Davidson, Donald 1893–1968
Davidson was an American poet, critic, historian, and rhetorician. One of the original founders of the Fugitive school of poetry, Davidson created a verse marked by an uncompromising loyalty to the precepts of the Southern Agrarian movement. He explicated his artistic vision in poetry whose syntax and diction is drawn from the classical and biblical tradition. Of focal concern for Davidson are the problems of religion, tradition, and fundamental human integrity in the modern world. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
In [the symposium] I'll Take My Stand the main job of condemning the effects of industrialism on art fell to Donald Davidson. In his "A Mirror for Artists" he tried to answer the important question: "What is the industrial theory of the arts?" Following the example of Ruskin and Morris, Davidson attacked industrialism as a vicious process that both dirtied up the physical landscape and made man's life dull, mechanical, and mean. Conscious mainly of his own region, Davidson envisaged the South pillaged by a horde of cultural reformers, missionaries of the industrial North, arriving to prepare the land for bathtubs and flush toilets. "Much as the Red Cross mobilizes against disease," he complained in a sardonic passage, "the guardians of public taste can mobilize against bad art or lack of art; one visualizes caravans of art, manned by regiments of lecturers, rushed hastily to future epidemic centers of barbarism, when some new Mencken discovers a Sahara of the Bozart." (pp. 83-4)
The primary trouble [with industrialism] lay in the decadence of an ecomony which placed an exchange value on every object, including art. Davidson wrote bitterly that industrialism "will buy art, if any fool wants it. And industrialism is quite unconscious that the bargain … involves the destruction of the thing bargained for."…
Furthermore, according to Davidson, the liberal's dream of mastering the machine for aesthetic purposes was futile. Neither the machine nor any object it created could ever be a proper subject matter for literature…. The only real hope for the arts lay in an Agrarian society; it was the only alternative to industrialism, for communism and capitalism were equally committed to the machine age. Only Agrarianism could end the current physical and spiritual despoilment of mankind. Man would not be forced to work so desperately nor would he work and play at cross...
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[A familiar version of the old Southern] home is to be found in Donald Davidson's contribution to [I'll Take My Stand], "A Mirror for Artists." his essay, as its title implies, is principally concerned with assessing different societies in terms of the opportunities they make available to the creative intelligence: the artist is in this sense a "mirror" to his age, while his contemporaries in turn supply him with a "mirror" for his own plight. The subject necessarily involves Davidson, though, in an analysis of larger social differences, and it is at this point that his acceptance of an essentially aristocratic notion of the Old South is revealed. For him the complete man, whether artist or otherwise, is the "compleat gentleman" of the Elizabethan manuals of behavior. He accepts the notion of gentility as his lodestar, and it is this acceptance that dictates his terms of reference: his continual appeal, for instance, to what he calls "classical" society—a term he associates equally, and rather confusingly, with the reigns of Elizabeth and the early Hanoverians, the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome. At a more fundamental level, it also explains the kind of persona he adopts for the course of the essay. For in order to demonstrate his argument he becomes, to all intents and purposes, the very gentleman with a "genuine taste for oratory" that he is celebrating. (p. 50)
[A] comparison between [Davidson] and … John Crowe Ransom is made all the more imperative—and easier—because in his earliest verse, collected in An Outland Piper, a definite attempt is made to imitate the tone and ironies of the older poet. The assumption of Ransom's mask, however, does not conceal the differences between the two writers—it merely emphasizes them. The irony is notable only for its uneasiness and ultimate inappropriateness. A short poem called "Dryad," which describes the seduction of a shopgirl by a small-town gigolo, offers a good example of what I mean. As the discrepancy between the subject and the title suggests, Davidson's initial intention seems to have been to achieve a mock-heroic effect by contrasting the event described and the mode of description, and so to prick the bubble of sentimental pretense…. [But this intention soon disappears], along with most of the irony, under the pressure of the poet's emerging sympathy for the girl…. In effect, "Dryad" becomes more a defense of the romantic attitude than a criticism of it, a celebration of the impulse to transform "dead finite into infinite" no matter how unjustified that impulse may prove to be. And in the process the poet's scorn is transferred from the romantic alien to those "reasoners" who would deny her romanticism and criticize the alienation…. (pp. 95-6)
[With the poems in An Outland Piper], the tone only becomes consistent when Davidson … concentrates his energies on a critique of the "reasoner," or a celebration of the romantic. And, insofar as this involves an examination of the modes of power and success in contemporary life, the results are all to the good. It makes possible, for instance, a series of effective if not especially subtle satires…. To the extent that this movement away from the influence of Ransom drives Davidson into a form of escapism, however, it represents a radical simplification of attitude and tone…. [The poet] seeks comfort in a dreamland, some place where his problems and difficulties seem wondrously to disappear.
