1996), pp. 261-74. On Social Darwinism, see also Hannsjoachim Koch, Der Sozialdarwinismus: Seine Genese und sein Einfluss auf das imperialistische Denken (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1973). Greta Jones, Social Darwinism and English Thought: The Interaction between Biological and Social Theory (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1980). Markus Vogt, Sozialdarwinismus: Wissenschaftstheorie, politische und theologisch-ethische Aspekte der Evolutionstheorie (Freiburg: Herder, 1997).

(13.) See Spencer's first principal study, Social Statics (1850), and his essay 'A Theory of Population, Deduced from the General Law of Animal Fertility', Westminster Review, 57 (1852), pp. 468-501.

(14.) See Thomas Robert Malthus, Essay on the Principle of Population as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society (1798).

(15.) See the theories of the Scottish anatomist Robert Knox as expounded in The Races of Men (1850) and Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau's racist interpretation of history in his Essai sur l'inegalite des races humaines (1853-5). The new theories on race originated in the eighteenth century. Drawing on David Hume's essay 'Of National Characters' (1742), Thomas Carlyle in his 'Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question' (1849) and Benjamin Disraeli in his novel Tancred (1847) assume a causal link between race and culture. Transferring evolutionary to cultural phenomena, they establish hierarchies of superior and inferior races, consider European civilization and the Germanic race--and within this the Anglo-Saxon race--as the culmination of the historical process, and impugn the capacity of other races to create important cultural achievements. In The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (1910; original edition: Die Grundlagen des 19. Jahrhunderts, 1899), Houston Stewart Chamberlain formulates a synthesis of race theory and Social Darwinism. He views history as a succession of struggles between different races, and gives an imperialist twist to Gobineau's thesis of the race as a historical law and the decisive factor in the development of cultures.

(16.) See Christine Bolt, Victorian Attitudes to Race (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971). Brian V. Street, The Savage in Literature: Representations of 'Primitive' Society in English Fiction 1858-1920 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975).

(17.) See Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor, 4 vols. (London, 1861). Andrew Mearns, The Bitter Cry of Outcast London (London: James Clarke & Co., 1883). George Sims, How the Poor Live (London: Chatto & Windus, 1883). George Sims, How the Poor Live and Horrible London (London: Chatto & Windus, 1889). William Booth, In Darkest England and the Way Out (London: Funk and Wagnalls, 1890). B. S. Rowntree, Poverty: A Study of Town Life (London: Macmillan, 1901). Charles Booth, Life and Labour of the People, 2 vols (London: Macmillan, 1902-3). For socio-critical novelists, see P. J. Keating, The Working Classes in Victorian Fiction (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971). For urban poetry, see G. R. Stange, 'The frightened poets', in Harold James Dyos and Michael Wolff (eds.), The Victorian City: Images and Reality (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973), II, pp. 475-94. William B. Thesing, The London Muse: Victorian Poetic Responses to the City (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1982). Ansgar Nunning, '"Subtle city of a thousand moods!" Die Vertextung Londons in der urban poetry der Nineties im Spannungsfeld zwischen Naturalismus und Asthetizismus', in Monika Fludernik and Ariane Huml (eds), Fin de Siecle (Trier: WVT, 2002), pp. 177-206.

(18.) Davidson, 'On Poetry', p. 534.

(19.) See Townsend, John Davidson, pp. 141-50.

(20.) John Davidson, A Rosary (London: Grant Richards, 1903), p. 38.

(21.) Davidson, 'A Ballad in Blank Verse', ll. 441-2.

(22.) John Davidson, The Triumph of Mammon (London: Grant Richards, 1907), p. 151.

(23.) Ibid., p. 152.

(24.) See Francis Thompson, 'A Poetic Disciple of Nietzsche', Daily Chronicle (22 May 1902), p. 3. Francis Thompson, 'A Prophet of Nietzsche', Academy, 61 (7 June 1902), p. 572. Granville Hicks, Figures of Transition: A Study of British Literature at the End of the Nineteenth Century (London: Macmillan, 1939), p. 248.

(25.) Davidson, 'Dedication', p. 541.

(26.) John A. Lester, 'Friedrich Nietzsche and John Davidson: a study in influence', Journal of the History of Ideas, 18 (1957), p. 411.

