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 Davie, the artist’s purification of the word might restore moderation, propriety, and control—the very values that inspire integrity and courage. The poet, by improving the spoken language of his society, might actually inspire the creative, moral, and social betterment of civilization. Again and again, Davie explained that “the abandonment of syntax testifies to . . . a loss of confidence in the intelligible structure of the conscious mind, and the validity of its activity.” The main activity of the mind is moral and social.
Davie gained recognition with the New Lines anthology published in 1956 and the Movement of the 1950’s. His name was linked with John Wain, Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, Gunn, Robert Conquest, D. J. Enright, Elizabeth Jennings, and John Holloway, along with the other reactionary poets who stood against the romantic excesses, “tawdry amoralism,” and Imagism and Symbolism of the British poets of the 1940’s, such as Dylan Thomas, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound. The Movement argued for a return to conventional prose syntax and a more formal poetry that utilized the conservative metaphors of the eighteenth century Augustans. These poets, who shared a similar class background, as well as similar educational and professional goals, were, in addition, linked to various Reactionary Generation Americans such as Winters, Louise Bogan, the Fugitives, and even Hart Crane, and to those poets who were pursuing concrete poetry, such as H. D. and Pound. For Davie and the Movement, a decorous diction was to be selected according to subject or genre; so, too, structure was to be logical rather than musical.
Brides of Reason
The first poem of Davie’s first volume, Brides of Reason, introduces a theme that persisted throughout his career—English identity abroad: the would-be-exile-becomes-hero, the poet inhabiting and striving to unite two different national psyches. Now in Ireland, he describes his “Hands [as] acknowledging no allegiance./ Gloved for good against brutal chance” (“Demi-Exile. Howth”). He also wrote, again in neoclassical form, that his work is intended to appeal to the “logic” in his reader, so that “poets may astonish you/ With what is not, but should be, true,/ And shackle on a moral shape” (“Hypochondriac Logic”). The frequent obscurities and ambiguities of this volume reflect the influence of William Empson and F. R. Leavis, although more noteworthy is Davie’s debt to the Augustans William Cowper, Oliver Goldsmith, Samuel Johnson, and Christopher Smart. “Homage to William Cowper,” which proposes that “Most poets let the morbid fancy roam,” goes on to insist that “Horror starts, like Charity, at home.” Davie, admitting that he is “a pasticheur of late-Augustan styles,” would work with rhetoric of the eighteenth century and attempt a rational structure through absolute clarity of premeditated logic. In “Zip!” he wrote:
I’d have the spark that leaps upon the gunBy one short fuse, electrically clear;And all be done before you’ve well begun.(It is reverberations that you hear.)
“On Bertrand Russell’s ’Portraits from Memory’” begins with a familiar Davie verse:
Those Cambridge generations, Russell’s, Keynes’ . . .And mine? Oh mine was Wittgenstein’s, no doubt:Sweet pastoral, too, when some-one else explains,Although my memories leave the eclogues out.
Davie’s early poetry was frequently compared to Charles Tomlinson’s because of their mutual equation of form and morality. Poise, control, and clarity of statement, both poets maintained, reflect moral imperatives and contribute toward the establishment of a society of common sense, human decency, and high moral principle. Nevertheless, with his admittedly high moral stance, Davie began a long isolation from his more fashionable contemporaries—from the early Thomas to the confessional poetry of Theodore Roethke, Sylvia Plath, and Robert Lowell. Throughout his career, Davie remained aloof from even the great William Butler Yeats and Eliot, in whose vast mythmaking he sensed a distancing from the human condition. For Davie, the poet must speak directly to his reader and take on the role of “spokesman of a social [not mythic] tradition”; the poet is responsible for the rescue of culture from decline by “making poetry out of moral commonplace.” Interestingly, although Davie’s aims were not entirely unlike those of Yeats and Eliot—to inspire action and change in a philistine and unimaginative contemporary world—he would accomplish his ends not through imaginative participation in myth, but rather through conscious control of language, and thus thought and, finally, action. Responding to Davie’s example of proper diction and traditional meter and syntax, for example, one might feel inclined to affirm the proper values of a more stable and civilized past. In “Vying,” Davie wrote:
There I, the sexton, battleEarth that will overturnHeadstones, and rifle tombs,And spill the tilted urn.
Over the years, Davie gradually moved toward shorter and brisker lines, as well as a less obscure poetry. There was also an increasing display of emotion and a greater revelation of self—a closer relationship between the speaker and his landscape, history, and metaphor. The specific and general became more closely integrated. His rejection of a poetry consumed with the “messy ego,” nevertheless, remained absolute, like his insistence that language remain the starting point of moral betterment. He therefore continued to reject accepted modern usage: “the stumbling, the moving voices,” “the Beat and post-Beat poets,/ The illiterate apostles” (“Pentecost”). What is wanting and necessary, instead, is a “neutral tone” (“Remembering the ’Thirties”), reasonableness, and common values.
A Sequence for Francis Parkman
A Sequence for Francis Parkman, Davie’s response following his first visit to North America during 1957-1958, contains brief profiles of Sieur de La Salle, the Comte de Frontenac, Louis Joseph de Montcalm, Pontiac, and Louis Antoine de Bouganville, as Davie adapted them from the historiographer Francis Parkman.
A Sequence for Francis Parkman reveals Davie’s fascination with the openness of North America with its empty and uncluttered spaces that lack the detritus of a long history of human failure. The continent functions not unlike a grand tabula rasa on which the poet can project his meditations. He wrote in “A Letter to Curtis Bradford”:
But I only guess,I guess at it out of my Englishness
(The entire section is 3538 words.)