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Ironizing prosody in John Davidson's "A Ballad in Blank Verse".

In John Davidson's "A Ballad in Blank Verse" (1894) a young Scottish poet is torn between commitment to sensuous aestheticism and duty to aged parents who desire his confirmation in the church above all else. Unable to persist in one course or another, he succeeds only in hurrying his mother's death and torturing his dying father's soul before claiming to rise above all creeds as a poet at the end. The poem is usually approached as an autobiographical document conveying Davidson's high aesthetic ideals and his bildung as a poet. In 1894 Arthur Quiller-Couch pronounced, "Mr. Davidson lets us know his conception of the poet's proper function." (1) John Sloan, Davidson's most recent biographer, follows suit, discerning in the poem's nearly five hundred lines a Promethean victory: "For Davidson the making of the visionary poet and the existentialist rebel appear to have been one." (2) Raimund Schaffner proffers a less optimistic reading, viewing the poem and the whole of Davidson's work as an embrace of Social Darwinism and Nietzschean will to power. Yet Schaffner, too, finds the narrative largely transparent: "Davidson ... 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. 426-427). (3)

Davidson unquestionably incorporates autobiographical details into the poem. The action is set in an industrial Scottish port closely modeled on Greenock, where Davidson's father served as a minister in the Evangelical Union Congregational Church, and where Davidson renounced Christianity early on, preferring to spend his Sunday afternoons writing blank verse. (4) But "A Ballad in Blank Verse" is anything but an autobiographical transcript. Davidson's long narrative ultimately critiques all attempts to fix meaning or anchor belief, whether in poetry or in religion. And prosody and more particularly meta-prosodic commentary play a crucial role in this project. Davidson's title telegraphs a challenge to stable or transparent meaning at the outset, since it yokes verse measures (ballad and blank verse) usually considered antiphonal as if they were congruent. (5) In a literal sense, Davidson's title cannot be parsed. This resistance to settled meaning is evident even in the short title Davidson adopted for his 1904 Selected Poems but is more striking still in the longer title under which the poem first appeared in 1894: "A Ballad in Blank Verse of the Making of a Poet." (6) In the original title Davidson intimates that the making of the poet depends on destabilizing conventional relationships between poetic genres and their associated meters even though his poet-speaker relies on blank verse and prior literary tradition. By troubling the meaning of prosody at the head of his text, Davidson suggests his awareness, in common with other poets, of the ideologies attached to various metrical forms; and his ensuing narrative calls these ideologies into question as part of a broader argument about all dogmas.

"A Ballad in Blank Verse of the Making of a Poet" belongs squarely to a period of pervasive irony in Davidson's work of the early 1890s as he emerged from a neo-Romantic conception of poetry influenced by the Spasmodics and had not yet become immersed in Nietzsche's philosophy, to which he turned after 1896. (7) In this interval, irony itself became a philosophical principle for Davidson's work, when he sought to remain open to all possible perspectives by simultaneously enacting and interrogating any given premise or standpoint. Significantly, Davidson produced some of his most lasting poetry at this time, including "Thirty Bob a Week" and "The Ballad of a Nun," both published in The Yellow Book. During this period of radical irony, which Carroll Peterson traces back to William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, it was perfectly consistent that Davidson should be an insider of aesthetic circles such as the Rhymers' Club while simultaneously ironizing art and aestheticism in his works. (8) If Davidson's irony decenters Victorian moral authority and attempts at certainty in ways more usually associated with Oscar Wilde's "The Critic as Artist" or The Importance of Being Earnest, the distinction of "A Ballad in Blank Verse" is to conscript the very stuff of poetry--its meters--into his ironic project as he both enacts high art and subjects it to scrutiny. Davidson deploys meter as an intrinsic medium and an ideological register in a poem that pits aestheticism against brute utilitarianism on one hand and religious faith on the other. In the end, Davidson decenters aesthetic poetry by suggesting that, rather than opposing religion, it is simply one more variant.

1. Ballads and Blank Verse: Form, Ideology, Measure

Recent scholarship has pointed our attention to the way that Victorian poets and prosodists were aware of the ideological registers of poetic form. George Saintsbury aligned prosody with Englishness and the principle of "ordered liberty," while John Addington Symonds specifically linked blank verse to English individualism and liberty in an essay first published in 1867. (9) Symonds asserts that "blank verse is a type and symbol of our national literary spirit-uncontrolled by precedent or rule, inclined to extravagance, yet reaching perfection at intervals by an inner force and vivida vis of native inspiration." (10) The rationale for such assertions was that first Christopher Marlowe, then Shakespeare, invented English blank verse by exploding the mechanistic, overly regular decasyllabic models first introduced by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Thomas Norton, and Thomas Sackville from continental sources. In contrast, according to Symonds (and later George Saintsbury), Marlowe and Shakespeare crafted an infinitely variable medium by modulating pauses and the number and emphasis of syllables within feet, and by organizing verse paragraphs according to an inner logic of unfolding thought. As Emily Harrington remarks, tacitly "Symonds implies that Britain is the most adaptable nation, open to variety and change" based on its most distinctive literary measure. (11)

