Ironizing Prosody in John Davidson's "A Ballad in Blank Verse"

Article excerpt

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. …