In both his poetry and his critical commentary, Donald Davie advocated a poetry of formal structure and prose syntax, along with restrained metaphor and feeling. He urged repeatedly that art communicate rational statement and moral purpose in technically disciplined forms. His work, usually highly compressed, erudite, and formally elegant, is sometimes criticized for its lack of feeling and for tending toward the overly academic—in short, for the notable absence of the personal element. Davie, nevertheless, stood firm in his position that the poet is responsible primarily to the community in which he writes for purifying and thus correcting the spoken language: “The central act of poetry as of music, is the creation of syntax, of meaningful arrangement.” The poet thus helps one understand one’s feelings; he improves the very process of one’s thinking, and hence one’s subsequent actions. Ultimately, the poet helps correct the moral behavior of the community at large.
Davie’s poetry, frequently labeled neo-Augustan, is characterized by formal elegance, urbane wit, technical purity, and plain diction. A widely respected poet, Davie pursued a refined and austere art to counter the disorder of the modern world. Shortly after publishing his Collected Poems, 1950-1970, he described the spirit of mid-century as “on the side of all that was insane and suicidal, without order and without proportion, against civilization.” To...
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