Study Guide

Against Confidences

by Donald Davie

Against Confidences Themes

Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Against Confidences” focuses on two main areas: the development of personal relationships and the modern popularity of effusiveness in print, speech, psychiatric treatment, and some social relationships. The repeated word “now” may apply to the development of personal (especially romantic) relationships, in which the participants may wrongly believe that a complete, uncritical outpouring of the self is mandated. Such an outpouring, the poem implies, will probably be warped by the romantic partners’ deep-seated fears of injury to their self-esteem or by concerns about damage to the relationship.

The repeated word “now” may also point to modern times. Against the modern popularity of self-indulgently telling all, Davie’s speaker counterposes the precise, vaguely archaic literary word for despising or scorning, “contemned” (stanza 1). In the 1950’s and early 1960’s, when “Against Confidences” was published, highly autobiographical, confessional poetry was gathering momentum in American and British literature. Confessional poetry is perhaps best exemplified by the work of a group of talented American poets that includes Robert Lowell, W. D. Snodgrass, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich, Theodore Roethke, and John Berryman. This strand of modern poetry, which extends back to the poetry of Walt Whitman and William Wordsworth, continues to the present.

Davie’s “Against Confidences,” far from the vividly specific word choice and autobiographical imagery of confessional poetry, employs austerely general and abstract word choices and imagery as well as figurative language reminiscent of classical sculpture and neoclassical verse. Davie’s poem remains a polished refutation of confessional poetry, as do perceptive remarks in his books of literary criticism Purity of Diction in English Verse (1952), Articulate Energy: An Enquiry into the Syntax of English Poetry (1955), and Under Briggflatts: A History of Poetry in Great Britain, 1960-1988 (1989). The purity of diction and word choice in “Against Confidences” provides a fitting parallel to the title of Davie’s first important book of literary criticism, which, like the poem, continues to be a touchstone of English literature.