This less fortunate consequence of Davidson's disgust with what he has called "the spiritual disorder of modern life" is not obvious in An Outland Piper, because at the time when it was published he had not yet found an appropriate location for his dreamland. By the time his next collection of verse appeared, however, he had discovered or rather invented one in history—the history, that is, of his family and region. The title poem, "The Tall Men," indicates the change. It is a long poem, with eight sections linked loosely together, and it more or less illustrates the themes that were to preoccupy Davidson for the rest of his life—as well as his characteristic methods of presenting them. The connecting link between the sections is a dramatized narrator, a representative man whose life the reader shares for the course of one day…. During the course of this day the poem ranges back and forth in historical time, although the place is nearly always Nashville, Tennessee, and as a result of this procedure we are supplied with a means of assessing the evidence. The present, in sum, is judged in terms of a past articulated in dream, in memory—or more simply by means of a series of comparisons between places in Tennessee then and now.
Some parts of the poem demonstrate a capacity that Davidson has always had for launching enormously powerful philippics against the "mechanical age."… [He] dehumanizes the narrator by presenting him as a series of dissociated elements whose functions have been usurped by the machine…. The result is to establish a network of metaphor that gives some kind of support to Davidson's rhetoric, the direct attacks on contemporary civilization that climax in an apocalyptic vision of its destruction by fire…. [He] does not believe in original sin, an idea that would make the urban scene at worst a participant in the process of moral deterioration rather than its cause. On the contrary, he tends to locate the root of man's trouble in his environment, without specifying how that environment came into being in the first place, and so to conclude that a change of scene will bring about an immediate and radical alteration of character. This is determinism of the simplest kind…. [Flight] into a Great Good Place, still regarded as possible,… is not so much defined as conceived of as a series of antimonies to the present discontent.
This brings us to the function of Southern history in the poem: it is there to supply a notion of the Great Good Place to which flight is to be made. As such, it has very little to do either with the facts of the case or with the kind of mythologizing process … [occuring] in the work of Ransom, Warren, and Tate—the process, that is, whereby an idea of the region is shaped into a consciously articulated framework of value, to be then tested against the pressures of experience. The Old...
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The poems that Davidson [composed] in the early 1920s had mostly to do with demon pipers, tigers, dragons, and the like; they were musical, romantic, and the language was more like that of the early Yeats than of T. S. Eliot or even of the Yeats of post-1910. The pen name he chose for the work that appeared in the first two numbers of The Fugitive, "Robin Gallivant," suited perfectly the approach to the poems. (p. 144)
["A Demon Brother," however inferior poetically to the revised version entitled "An Outland Piper,"] pronounces the theme of Davidson's career as poet. For as poet and as Agrarian, he would indeed be looking for "someone I sought and lost of noble kin"—the image of the...
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The major themes of Donald Davidson's poetry—tradition, the value of one's heritage, the importance of the past to the present—appear most forcefully in the volume The Tall Men, published in 1927, and the poem "Lee in the Mountains," written in 1934 when Davidson was devoting much energy to the cause of Agrarianism. His most effective treatment of these themes prior to The Tall Men is, surprisingly, in a group of poems written in the summer of 1922, when Davidson corresponded frequently with Allen Tate about the possibilities of the new "modernism" in poetry. These poems, which Davidson and Tate refer to as the "Pan" series—individually entitled "Dryad," "Naiad," "Twilight Excursion," and...
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