(27.) For Nietzsche's influence on Davidson, see Gertrud von Petzold, John Davidson und sein geistiges Werden unter dem Einfluss Nietzsches (Leipzig: Bernard Tauchnitz, 1928). Lester, 'Friedrich Nietzsche and John Davidson'. Townsend, John Davidson, pp. 475-82. David S. Thatcher, Nietzsche in England 1890-1914: The Growth of a Reputation (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970). Patrick Bridgwater, Nietzsche in Anglosaxony: A Study of Nietzsche's Impact on English and American Literature (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1972). It should, however, not be forgotten that Davidson, like G. B. Shaw, did not embrace Nietzsche's philosophy as a whole. While Nietzsche's superman is a vision for the future, Davidson places him in the present, seeing the Englishman as his incarnation. At the end of the 1890s, he gave up his initial belief in the ongoing evolutionary development of man, for he was now convinced that man 'with whom the whole Universe became conscious and self-conscious' (John Davidson, The Theatrocrat: A Tragic Play of Church and Stage (London: Grant Richards, 1905), p. 76) was the highest possible stage of the development of matter. Davidson also differs from Nietzsche in his championship of imperialism, his scientific materialism and his definition of the role of the writer.

(28.) Townsend, John Davidson, p. 272.

(29.) The tension between the belief in the freedom of the will and the impact of environmental determinism is the philosophical framework as early as in A Romantic Farce (1878; 1889) and in Bruce: A Chronology Play (1884), but also in 'Thirty Bob a Week' (1894) and in the volume of short stories, Miss Armstrong's and Other Circumstances (London: Methuen, 1896).

(30.) Davidson, 'On God and Sin', in The Theatrocrat, pp. 52-7.

(31.) Davidson, 'Thirty Bob a Week', ll. 67-72.

(32.) Davidson, 'Lammas', ll. 279-92.

(33.) See also 'A Woman and Her Son', ll. 142-50:
      It is ours to make
      This farce of fate a splendid tragedy:
      Since we must be the sport of circumstance,
      We should be sportsmen, and produce a breed
      Of gallant creatures, conscious of their doom,
      Marching with lofty brows, game to the last.
      Oh good and evil, heaven and hell are lies!
      But strength is great: there is no other truth:
      This is the yea-and-nay that makes men hard.

(34.) See Peterson, John Davidson, pp. 67-84.

(35.) See 'The Aristocrat' (1898), 'The Pioneer' (1898), 'The Hero' (1898), 'The Outcast' (1899).

(36.) See Godfrida (New York and London: John Lane, 1898), Self's the Man (London: Grant Richards, 1901), The Knight of the Maypole (London: Grant Richards, 1903).

(37.) See The Testament of a Vivisector (London: Grant Richards, 1901), The Testament of a Man Forbid (London: Grant Richards, 1901), The Testament of an Empire-Builder (London: Grant Richards, 1902), The Testament of a Prime Minister (London: Grant Richards, 1904), 'The Testament of Sir Simon Simplex Concerning Automobilism' (1908), The Testament of John Davidson (London: Grant Richards, 1908).

(38.) Peterson, John Davidson, p. 106.

(39.) However similar their conception of the heroic individual may be, Davidson does not share Carlyle's moralism and Puritan hatred of pleasure and distrust of happiness, as his eulogy on the will to happiness in 'The Feast of St Martha' demonstrates: 'War, study, pastime, toil and trade/Have one sole purpose, Happiness' (ll. 85-6).

(40.) Davidson, Self's the Man, p. 127.

(41.) Davidson, 'Dedication', p. 540.

(42.) Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Ethics (London: Williams & Norgate, 1892), I, p. 325.

(43.) Quoted after Maurice Lindsay, 'Introduction', in Lindsay (ed.), John Davidson, p. 34.

(44.) Here, too, the race and class discourses intermingle. The thesis that blacks represent an earlier stage of human evolution was a commonplace in nineteenth-century racial and imperialist thought. See popular novels such as Henry Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines (1885), She (1887), Allan Quartermain (1887), and Nada the Lily (1892), Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902), and Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (1912).

(45.) Davidson, 'The Testament of Sir Simon Simplex', ll. 197-206.

(46.) A Rosary, p. 108, illustrates just how much Davidson was aware of this danger.

(47.) Charles Dilke, Greater Britain (London: Macmillan, 1868). Walter Bagehot, Physics and Politics (London: H. S. King, 1872). John Seeley, The Expansion of England (London: Macmillan, 1883). James Anthony Froude, Oceana, or England and her Colonies (London: Longmans, 1886). Charles Pearson, National Life and Character (London: Macmillan, 1893). Benjamin Kidd, Social Evolution (London: Macmillan, 1894). Hugh E. Egerton, Short History of British Colonial Policy (London: Methuen, 1897). J. A. Cramb, Reflections on the Origins and Destiny of Imperial Britain (London: Macmillan, 1900). Charles H. Harvey, The Biology of British Politics (London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1904).

