Donald Davie 1922-1995
English poet, critic, editor, memoirist, and translator.
Davie is well respected for both his creative and his critical contributions to contemporary literature. His belief that the poet “is responsible to the community in which he writes for purifying and correcting the spoken language” is manifested by the classical formalism of his verse. Although his work is often considered overly academic, it is also recognized as both elegant and compressed.
Davie was born in Barnsley, Yorkshire, England on July 17, 1922. In 1941 he enlisted in the Royal Navy. After World War II he attended Cambridge, receiving his doctoral degree in 1951. In the 1950s Davie was associated with the Movement, a group of poets that included Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, and Thom Gunn. In contrast to English poets of the 1940s who were influenced by imagism and symbolism, the Movement poets emphasized restrained language, traditional syntax, and the moral and social implications of poetic content. In the late 1950s Davie spent several years teaching in Ireland. Disillusioned with what he viewed as a declining English culture and feeling himself alienated from English academics who emphasized the separateness of poetry and criticism, Davie moved to the United States. He taught several years at Stanford University and Vanderbilt University before moving back to England. He continued to write poetry and criticism until his death in 1995.
Davie has described himself as a poet for whom intellectual concerns take precedence over expressions of sensual experience. Some critics, however, note a sensuous attraction to nature in several poems in A Winter Talent and Other Poems which became more pronounced and deliberate in Events and Wisdoms. Many of Davie's poems deal with his ambivalent feeling toward England. Several poems from In the Stopping Train illuminate this tension as Davie attempts to come to terms with the England of his childhood and the England of today. The Shires is comprised of forty poems, one for each county in England, in which Davie contemplates the past, present, and future of his native country. His Collected Poems and Selected Poems are collections of verse that display the directness and aesthetic control for which Davie has been commended throughout his career.
It has been asserted that many of Davie's most successful poems are suffused with a sense of place and a sense of history associated with place. Among these, Essex Poems considers the differences between England and America. Other commentators have underscored the role of Ireland and Canada in his work. It has also been noted that Davie's critical interest in other poets often affects his own poetic style. He has written critical works on Boris Pasternak, Ezra Pound, and Thomas Hardy; it follows that commentators attribute his experimental use of metaphor, symbolism, and loosely-structured verse forms to the influence of these poets. Stylistically, analyses have focused on Davie's adherence to the aesthetic considerations of the Movement poets: prose-like syntax, formal structures, and the conservative metaphors of the eighteenth-century Augustan poets. Finally, recent critical commentary has identified and discussed the importance of religious and political issues in Davie's work.
Brides of Reason 1955
A Winter Talent and Other Poems 1957
New and Selected Poems 1961
A Sequence for Francis Parkman 1961
Events and Wisdoms: Poems 1957-1963 1964
Essex Poems 1963-1967 1969
Six Epistles to Eva Hesse 1970
Collected Poems, 1950-1970 1972
The Shires: Poems 1974
In the Stopping Train and Other Poems 1977
Three for Water-Music 1981
Collected Poems, 1970-1983 1983
To Scorch or Freeze: Poems about the Sacred 1988
Collected Poems 1991
Poems and Melodramas 1996
Selected Poems 1997
Purity of Diction in English Verse (criticism) 1952
Articulate Energy: An Enquiry into the Syntax of English Poetry (criticism) 1955
The Heyday of Sir Walter Scott (criticism) 1961
The Language of Science and the Language of Literature, 1700-1740 (criticism) 1963
Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor (criticism) 1964
Thomas Hardy and British...
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SOURCE: “The Poetry of Donald Davie,” in The Critical Quarterly, Vol. 4, No. 4, Winter, 1962, pp. 293-304.
[In the following essay, Bergonzi examines stylistic and thematic aspects of Davie's early work.]