Another feature of Victorian commentaries on prosody was a debate over which measures were most appropriate to what forms and subjects. A September 1, 1892 article in The Theatre stated the commonplace that since English speech so often conforms to iambics, and since blank verse mediates between rhymed verse and prose, blank verse is especially suited to tragedy: it is sufficiently mobile to register nuances of thought or character yet sufficiently elevated to impart heightened dignity. (12) Symonds suggests that given its Protean qualities, blank verse could be "epical, idyllic, lyrical, didactic, according to the will of the poets who made use of it," but that it is best "suited for dialogues, descriptions, eloquent appeals, rhetorical declamations, for all those forms of poetry which imply a continuity and development of thought, than for the setting forth of some one perfect and full-formed idea.' (13) Milton's further innovation, of course, was to establish blank verse as the medium of English epic, demonstrating the meter's potential for grandeur and high seriousness in addition to dynamic process. (14) Thus by the time Davidson called attention to blank verse in his poem's title, blank verse was associated with English national identity and the principles of order and liberty, with tragedy, and with epic, as well as with the recent Romantic and Victorian legacies of Keats, Shelley, and Tennyson. (15)

Davidson cleverly exposes the rifts in such confident pronouncements by refusing to let blank verse stand unrivalled and instead linking ballads to blank verse. Tellingly, many arguments made about blank verse were also made about the ballad. That is, the ballad, too, was seen as quintessentially English, embodying the principles of liberty and order; and after Friedrich August Wolf argued in Prolegomena ad Homerum (1795) that the Iliad and Odyssey were compiled from numerous short works transmitted orally, it was a short step to link primitive oral tradition to the ballad. (16) As Matthew Arnold complained of classical scholar Francis Newman (brother to John Henry Newman, whose translation of Homer first appeared in 1856), "the analogy of the ballad is ever present to Mr. Newman's thoughts in considering Homer." Though Arnold repudiated the ballad (and also blank verse) in favor of hexameters as the best medium for translating Homer, he conceded that Newman's views veere shared by many others and that the "proposition that Homer's poetry is ballad-poetry, analogous to the ballad-poetry of the English and other nations, has a certain small portion of truth in it." (17)

In 1906 George Saintsbury linked the ideological significance of ballads and blank verse by aligning both with Englishness, liberty, and range, whereas Symonds had attributed these to blank verse alone. As Saintsbury claimed,

"the ballad quatrain, or common measure, is perhaps the most definitely English--blood and bone, flesh and marrow--of all English metres. It comes the most naturally of all to an English tongue and an English ear; it adapts itself with sublime indifference to the highest poetry and to the lowest doggerel; it takes the tone and colour of every age, from the ethereal raptures of the seventeenth century to the groveling prose-verse of the mid-sixteenth." (18)

The best "ballads and carols" written up to the sixteenth century, moreover, had mastered "the one the secret of liberty that shall not exclude order, the other the secret of order that shall not cramp or cripple nature" (1:375). The ballad, like blank verse, was likewise deemed a distinctive achievement of nineteenth-century poetry by many, as an 1889 Athenaeum review of two ballad collections makes clear:
   If Wordsworth did not pass into excess when he said that there was
   not one able writer in verse of his own day who would not be proud
   to acknowledge his obligation to [Thomas Percy's 1765 ballad
   collection] 'Reliques,' what shall be said of the poets of our own
   time, when Coleridge and Shelley and Keats-now become classics-have
   been followed by Lord Tennyson, Mr. Browning, Rossetti, Mr.
   Swinburne, and Mr. William Morris? (19)

In two important respects, however, ballads and blank verse could not be amalgamated. First, although Victorian discussions of blank verse almost uniformly ratified the meter's English origins, the ballad was often claimed as a distinctive Scottish form (no matter Saintsbury's later trumpeting of the ballad's Englishness). The dispute over national origins, hence identity, dated back to the eighteenth century. As William Donaldson explains, in Reliques of Ancient EngLish Poetry (1765)
   Percy asserted that English constituted the dominant strand in
   British literature and that its roots were firmly Teutonic.
   Percy was happy to include Scottish material within a context of
   Anglo-Saxon hegemony.... [But] in 1769 David Herd and his coadjutor
   and printer John Wotherspoon published Ancient and Modern Scots
   Songs, with the implication that Scottish tradition ran truer than
   the English, featuring songs and ballads that were older, better,
   and more 'authentic' than anything Percy could show." (20)

The implication was reinforced by Sir "Walter Scott's immensely influential compilation, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-1803). Indeed, the preponderance of nineteenth-century ballad collections cited by Anglo-Irish poet William Allingham in his preface to The Ballad-Book (1864) were Scottish, though Allingham did his best to neutralize the debate: "Without entering upon a discussion of the respective claims of England and Scotland in ballad making, we merely say that there is in the present volume at least as much of English as of Scottish produce. For old ballads, as a class, belong to both countries; and ... attempts to divide them are on the whole vain and useless." (21) Histories of the ballad, then, opened rifts in attempts to found English national identity upon literary forms by emphasizing specifically Scottish origins and contributions.