(48.) See also 'Ode on the Coronation of Edward VII.' (1902), 'Merry England' (1905), 'Our Day' (1905), 'New Year's Eve' (1905).

(49.) In a letter to Grant Richards dated 2 March 1909, he asks his publisher to 'get Elgar to set my song to a thundering good diatonic tune, and let it be for all time an Imperial Anthem'. Quoted in Turnbull, The Poems of John Davidson, p. 502.

(50.) Davidson, 'Ode on the Coronation of Edward VII.', ll. 118-26.

(51.) Quoted after Turnbull, The Poems of John Davidson, p. 496.

(52.) For social imperialism, see Bernard Semmel, Imperialism and Social Reform: English Social-Imperial Thought 1895-1914 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1960).

(53.) Letter to Edmund Gosse of 24 December 1900; quoted after Townsend, John Davidson, p. 485.

(54.) Seeley, The Expansion of England, p. 60.

(55.) See 'Alembroth', The Academy (14 May 1904), p. 548: 'the white man, the black man, the red man, and the yellow man had not a common origin any more than a common language. Matter always recalled in its unconscious memory what it had done, and improved on past attempts.'

(56.) Davidson, The Theatrocrat, p. 58.

(57.) Davidson, 'Dedication', p. 541.

(58.) The Times (12 November 1895).

(59.) Lord Rosebery, Questions of Empire (London: Arthur L. Humphreys, 1900), pp. 13, 15.

(60.) Davidson, 'Epilogue', The Triumph of Mammon, p. 163.

(61.) Davidson, 'Ode on the Coronation of Edward VII.', p. 110.

(62.) Davidson, 'On Poetry', p. 538.

(63.) Davidson, Self's the Man, p. 135.

(64.) For poems illustrating this ethos, see Henry Newbolt's 'Clifton Chapel', 'The Schoolfellow' and 'Vitai Lampada', and Rudyard Kipling's 'If'.

(65.) Lord Curzon, 'The true imperialism', The Nineteenth Century and After, 63 (1908), p. 157.

(66.) In his review of J. A. Cramb's Reflections on the Origins and Destiny of Imperial Britain, Davidson formulates the same idea in plain and prosaic diction: 'the plain truth of the matter is that England owes her greatness largely to traders, who, with no loftier motive than a desire to make themselves rich, built ship and factory and pushed their commerce to the ends of the earth': 'The Poet as Historian', The Academy, 60 (1901), p. 141. The poems 'A Song of Change' (1905) and 'A Song of Triumph' (1906) also underscore the economic aspect of imperialism. Davidson was not the only writer to critique severely the rational, optimistic assumptions of the imperialist ideology. In her allegorical narrative 'Trooper Halket of Mashonaland' (1897), Olive Schreiner denies imperialism any ethical legitimation, and unveils the often quoted humanitarian mission and destiny as a guise for economic, financial and strategic interests, which leading politicians like Lord Rosebery, Lord Salisbury and Joseph Chamberlain also conceded. In Heart of Darkness (1902) and Nostromo (1904) Joseph Conrad stresses the material exploitation and the destructive and self-destructive dynamics of imperialism. George Alfred Henry's works and Geoffrey Drages' novel Cyril (1889) illustrate the close link between idealistic, humanitarian and ethical motives and economic, political and utilitarian considerations.

(67.) Davidson, The Testament of a Prime Minister, ll. 274-82.

(68.) Quoted after Thatcher, Nietzsche in England, p. 60.

(69.) Davidson, 'The Testament of Sir Simon Simplex', pp. 151-6. In an abstruse contribution ('Caviare') to the Pall Mall Gazette (30 May 1903, p. 1), he writes: 'To understand all is to fight and slay. War, upon whatever reason it is waged, is always the effect of a sudden insight into the true nature of the world and man. Life is something which should never have been; and so in fiery moments of intelligence we kill each other.'

(70.) Davidson, 'St George's Day', pp. 219-26.

(71.) John Davidson, 'Wordsworth's Immorality and Mine', in The Theatrocrat, p. 3.
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Author:Schaffner, Raimund
Publication:Journal of European Studies
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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