John Davidson by Walter Sickert (British Museum)
The Isle of Dogs is not often the subject of poetry, however recently I have come across the following poem by John Davidson.
John Davidson was born at Barrhead in 1857 and after leaving school at 13, trained as a pupil teacher and then a teacher in Scotland. He had longstanding literary ambitions and decided in 1889 to go to London to find fame and fortune. He quickly joined other aspiring poets and writers such as W.B. Yeats and formed the Rhymers Club which met at the ‘Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese’ pub in Fleet Street.
To make a living, Davidson wrote numerous articles, plays and books. However he barely made enough money to survive , although he often socialised with other writers such as Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw.
Frank Harris who knew Davidson well wrote :
His manners were perfectly frank and natural; he met everyone in the same unaffected kindly human way; I never saw a trace in him of snobbishness or incivility. Possibly a great man, I said to myself, certainly a man of genius, for simplicity of manner alone is in England almost a proof of extraordinary endowment.”
For all the support of his fellow writers, his work never caught on with the general public which meant his prolific output bought very little financial security.
In 1906 he was awarded a civil list pension of £100 per annum , however the years of poverty, overwork and ill-health began to take its toll and late in 1908, Davidson left London to live in Penzance. On 23 March 1909, he disappeared from his house, some months later his body was found in the sea. From the letters he left behind it was clear that he intended to kill himself.
Davidson did not find fame in his lifetime, but is seen as an influential poet by later poets. T. S. Eliot was a great fan of Davidson and acknowledges his influence when writing The Waste Land, he especially admired the poems ‘Thirty Bob a Week’ and ‘In the Isle of Dogs’.
Davidson was researching a book when he visited the Isle of Dogs in the 1890s, he was walking near the Millwall Docks when the sound of an organ in the street triggered memories of his homeland.
IN THE ISLE OF DOGS
While the water-wagon’s ringing showers
Sweetened the dust with a woodland smell,
” Past noon, past noon, two sultry hours,”
From the schoolhouse clock
In the Isle of Dogs by Millwall Dock.
Mirrored in shadowy windows draped
With ragged net or half-drawn blind
Bowsprits, masts, exactly shaped
To woo or fight the wind,
Like monitors of guilt
By strength and beauty sent,
Disgraced the shameful houses built
To furnish rent.
From the pavements and the roofs
In shimmering volumes wound
The wrinkled heat ;
Distant hammers, wheels and hoofs,
A turbulent pulse of sound,
Southward obscurely beat,
The only utterance of the afternoon,
Till on a sudden in the silent street
An organ-man drew up and ground
The Old Hundredth tune.
Forthwith the pillar of cloud that hides the
Burst into flame,
Whose alchemy transmuted house and mast,
Street, dockyard, pier and pile :
By magic sound the Isle of Dogs became
A northern isle
A green isle like a beryl set
In a wine-coloured sea,
Shadowed by mountains where a river met
The ocean’s arm extended royally.
There also in the evening on the shore
An old man ground the Old Hundredth tune,
An old enchanter steeped in human lore,
Sad-eyed, with whitening beard, and visage lank:
Not since and not before,
Under the sunset or the mellowing moon,
Has any hand of man’s conveyed
Such meaning in the turning of a crank.
Sometimes he played
As if his box had been
An organ in an abbey richly lit;
For when the dark invaded day’s demesne.
And the sun set in crimson and in gold ;
When idlers swarmed upon the esplanade,
And a late steamer wheeling towards the quay
Struck founts of silver from the darkling
The solemn tune arose and shook and rolled
Above the throng,
Above the hum and tramp and bravely knit
All hearts in common memories of song.
Sometimes he played at speed ;
Then the Old Hundredth like a devil’s mass
Instinct with evil thought and evil deed,
Rang out in anguish and remorse. Alas !
That men must know both Heaven and Hell!
Sometimes the melody
Sang with the murmuring surge;
And with the winds would tell
Of peaceful graves and of the passing bell.
Sometimes it pealed across the bay
A high triumphal dirge,
A dirge For the departing undefeated day.
A noble tune, a high becoming mate
Of the capped mountains and the deep broad firth ;
A simple tune and great,
The fittest utterance of the voice of earth.