The other key distinctions between a ballad and blank verse, of course, are rhyme versus its absence and divergent measures: in contrast to the decasyllabic line (albeit with variations) of blank verse, ballad meter features iambics in alternating lines of eight and six syllables. Critics eager to claim the ballad for English tradition (including Arnold and Saintsbury) tended to identify the ballad's measure as the fourteener, since fourteeners were unquestionably an Elizabethan form. (22)

Saintsbury also identifies the ballad quatrain with "common measure," thereby linking the ballad to the hymn and Book of Common Prayer as well as Anglican metrical psalters. In light of this old tie between ballads and hymns, Ammitai V. Aviram comments that in semiotic terms ballad meter signifies an "ambiguity between the hymn and the ballad, the sacred and the profane." (23) This slippage was well known in the nineteenth century. Rev. S. S. Greatheed noted in a series entitled "A Sketch of the History of Sacred Music from the Earliest Age" in The Church-Builder that in English metrical psaiters "the 'common measure,' in which all but a few [hymns] are written, was a ballad measure, unknown to the ancient hymn-writers." (24)

If defined in part by its sacred ties, the ballad was also associated with lightness and "lilt"--which was why Arnold repudiated the ballad for translating Homer, whose poetry he defined in terms of speed and grandeur. In contrast to Homer's verse, according to Arnold, "the ballad-manner and movement are often either jaunty or smart, so not noble; or jog-trot or humdrum, so not powerful." (25) The ballad, then, could uphold national literary tradition and greatness, or splinter it according to whether England or Scotland commanded its site of origins. The ballad could invoke the cadences of sacred hymns and thereby inspire reverence, or unleash the relentless speed of supernatural or romantic ballads unfolding deeds of lawless passion and violence. It could undergird the high achievement of Coleridge's "The Ancient Mariner" or descend into irreverent, unserious doggerel and mere fun. If its qualities as identified by nineteenth-century prosodists are immediately juxtaposed to those of blank verse, the ballad emerges as at once a kindred foundation of English literary greatness and a disruptive jogtrot rhythm that refuses to settle down.

In light of this historical prosodic context, Davidson's title "A Ballad in Blank Verse of the Making of a Poet" acquires yet more significance. Most overtly it signals an array of literary traditions from the grand to the "humdrum" (to use Arnold's term), from epic aspiration to sacred hymns, from triumphant English achievements associated with Shakespeare, Milton, and Tennyson to a dissident Scottish note derived from Robert Burns and anonymous ballads. The grammar of the title turns blank verse into a mere attribute: the poem is a ballad of the making of a poet, with this particular ballad given in blank verse. Possibly Davidson obliquely announces by this means his poet's dissident Scottish identity that opens questions about how he as a poet can or will be integrated into dominant English tradition. If the title subordinates blankverse, the blank verse poem that follows excludes ballad meter and rhyme altogether (though the poem features a ballad refrain). Because it announces two divergent measures but readers see and/or hear only one via the printed text, the title indicates that the succeeding poem is acoustically and prosodically incomplete, gesturing toward silences and other perspectives that lie beyond those given in the narrative. Unloosening the certitudes of ideological constructions of literary tradition by exposing their rifts and instabilities, Davidson tacitly decenters the claims of literature itself.

2. Making a Poet/Ironizing Aestheticism

"A Ballad in Blank Verse of the Making of a Poet" is the first ballad in Davidson's 1894 volume and is immediately followed by "A Ballad of the Exodus from Houndsditch" and the famous "The Ballad of a Nun" from the October 1894 Yellow Book. Of two additional ballads in the volume Davidson states in a concluding note, "'A Ballad of Heaven' and 'A Ballad of Hell' are included here as they will not be reprinted ... [elsewhere] and because I should like them to be read along with 'A Ballad of the Making of a Poet' and 'A Ballad of the Exodus from Houndsditch." (26) Davidson's arrangement and paratextual comment suggest that "A Ballad in Blank Verse" is situated within a larger dialogue rather than functioning as a self-contained aesthetic artifact, especially since it is preceded by two dialogic sets of lyrics: "To My Friend" and "To My Enemy," and "To the New Women" and "To the New Men."

Davidson sustains a dialogic structure in "A Ballad in Blank Verse" by yoking the aesthetic grandeur of blank verse with the ballad's violence and refrain, and by focusing on generational conflict that drives his narrative plot. Wracked by guilt after his mother's early death and fearful of likewise killing his father, the son "yielded tamely," "professed himself / Convinced of sin but confident in Christ," and affirms faith in church (pp. 17-18, 11. 163-164, 176-182)-only to renounce it and all religious creeds the same evening (pp. 19-21, II. 194-218). Bursting in upon the father still elated from witnessing his son regathered into the fold, the son declares that human "consciousness / Is God" (p. 22, 11. 226-227). Horrified by the son's "'unpardonable sin... / of Lucifer'" (p. 25, ll. 278-279), the father quails at the thought of facing his wife in heaven without his son in tow and opts to join his son in hell: "'I cannot face / Without you her that nursed you at her breast. / Let us curse God together" and "be at rest / In Hell for evermore" (p. 27, ll. 316-320). After professing faith in Calvinist predestination, a creed that he abhors (as did Davidson's own father (27)), the father, too, dies, and the son ends declaring,
   Some thought imprisons us; we set about
   To bring the world within the woven spell:
   Our ruthless creeds that bathe the earth in blood
   Are moods by alchemy made dogmas of--The
   petrifaction of a metaphor.
   No creed for me! I am a man apart:
   A mouthpiece for the creeds of all the world;
   A soulless life that angels may possess
   Or demons haunt, wherein the foulest things
   May loll at ease beside the loveliest;

   ... Within my heart
   I'll gather all the universe, and sing
   As sweetly as the spheres. (pp. 33-35, 11. 421-430, 443-445)

In context the poet's declamation is rhetorically powerful, his identification as a "man apart" redolent of an aesthete's glamor.