Donald Davie's first book was a cool, rather tough work of literary criticism, Purity of Diction in English Verse, published in 1952. This was ostensibly an academic study of the procedures of various minor eighteenth century poets, together with reflections on later poetry; it contained some admirable literary history, and was full of worthwhile hints for the student of Augustan verse. But Purity of Diction, despite its bland scholarly guise, had a barely concealed polemical purpose. It represented Davie's reaction against the dominant assumptions of twentieth century poetics: that the essence of poetry lay in metaphor, and particularly in the bold or violent collocation of images, and that syntax must inevitably be distorted or broken in the interests of poetic immediacy. The minor Augustans whom Davie admired had used metaphor sparingly, and ‘arresting’ images hardly at all; they preserved in their diction a tone that was carefully balanced between cultivated speech and literary usage (and which Davie saw as closely related to desirable moral qualities of poise and balance); and they employed a compressed, energetic syntax which, though based on the syntax of prose, was capable...
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SOURCE: “A Breakthrough into Spaciousness: The ‘Collected Poems’ of Donald Davie,” in Queen's Quarterly, Vol. LXXX, No. 4, Winter, 1973, pp. 601-15.
[In the following essay, Greene emphasizes the importance of Canada to Davie's verse.]
Eight hours between us, eight hours by the clock between us, eleven hours flying time.
Canada nowadays is what you fly over when travelling non-stop between California and Europe. The plane takes off, circling over the blue Pacific water and white sand beaches of Venice (California) and Malibu, dotted with surfboarders and scuba divers; then over the rugged mountain chain surrounding the Los Angeles basin, then across the Mojave and Nevada and Utah deserts (on the right route and a clear day you get a fine view of the Grand Canyon). Then the snow-capped immensity of the Rocky Mountains. But then, hour after hour of flat, monotonous prairie, dotted with towns, smaller and larger, their streets repeating the checkerboard pattern of the farms. Drinks are served, dinner is consumed, boredom sets in. After a while you look down: the checkerboard towns and farms are gradually disappearing; the flatness begins to be dotted by innumerable small lakes, and someone says, “I suppose we’re over Canada now”—northern Saskatchewan or Manitoba. It is time to show the movie. Later, bored by it, you raise your window blind and see...
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SOURCE: “Donald Davie and Ireland,” in Donald Davie and the Responsibilities of Literature, edited by George Dekker, Carcanet New Press, 1983, pp. 49-63.
[In the following essay, Martin analyzes Davie's complex relationship to Ireland and how it affects his poetry.]
In February 1980 Donald Davie published two poems side by side in the San Francisco journal Inquiry and coupled them beneath the caption, ‘English in Ireland’. The caption is subtle, because it refers, I think, to language as well as to people and history. The collocation of the two poems, one written eight years later than the other, marks and defines a significant phase in the English poet's dialogue with Ireland, its people, landscape, historical remains, literary traditions, its tragic politics. This dialogue which has, over twenty-five years, been mostly tender and contemplative, has once or twice taken on the violence and rudeness of a lover's quarrel. The first of these two poems, ‘1969, Ireland of the Bombers’, is the most dramatic of these collisions. I took personal offence when it appeared in the Irish Times of that year, and as I am curiously implicated in the genesis of the second, reconciliatory poem, ‘1977, Near Mullingar’, I think I may explain some of the passion and complexity that lies behind both literary utterances. To understand that psychological relation is to glimpse not only the Irish...
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SOURCE: “This That I Am Heir to: Donald Davie and Religion,” in Donald Davie and the Responsibilities of Literature, edited by George Dekker, Carcanet New Press, 1983, pp. 129-42.
[In the following essay, Schirmer considers the role of religion in Davie's work.]
Even a casual reading of the poetry and criticism of Donald Davie must notice the important place that religion, specifically the Dissenting tradition in England, has always held in his work. Most obviously, a number of the poems in the Collected Poems 1950-1970 concern the Dissenting tradition in general, while others express Davie's own ambiguous response to the particular, Baptist faith in which he was brought up. Moreover, the aesthetic principles that have guided and informed both Davie's poetry and criticism—such ‘classical’ standards as restraint and sparseness, for example—clearly owe something to the rigorous ethical and aesthetic principles of Nonconformity.
In recent years, Davie's concern with religion has become altogether more urgent and personal. Not only are more and more of his poems concerned with religion, but also they have become decidedly religious in nature, informed by—or indeed intent on expressing—a firm sense of religious belief. And in his criticism, Davie has turned increasingly towards religious writers, especially those working within the Dissenting tradition. This new...
