Academic journal article Journal of European Studies

'Better to Reign in Hell Than Serve in Heaven' Aspects of Social Darwinism in John Davidson's Poetry

Academic journal article Journal of European Studies

'Better to Reign in Hell Than Serve in Heaven' Aspects of Social Darwinism in John Davidson's Poetry

Article excerpt

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). …

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