Yet even critics who read this ending straightforwardly as Davidson's own poetic credo find themselves discomfited by it. In his pioneering study of Davidson, Hayim Fineman asserts that Davidson's "predominating ideal is seemingly expressed in the 'Ballad of the Making of the Poet'" but adds, "Such an attitude is hardly tenable and Davidson later rejected it." (28) Carroll Peterson pairs the observation that the poet aims to be "a trembling lyre for every wind to sound" with similar skepticism: "Now that is a rather high ideal--prince of the powers of the air, lord of the world, and master of the sea, besides being the first man to understand himself. Presumably he is to arrive at this exalted position through his poetry, and that clearly is to be controlled by his desire as an ironist to 'state the world' with all its contradictions, free of all restraints, including creeds" (Peterson, p. 51). If Benjamin Townsend likewise asserts that the "strident posturing" of the ending "speaks for a resurgence of Spasmodic hysteria and Protestant evangelicalism in Davidson's work," he continues to suggest that only in Davidson's lyrics, not his blank verse of the period, does Davidson achieve the thoroughgoing irony wherein "every truth is accompanied by its own contradiction." (29)

The discomfort of critics sympathetic to Davidson, I suggest, aptly registers effects created by the poem itself. For the poem's embedded echoes and juxtapositions, its representation of the aged father, and the title's allusion to ballads and blank verse undermine the triumphalist veneer of the poet's closing exultation. Near the poem's end the son discerns that in having earlier asserted that human consciousness is God he was inculcating rather than resisting religion. He bitterly ironizes himself as
   A God who said a little while ago,
   "I'll have no creed;" and of his Godhood straight
   Patched up a creed unwittingly--with which
   He went and killed his father. (p. 33, 11. 406-409)

Yet his new declaration "No creed for me!" (p. 34, 1. 426) echoes that earlier boast, "I'll have no creed" (p. 21, 1. 214). The echo implies that the son's closing insistence on poetry as the sole means of transcending imprisoning creeds is yet another credo and that his inflated sense of self announces only continued self-deception and arrogance:
   I am a man set by to overhear
   The inner harmony, the very tune
   Of nature's heart; to be a thoroughfare
   For all the pageantry of Time; to catch
   The mutterings of the spirit of the Hour
   And make them known; and of the lowliest
   To be the minister, and therefore reign
   Prince of the powers of the air, lord of the world
   And master of the sea. (pp. 34-35, 11. 435-443)

The aesthete, now with two deaths on his hands, has become, notably, a "minister" presiding over one more cult, the religion of literature.

The violence of this narrative at once identifies it with the ballad. Indeed, William Wallace complained that "A Ballad in Blank Verse of the Making of a Poet," if the "most ambitious" work in the volume, "is too violent to be quite real." (30) Its violence is further confirmed by a refrain-another feature associated with the ballad-introduced in the opening lines to identify the setting as a town "Far in the North, where Time could take his ease, / And Change hold holiday; where Old and New / Weltered upon the border of the world" (p. 7, 11. 3-5). The refrain reappears after the father charges, "You killed your mother, you are killing me" (p. 15, 1. 137), but now with this significant addition: "And savage faith works woe" (p. 16, 1. 142). After the father's death, the refrain is repeated with a new variation: "And savage creeds can kill" (p. 30, 1. 357). Davidson draws upon the ballad's violent plot and repetitions to underscore humanity's and the poet's own underlying primitivism that cannot resist unconscious drives toward totalizing systems that provide structure and meaning to life, or, in the words of the poem, "To bring the world within the woven spell" (p. 33, 1. 422). The referent of "savage creeds [that] can kill" thus remains ambiguous, assuredly gesturing towards religious creeds that "but an hour ago in frantic dread / Burned palsied women" (p. 24, ll. 263-264) but also glancing toward the religion of literature that, on the evidence of the poem, kills too.

The poem's blank verse, in contrast, invokes the high prestige of literary tradition from Homer through Keats, the Spasmodics, and Tennyson while also suggesting that despite their apparent opposition, literature and religion (like aspects of the ballad and blank verse) mirror each other. The son and aesthete, who wanders repeatedly by the river "haunted" by "memories, visions, hopes, divine desires" (p. 7, 11. 8-9), first figures the river in heroic terms as
   The foam-embroidered firth, a purple path
   For argosies that still on pinions speed,
   Or fiery-hearted cleave with iron limbs
   And bows precipitous the pliant sea. (p. 8, 11. 14-17)

Like his fellow Scot Alexander Smith, who in his Spasmodic A Life-Drama likewise narrated the making of a poet, Davidson yokes the language and scenes of modern industrialism, thus countering his heroic vision and elevated language: (31)
   this grey town
   ... pipes the morning up before the lark
   With shrieking steam, and from a hundred stalks
   Lacquers the sooty sky; where hammers clang
   On iron hulls, and cranes in harbours creak
   Rattle and swing, whole cargoes on their necks;
   Where men sweat gold that others hoard or spend.
   (pp. 8-9, 11. 23-29)

Later still, after the son's Christian conversion, Davidson mockingly echoes Tennyson's blank verse in "The Holy Grail" to underscore the son's absence of religious ecstasy: "Ah! down no silver beam the Holy Grail / Glided from Heaven, a crimson cup that throbbed / As throbs the heart divine" (p. 19, II. 189-191).

