I just want to add that John Davidson is one of my favorite of all the dead poets. Most, not all, of my favorite living poets are actually songwriters, and a bleak lot they are, too: Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Townes Van Zandt (oops, he's dead!) and now joining them is John Darnielle.
Links to all the relevant works are below.
I have been listening to the most recent Mountain Goats album, Life of the World to Come. My son Carey turned me on to this excellent group, with its poetic, often cryptic lyrics by the singer songwriter and leader John Darnielle. For some reason, I have noticed an influence, a precursor, very unlikely, and I doubt JD is even aware of this poet from over 100 years ago - John Davidson.
(I should explain what I mean by influence, then. See Harold Bloom's seminal short book, The Anxiety of Influence, for a better explanation than I can hope to give.)
Some people have said that this album is "religious". All the song's titles are Bible verses. There is a lot of religious imagery. But poets as diverse as John Milton, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, William Blake and Dylan Thomas have used religious imagery in their poetry. This does not make them all religious poets. At first, I thought Darnielle uses religious imagery mostly like Dylan Thomas, but no. Although Thomas was not a devout man by any stretch of the imagination, and although Thomas's themes were as soaked in alcohol as Darnielle's are imbued in drug abuse, I think DT would have just called himself a sinner, not a rebel. What would JD call himself? And here I have to invoke Bloom again, for he constantly compares writing, in fact all acts of creativity, to Jacob's wrestling with God (referred to in the Scripture as an Angel but it was really God.) And all these men and women, even Milton, even the ultra-devout Hopkins, do wrestle with God.
But the first poet who did not walk away defeated from the match, in my opinion, was John Davidson. Back in the late Victorian era, this JD had an air of jaunty defiance to the Almighty that JD of the 21st century really harks back to. Mainly I am thinking of two poems.
In "A Ballad of Hell," a woman is enticed to commit suicide by a man who no longer loves her, thinking she is in a suicide pact with him. Arriving in hell and being told of his betrayal, she declares she won't stay, and marches across the fiery river to heaven.
Seraphs and saints with one great voiceThis seems pretty tame now, but I imagine it was deeply shocking to the Victorians, and similarly Darnielle often lulls listeners into thinking they are about to hear a moral lesson, only to turn the tables and blaze a new thought trail, as in the song "Psalms 40:2." The verse this derives from is all about salvation and how after raising one from the pit, God will "establish your goings". In this song, our protagonists are raised from a pit, and then apparently trash the beautiful temple, sleep off the drunk, feel better, hit the road.
Welcomed that soul that knew not fear.
Amazed to find it could rejoice,
Hell raised a hoarse, half-human cheer.
Head down towards Kansas we will get there when we get there don't you worryIn "Thirty Bob a Week," Davidson has this to say in response to the Victorian idea that a downtrodden workingman should accept his lot and be grateful to God:
Feel bad about the things we do along the way
But not really that bad
My weakness and my strength without a doubtAnd here is John Darnielle, in the lyric he has named for the verse in Genesis where God kicks Adam out of the garden. Here the protagonist has broken into an inhabited comfortable home that he used to live in, and it's not such a paradise after all:
Are mine alone for ever from the first:
It's just the very same with a difference in the name
As 'Thy will be done.' You say it if you durst!
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.
Pictures up on the mantle, nobody I knowAnd then he concludes:
I stand by the tiny furnace where the long shadows grow
Living room to bedroom to kitchen, familiar and warm
Hours we spent starving within these walls, sounds of a distant storm
Steal home before sunset, cover up my tracks
Drive home with old dreams at play in my mind and the wind at my back
Break the lock on my own garden gate when I get home after dark
Sit looking up at the stars outside like teeth in the mouth of a shark