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Thirty Bob a Week -- John Davidson

(Poem #420) Thirty Bob a Week
 I couldn't touch a stop and turn a screw,
   And set the blooming world a-work for me,
 Like such as cut their teeth -- I hope, like you --
   On the handle of a skeleton gold key;
 I cut mine on a leek, which I eat it every week:
   I'm a clerk at thirty bob as you can see.

 But I don't allow it's luck and all a toss;
   There's no such thing as being starred and crossed;
 It's just the power of some to be a boss,
   And the bally power of others to be bossed:
 I face the music, sir; you bet I ain't a cur;
   Strike me lucky if I don't believe I'm lost!

 For like a mole I journey in the dark,
   A-travelling along the underground
 From my Pillar'd Halls and broad Suburbean Park,
   To come the daily dull official round;
 And home again at night with my pipe all alight,
   A-scheming how to count ten bob a pound.

 And it's often very cold and very wet,
   And my missus stitches towels for a hunks;
 And the Pillar'd Halls is half of it to let--
   Three rooms about the size of travelling trunks.
 And we cough, my wife and I, to dislocate a sigh,
   When the noisy little kids are in their bunks.

 But you never hear her do a growl or whine,
   For she's made of flint and roses, very odd;
 And I've got to cut my meaning rather fine,
   Or I'd blubber, for I'm made of greens and sod:
 So p'r'haps we are in Hell for all that I can tell,
   And lost and damn'd and served up hot to God.

 I ain't blaspheming, Mr. Silver-tongue;
   I'm saying things a bit beyond your art:
 Of all the rummy starts you ever sprung,
   Thirty bob a week's the rummiest start!
 With your science and your books and your the'ries about spooks,
   Did you ever hear of looking in your heart?

 I didn't mean your pocket, Mr., no:
   I mean that having children and a wife,
 With thirty bob on which to come and go,
   Isn't dancing to the tabor and the fife:
 When it doesn't make you drink, by Heaven! it makes you think,
   And notice curious items about life.

 I step into my heart and there I meet
   A god-almighty devil singing small,
 Who would like to shout and whistle in the street,
   And squelch the passers flat against the wall;
 If the whole world was a cake he had the power to take,
   He would take it, ask for more, and eat them all.

 And I meet a sort of simpleton beside,
   The kind that life is always giving beans;
 With thirty bob a week to keep a bride
   He fell in love and married in his teens:
 At thirty bob he stuck; but he knows it isn't luck:
   He knows the seas are deeper than tureens.

 And the god-almighty devil and the fool
   That meet me in the High Street on the strike,
 When I walk about my heart a-gathering wool,
   Are my good and evil angels if you like.
 And both of them together in every kind of weather
   Ride me like a double-seated bike.

 That's rough a bit and needs its meaning curled.
   But I have a high old hot un in my mind --
 A most engrugious notion of the world,
   That leaves your lightning 'rithmetic behind:
 I give it at a glance when I say 'There ain't no chance,
   Nor nothing of the lucky-lottery kind.'

 And it's this way that I make it out to be:
   No fathers, mothers, countres, climates -- none;
 Not Adam was responsible for me,
   Nor society, nor systems, nary one:
 A little sleeping seed, I woke -- I did, indeed --
   A million years before the blooming sun.

 I woke because I thought the time had come;
   Beyond my will there was no other cause;
 And everywhere I found myself at home,
   Because I chose to be the thing I was;
 And in whatever shape of mollusc or of ape
   I always went according to the laws.

 I was the love that chose my mother out;
   I joined two lives and from the union burst;
 My weakness and my strength without a doubt
   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.

 It's a naked child against a hungry wolf;
   It's playing bowls upon a splitting wreck;
 It's walking on a string across a gulf
   With millstones fore-and-aft about your neck;
 But the thing is daily done by many and many a one;
   And we fall, face forward, fighting, on the deck.
-- John Davidson
This poem caused a scandal when it was first published, back in 1894. And
unsurprisingly so - its sentiments and its language were anathema to the
Victorians. No daffodils, no rainbows, certainly no Muses  - instead, a harsh
Cockney voice laying bare the grimy underbelly of 'civilization'. Powerful
stuff, and powerfully presented.

Of course, the irony is that Davidson, in his use of language and emotion, was
being far more true to the ideals of Wordsworth and his fellow Romantics than
his late-Victorian contemporaries...


PS. The final stanza is deservedly famous - see 'Invictus', another masterpiece
of defiance and courage, at poem #221


'Skeleton gold key' - the phrase implies that gold opens all doors.
'engrugious' is a malapropism for 'egregious'.
'suburbean' is an intentional mispelling; see the later line about 'the kind
that life is always giving beans'.

[Life and Works]

Poet, translator, novelist, and man of letters, John Davidson spent the first
part of his life as a teacher in Greenock, Glasgow, Perth, Crieff, and other
places. In 1884 he married Margaret Macarthur, who bore him two sons. In 1899 he
moved to London and earned a living by journalism. His second and third volumes
of verse, Fleet Street Eclogues (1893), proved popular, established his
reputation, and earned the respect of T. S. Eliot, who wrote a preface to a
selection of Davidson's poems in 1961 edited by Maurice Lindsay (PR 4525 D5A17
1961 Robarts Library). Little after these books, whether poetry, novels, or
translations, did well, and Davidson moved depended on his friends for support
until getting a Civil List pension in 1906 and moving to Penzance a year later.
The last half of his literary career was devoted to unsuccessful philosophical
poems and tragedies promoting a new world order. Depressed and ill, Davidson
committed suicide March 23, 1909, but his body was only found on the seashore
months later. He was buried at sea on September 21, 1909.


(Eliot's admiration for Davidson finds concrete expression in the Cockney
dialogues of the second part of The Waste Land, 'A Game of Chess', available
online at - t.)

6 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Suresh Ramasubramanian said...

On 6 May 2000, Abraham Thomas saw fit to inform me that:

> Of course, the irony is that Davidson, in his use of language and
> emotion, was being far more true to the ideals of Wordsworth and his
> fellow Romantics than his late-Victorian contemporaries...

Like I said in another rant, the "mid victorian" poets were mostly
(e&oe) forgettable bunch - inspiring such horrors as Sarojini Naidu
and Toru Dutt.

This poem would have hit those eminent respectables like a kick in
the seat of their well padded pants - with spiked boots.


Suresh Ramasubramanian + suresh (@) [broken link]
Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk.
That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.
-- Ernest Hemmingway

Tony Murland said...

Dear sirs ,i am trying to find the full text to Davidsons poem about
Greenock which has the lines " this grey town,that pipes the morning up
before the lark with shrieking steam,and from a hundred
stalks......................can you help? thanks tony murland

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