Ecstatic visions come to the son not in church but only during his neopagan poetic imaginings, yet Davidson ironically fashions these visions as parodies (not binaries) of Christianity. Confronted by his parents' Christian exhortations after his imaginative revels by the river, the son
   clenched his teeth; his blood, fulfilled of brine,
   Of sunset, and his dreams, boomed in his ears.
   A vision rose before him; and the sound
   Husky and plaintive of his father's voice
   Seemed unintelligible and afar.
   He saw Apollo on the Dardan beach:
   The waves lay still; the winds hung motionless,
   And held their breath to hear the rebel god,
   Conquered and doomed, with stormy sobbing song,
   And crashing discords of his golden lyre,
   Reluctantly compel the walls of Troy,
   Unquarried and unhewn, in supple lines
   And massive strength to rise about the town. (p. 12, 11. 77-89)

The son conflates his own identity as poet and rebel with Apollo but cobbles his vision from Paradise Lost, in which the conquered rebel Lucifer builds up hell:
   Anon out of the earth a fabric huge
   Rose like an exhalation, with the sound
   Of dulcet symphonies and voices sweet,
   Built like a temple, where pilasters round
   Were set, and Doric pillars overlaid
   With golden architrave; nor did there want
   Cornice or frieze, with bossy sculptures grav'n;
   The roof was fretted gold. (32)

When his parents' voices "shattered his fantasy" by calling on "Almighty God" to "save [their] foolish boy" (pp. 12-13, 11. 90, 95), then stand breathless awaiting his religious conversion, he instead sees an inward vision of "Cyprian Aphrodite, all one blush / And glance of passion" (pp. 13-14, ll. 103-124) effecting an erotically-motivated resurrection of the dead Adonis, another neopagan parody of Christianity.

In the end, the grand rebel of the poem is not the son but his aged father, who in many ways surpasses the son's imaginative supremacy and daring. As noted above, the father spurns the doctrine of predestination, terming it "a paltry way / Of fooling God some casuists hit upon" and a form of blasphemy that "makes of God / An impotent spectator!" (p. 28, ll. 323-324, 328-329). The old man nonetheless performs a predestinarian prayer in order to damn himself and join his son in hell (just as, earlier, the son termed himself a heretic in professing Christianity to save his father [pp. 17-18, 11. 160-168]). And the vivid image of the New Jerusalem that the father invokes in the process rivals his son's visions of Greek gods:
   Beside the crystal river I shall walk
   For ever with the Lord. The city of gold,
   The jasper walls thereof, the gates of pearl,
   The bright foundation-stones of emerald,
   Of sapphire, chrysoprase, of every gem,
   And the high triumph of unending day
   Shall be but wildfire on a summer eve
   Beside the exceeding glory of delight,
   That shall entrance me with the constant thought
   Of how in Hell through all eternity
   My son performs the perfect will of God. (p. 29, 11. 341-351)

The lines culminate in a double irony: the father's performative discourse suborns the son to the Christian God's will, but the performance is a self-cancelling act that condemns the father to hell for blasphemy. And as if to ensure that the damnation is irrevocable, the father immediately dies. The son, in response, thinks only that his father dies "believing in so dull a God, / A useless Hell, a jewel-huckster's Heaven!" (p. 30, I1. 359-360). Here the poet figure, not the old man, has insufficient imagination to perceive a daring act of false conversion and rebellious self-fashioning.

That the son, despite his boast of having attained the wisdom to repudiate all creeds, fails to progress in the course of his narrative is clear from a final echo embedded within the text. At the outset, as the poet envisions a life of aesthetic creation, he celebrates the successive beauties fashioned by an ever-modulating, Paterian nature:
   Here daily dawn
   Burns through the smoky east; with fire-shod feet
   The sun treads heaven, and steps from hill to hill
   Downward before the night that still pursues
   His crimson wake; here winter plies his craft,
   Soldering the years with ice; here spring appears,
   Caught in a leafless brake, her garland torn,
   Breathless with wonder, and the tears half-dried
   Upon her rosy cheek; here summer comes
   And wastes his passion like a prodigal
   Right royally; and here her golden gains
   Free-handed as a harlot autumn spends;
   And here are men to know, women to love. (pp. 9-10, 11. 36-48)

After the protagonist reconverts to Christianity, repudiates his conversion, fashions a new creed of divine human consciousness, then claims to repudiate all creeds, the poem ends just where he began:
   And lo! to give me courage comes the dawn,
   Crimsoning the smoky east; and still the sun
   With fire-shod feet shall step from hill to hill
   Downward before the night; winter shall ply
   His ancient craft, soldering the years with ice;
   And spring appear, caught in a leafless brake,
   Breathless with wonder and the tears half-dried
   Upon her rosy cheek; summer shall come
   And waste his passion like a prodigal
   Right royally; and autumn spend her gold
   Free-handed as a harlot; men to know,
   Women to love are waiting everywhere. (p. 35, 11. 447-458)

The deliberate echo suggests that the aesthete has progressed neither toward higher art nor greater understanding but merely recycles variants of poetic imagination as one more article of faith.

If in part Davidson wields the conventional techniques of the dramatic monologue--ironic utterance, character revelation, lyric imagery, and echoes--to dethrone aestheticism, the prosody of Davidson's blank verse is also conscripted to irony. Davidson's language twice calls attention to the poem's rhythms and meter, first in the opening lines as the son declares, "Now may my life beat out upon this shore / A prouder music than the winds and waves / Can compass in their haughtiest moods" (p. 8, 11. 10-12), and again after the father's death:
   For from the shore there came sea-minstrelsy
   Of waves that broke upon the hollow beach,
   With liquid sound of pearling surges blent,
   Cymbals, and muffled drums and dulcimers.

   At last the fugal music of the tide,
   With cymbals, muffled drums, and dulcimers,
   Into his blood a measured rhythm beat,
   And gave his passion scope and way in words.
   (pp. 31-32, ll. 374-377,387-390)

Not only does Davidson call attention to measure and rhythm as such, but he also makes the son's entrance into poetry ("way in words") dependent on internalizing meter ("into his blood a measured rhythm beat").

As I note above, both Symonds and Saintsbury contended that English blank verse triumphed over continental rivals by breaking and varying the measure that rhythmically and abstractly formed this meter. Much of "A Ballad in Blank Verse" conforms to the principle of "ordered liberty," indicating the poem's participation in high literary English tradition. For example, in the refrain introduced in the opening lines, the clash of stability and change, order and chaos is enacted prosodically since the steady pentameter beat of the first two lines is disrupted by an initial trochee in the third, as if stifled forces of change suddenly burst out:
   Far in the North, where Time could take his ease,
   And Change hold holiday; where Old and New
   Weltered upon the border of the world. (p. 7, 11. 3-5)

Similarly, the son's resistant pagan vision (pp. 13-14, 11. 103-124) after his parents plead for his Christian conversion metrically enforces the liberties the son claims from received dogma, since here the blankverse is irregular in stresses, syllables, and caesuras:
   he beheld,
   The Cyprian Aphrodite, all one blush [11 syllables]
   And glance of passion, from the violet sea [11 syllables]
   Step inland, fastening as she went her zone. [11 syllables]
   (p. 13, ll. 103-106) (33)

In contrast to such "liberties," both Symonds and Saintsbury censured monotonous regularity. Symonds, for example, commented of the eighteenth century that "Their acquired canons of regularity, when applied to [blank verse,] that loose and flowing metre, led them astray. They no longer trusted exclusively to their ear, but to a mechanism." (34) Sustained regularity in "A Ballad in Blank Verse" is thus a potential site of suspicion and irony. As might be expected, the father's enunciation of Christian doctrine is given in highly regular blank verse, its unvarying emphases prosodically evoking strait jacketed thought:
   the longest life must end at last,
   And then come Death and Judgment. Are you fit
   To meet your God before the great white throne?
   If on the instant Death should summon you,
   What doom would the Eternal Judge pronounce-'Depart
   from me' or 'Sit on My right hand'?
   In life it is your privilege to choose,
   But after death you have no choice at all. (p. 11, I1.61-68)

It is telling, then, that when the son articulates his new doctrine of man's consciousness as god, his discourse is marked by the same regularity, a means by which prosody is both the medium and object of irony. First announcing, "I'll have no creed," he then forms one in regular blank verse--"Henceforth I shall be God; for consciousness / Is God: I suffer; I am God. this Self, / That all the universe combines to quell" (p. 22, ll. 226-28). And he proceeds to proselytize to his father in similarly regularized measures:
   I know the word that shall uproot the thrones
   Of oldest monarchs, and for every lay
   The doting phantom with the triple crown:
   A word dynamic with the power of doom
   To blast conventicles and parliaments,
   Unsolder federations, crumble states,
   And in the fining pot cast continents.
   A word that shall a new beginning be,
   And out of chaos make the world again. (pp. 23-24, 11. 249-257)

Though the son realizes that his earlier repudiation of Christianity led only to a new creed of godlike consciousness, at the poem's end he is convinced that he has transcended such petty reductionism and attained suprahuman insight into the cosmos. Davidson, notably, commented of Nietzsche in Sentences and Paragraphs (1893) that "it cannot be said too often that there is no greater illusion than disillusion." (35) So it is in "A Ballad in Blank Verse." And the son's continuing self-deception is signaled through the mechanical regularity into which his words fall whether he adverts to imprisoning dogmas or announces his transcendence of them:
   Some thought imprisons us; we set about
   To bring the world within the woven spell:
   Our ruthless creeds that bathe the earth in blood
   Are moods by alchemy made dogmas of The
   petrifaction of a metaphor.
   No creed for me! I am a man apart:
   A mouthpiece for the creeds of all the world;
   A soulless life that angels may possess
   Or demons haunt, wherein the foulest things
   May loll at ease beside the loveliest;
   A martyr for all mundane moods to tear;
   The slave of every passion; and the slave
   Of heat and cold, of darkness and of light;
   A trembling lyre for every wind to sound.
   I am a man set by to overhear
   The inner harmony, the very tune
   Of Nature's heart; to be a thoroughfare
   For all the pageantry of Time. (pp. 33-34, 11. 421-438)

When he addresses the dawn his measured utterance again assumes a pleasing unpredictability (p. 35, 11. 447-454, cited above). But the final lines of the poem not only recycle old thoughts but again fall into predominant regularity (p. 35, 11. 455-458, cited above). If the audible words of the son convey one message, the discernible pulse of his utterance (felt, heard, or abstractly marked) untethers the youth's authority and ironizes his utterance.

Davidson, then, foregrounds and problematizes prosody in his title, demanding that readers register and question the medium of the poem they read and the taxonomic divisions of ballads and blank verse. Davidson also prosodically destabilizes his speaker, ironically, through excess regularity of blank verse. His poem is highly performative at every level and ultimately suggests that poets are not made by transcendent vision or divine inspiration but by acknowledging the divergent forms, ideas, and ideologies that characterize art as well as life. The true poet accordingly finds the means to inhabit contradictions that can never be fully reconciled. In focusing on the figure of the poet and his announced high calling Davidson participates in aestheticism and Pater's assumption that art imparts the greatest intensity to life. The poem also adheres to the Paterian tenet of inherent flux. In the Conclusion to The Renaissance, reissued in 1893 after a twenty-year suppression, Pater contends, "With this sense of the splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch, we shall hardly have time to make theories about the things we see and touch." The highest wisdom in the face of human transience is thus "to ... be for ever curiously testing new opinions and courting new impressions, never acquiescing in a facile orthodoxy." (36) In subverting the poet-speaker's (and hence poetry's) claims, however, Davidson simultaneously exposes aestheticism as one more form of religion that is as suspect and incomplete as any other. To this project the history, form, and measures of the ballad and blank verse--the study of prosody, in short--are central.


(1) A.T.Q.C. [Arthur T. Quiller-Couch], "A Literary Causerie," Speaker (November 24, 1894): 573.

(2) John Sloan, John Davidson, First of the Moderns: A Literary Biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), p. 18.

(3) Raimund Schaffner, "'Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven': Aspects of Social Darwinism in John Davidson's Poetry," Journal of European Studies 33, no. 2 (2003): 122-123.

(4) Alexander Turnbull, Introduction, The Poems of John Davidson, ed. Andrew Turnbull, 2 vols. [Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1973[, 1 :xiii.

(5) John Davidson, "A Ballad in Blank Verse," Selected Poems (1904; repr. New York: John Lane, 1905), pp. 70-88. Victorian precedents for such meta-prosodic commentary include Tennyson's "Hendecasyllabics," which performs its announced meter while calling attention to its difficulty in English verse, and Theodore Watts-Dunton's "The Sonnet's Voice: A Metrical Lesson by the Sea Shore." See Herbert Tucker, "Whither and Yon, and How," VP 42 (Winter 2004): 39-40; and Natalie Houston, "Towards a New History: Women Poets and the Sonnet," Victorian Women Poets, ed. Alison Chapman (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2003), p. 154.

Hazel Hynd also comments on the title's significance, though she emphasizes "tensions" rather than irony and prosody: "The poem is explicitly constructed from tensions, signaled by the title with its unlike fusion of 'blank verse' and 'ballad,' and a landscape which possesses both rural beauty and the harsh utility of industry and economics. Other tensions emerge such as the conflict between natural impulse and social repression, sensuality and respectability, between wing personalities and beliefs, rationalism and faith, good and evil, rebellion and conformity, and between parent and child." See "A Sense of Place: Landscape and Location in the Poetry of John Davidson," VP 43 (Winter 2005): 501.

(6) John Davidson, Ballads and Songs (London, 1894), pp. 7-35.

(7) For Davidson's response to Spasmodic poets and Nietzsche, see Carroll V. Peterson, John Davidson (New York: Twayne, 1972), pp. 40, 51; J. Benjamin Townsend, John Davidson: Poet of Armageddon (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1961), pp. 201-206, 211; and John A. Lester, "Friedrich Nietzsche and John Davidson: A Study in Influence," Journal of the History of Ideas 18, no. 3 (June 1957): 417-429.

(8) Peterson, p. 40. Alexander Turnbull credits Davidson's interest in philosophical irony to the early Carlyle more than to Blake (l:xix, xxii).

(9) Yopie Prins, "Victorian Meters," The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Poetry, ed. Joseph Bristow (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000), p. 97; and Emily Harrington, "The Measure of Time: Rising and Falling in Victorian Meters," Literature Compass 4, no. 1 (January 2007): 344-346.

(10) John Addington Symonds, "Blank Verse," in Sketches and Studies in Italy (London, 1879), p. 410.

(11) Symonds, pp. 377, 387; George Saintsbury, The History of English Prosody from the Twelfth Century to the Present Day, vol. 2 (London: Macmillan, 1908), pp. 5, 31, 199, 572; Harrington, p. 345.

(12) S., "Tragedy Writers and Tragedy Writing," The Theatre (September 1, 1892): 118. In 1908 Saintsbury commented similarly, "for every kind of drama, or even partially dramatic matter, [blank verse] is, in English, the predestined medium" (2:55).

(13) Symonds, p. 409; see also Saintsbury, 2:55.

(14) See, for example, Symond, "The Blank Verse of Milton," Fortnightly Review 16 (December 1874): 767-781.

(15) Symonds considered Keats's Hyperion the first great blank verse since Milton and "Alastor" equal in power (Sketches, p. 407); he names Tennyson "the most original and greatest living writer of blank verse" (p. 408), singling out the "classical beauty of the 'Idylls of the King,' the luxuriant eloquence of the 'Princess,' the calm majesty of 'Ulysses,' the idyllic sweetness of '(Enone,' [and] the grandeur of the 'Mort [sic] d'Arthur'" (p. 409).

(16) For a discussion of Wolf's English reception, see Frank Turner, The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1981), pp. 138-148.

(17) Matthew Arnold, On Translating Homer (London, 1861), pp. 42-43.

(18) George Saintsbury, The History of English Prosody, vol. 1 (London: Macmillan, 1906), p. 247.

(19) Rev. of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, ed. Francis James Child, Parts I-VI, and Border Ballads, ed. Graham R. Tomson, Athenaeum (September 21, 1889): 377.

(20) William Donaldson, 'Herd, David (bap. 1732, d. 1810),' Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004), [, accessed 28 Dec 2009]

(21) William Allingham, The Ballad Book (1864; repr. London, 1887), p. xxx. Allingham lists among his sources Robert Jamieson, Popular Ballads and Songs from Tradition (1806); John Finlay, Scottish Historical and Romantic Ballads (1808); George Kinloch, Ancient Scottish Ballads (1827); William Motherwell, Minstrelsy Ancient and Modem (1827); Peter Buchan, Ancient Ballads and Songs of the North of Scotland (1828); Robert Chambers, The Scottish Ballads (1829); Alexander Whitelaw, The Book of Scottish Ballads (1845); Robert Bell, Ancient Poems, Ballads, and Songs, of the Peasantry of England (1857) (though these, according to Allingham, include "no ballads of our kind"); W. E. Aytoun, The Ballads of Scotland (1858); and Francis James Child's eight-volume English and Scottish Ballads (1857-1859) (Allingham, pp. xx-xxii).

(22) Arnold, p. 43; Saintsbury, 1:247, 323. Literary ballads, of course, assumed a wide range of metrical forms.

(23) Ammitai F. Aviram, Telling Rhythm: Body and Meaning in Poetry (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1994), p. 264.

(24) S.S. Greatheed, "A Sketch of the History of Sacred Music from the Earliest Time," The Church-Builder 69 (1879): 203.

(25) Arnold, p. 47; for the ballad's "lilt," see Saintsbury, 2:248.

(26) Davidson, Ballads and Songs (London: John Lane The Bodley Head, 1894), p. 131. None is in common measure (only the landscape lyric "Winter" is so among Davidson's 1894 poems), although the other ballads retain the abab rhyme scheme of the traditional ballad and most adopt the ballad variant of long meter (i.e., iambic tetrameter) throughout. Subsequent references to this volume will be given as in-text citations. Since "A Ballad in Blank Verse" is lengthy, I cite both the 1894 page number and line numbers used in late twentieth-century editions.

See Linda Austin, "Aesthetic Embarrassment: The Reversion to the Picturesque in Nineteenth-Century English Tourism," ELH 74 (2007): 629-653, for a compelling reading of A Random Itinerary (1894)-in which "A Ballad of Heaven" first appeared-as another ambivalent response to aestheticism.

(27) As Sloan explains, Alexander Davidson followed the teaching of James Morison, who "persuasively challenged the Calvinist doctrine of election with a liberal theology based on free will and salvation for all men." For this stance both Morison and his followers were expelled from the Congregationalist Church and formed the Evangelical Union. Its members were often derided by mainstream Scottish believers: "As the son of a Morisonian minister, [John Davidson] had m face hostility and being called names" as a schoolboy (Sloan, pp. 2, 5).

(28) Hayim Fineman, "John Davidson: A Study of the Relation of H is Ideas to His Poetry," Ph.D. thesis, Univ. of Pennsylvania, 1916, pp. 18-19.

(29) Townsend, pp. 253-254. Townsend's preceding remark is also apposite: "The thought of these lines may be that of Childe Harold and Leaves of Grass, but the manner is that of Hyde Park Corner" (p. 253).

(30) William Wallace,"SomeAspects of Recent Poetry, "Scottish Review 26(July1895): 124.

(31) Numerous scholars have documented the important influence of Alexander Smith and other Spasmodic poets on Davidson's formative years, e.g., Townsend, pp. 100-112; Kenneth Millard, Edwardian Poetry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), pp. 144-145, 149-150; and Hynd, pp. 501, 506. For Smith's interweaving of elevated diction and cityscapes, see A Life-Drama in Poems, 4th ed. (London, 1856), Scenes IV (p. 63), VI (p. 117), VIII (pp. 144-145), and X (p. 180).

(32) John Milton, Paradise Lost, 1.710-717, in The Complete Poetical Works #John Milton, ed. Douglas Bush (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965).

(33) Many British speakers would pronounce "violet" and "Cyprian" as disyllabic words, though the online Oxford English Dictionary indicates three syllables in its pronunciation guide. The very ambiguity between the lexical designation and the line's oral performance again enforces the encoding of "ordered liberty"--the speaker's choice-into English blank verse.

(34) Symonds, p. 406. In his criticism published prior to "A Ballad in Blank Verse" Davidson likewise upheld the importance of irregularities, as when he argued that "It is not the case that correctness is an essential of poetry; for the subtle melody of some of Blake's verses derives the added charm of irregularity from the hasty gathering, lest the dew should escape him, of his wildwood flowers" (rev. of A Song of Heroes, by John Stuart Blackie, Academy [March 15, 1890]: 183). In the same review he cited W. E. Aytoun's "Ballads as an example of the failure of high literary ability to dedoggerelise [ballad metre] thoroughly" (p. 183). For a similar critique of Aytoun, see Jason R. Rudy, Electric Meters: Victorian Physiological Poetics (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 2009), pp. 99-105.

(35) John Davidson, Sentences and Paragraphs (London, 1893), p. 83.

(36) Walter Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (1893; repr. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1998), p. 152.

LINDA K. HUGHES, Addie Levy Professor of Literature at Texas Christian University, Forth Worth, Texas, is the author most recently of Graham R.: Rosamund Marriott Watson, Woman of Letters (2005) and The Cambridge Introduction to Victorian Poetry (Cambridge University Press, 2010), as well as essays on Tennyson and Swinburne (Tennyson Among the Poets: Bicentenary Essays, 2009), illustrated poetry in Once a Week (VP Special Issue, Spring 2010), and Army Levy's "Xantippe," classical scholarship, and print culture (Philological Quarterly, Summer 2009). This last is part of a new project on Victorian women writers and Germany.
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Author:Hughes, Linda K.
Publication:Victorian Poetry
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 22, 2011
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