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SOURCE: “Donald Davie: The Irish Years,” in The Southern Review, Vol. 20, No. 1, January, 1984, pp. 29-40.
[In the following essay, Quinlan explores autobiographical aspects of Davie's Irish poems.]
Donald Davie was an English don at Trinity College, Dublin, from 1950 until 1957. It was during these years that he published the books on which a substantial part of his reputation both as poet and critic still rests: Purity of Diction in English Verse (1952), Brides of Reason (1955), Articulate Energy (1955), A Winter Talent & Other Poems (1957). And it was in Ireland also that he formed many of his opinions as to what the ideal relationship between the artist and his society should be. In fact, in some instances, Ireland seems to be the hidden criterion by which Davie judges his own country's cultural short-comings. Again, “in Ireland or the United States” is a phrase that recurs in Davie's writings, suggesting that he sees some kind of similarity between these two nations and also that his Irish years were a preparation for his later, more complete, exile from England. Yet one can read critics who have devoted considerable effort to analyzing Davie's career and art—Neil Powell and Blake Morrison for example—without being told that the poet lived in Dublin rather than in England for several years before undertaking his first transatlantic journey in 1957. Calvin...
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SOURCE: “‘Or, Solitude’: A Reading,” in On Modern Poetry: Essays Presented to Donald Davie, edited by Vereen Bell and Laurence Lerner, Vanderbilt University Press, 1988, pp. 81-87.
[In the following essay, Heaney deems “Or, Solitude” a “poetic happening” and an “important event in the history of British poetry over the last quarter of a century.”]
An unexpected sensation of furtherance: that is what I remember of my first reading of Donald Davie's poem “Or, Solitude” in an issue of New Statesman late in 1965. What exactly the poem meant I could not have said, nor could I have formulated my response in the terms I now propose, yet the actual experience of the lines did constitute a poetic “happening.” In them, the consensus that usually allows the English imagination to order reality on a domestic scale had been for the moment refused, and English poetry was receiving one of its rare visitations of strangeness. The roof had come off, and the sensibility was being exposed to something both unlimited and adjacent. One might have called the poem visionary, except that it concluded with a rhetorical curtailment which seemed to climb down from that high mode. Or one could have called it evocative, except that it intended something far more declarative than that word would suggest. Even the poet himself had difficulty determining where the poem had got to and what he was to...
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SOURCE: “A Shared Humanity: ‘In the Stopping Train’ and ‘The Whitsun Weddings’,” in On Modern Poetry: Essays Presented to Donald Davie, edited by Vereen Bell and Laurence Lerner, Vanderbilt University Press, 1988, pp. 89-101.
[In the following essay, Jarman contrasts the role of the poet as evinced in Davie's “In the Stopping Train” and Philip Larkin's “The Whitsun Weddings.”]
These are my customs and establishments. It would be much more serious to refuse. —Philip Larkin “The Importance of Elsewhere”
A man who ought to know me wrote in a review my emotional life was meagre.
—Donald Davie “July, 1964”
In his recent collection of lectures, Czeslaw Milosz and the Insufficiency of Lyric, Donald Davie argues that, because of twentieth-century history, the lyric poet has lost the privilege of being responsible only to himself and his emotions. Therefore, he must find a way to speak for more than himself. The late twentieth-century search for a more representative self is not peculiar to our era. Keats sought it in his attempts at empathy, in the very negative capability now associated with the self-involved lyric and against which Davie reacts....
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Bateson, F. W. “The Analysis of Poetic Texts: Owen's ‘Futility’ and Davie's ‘The Garden Party’.” Essays in Criticism 29, No. 2 (April 1979): 156-64.
Compares stylistic aspects of Wilfred Owen's “Futility” and Davie's “The Garden Party.”
Bedient, Calvin. “On Donald Davie.” The Iowa Review 2, No. 2 (Spring 1971): 66-88.
Discusses the defining characteristics of Davie's verse.
Bell, Vereen and Laurence Lerner, eds. On Modern Poetry: Essays Presented to Donald Davie. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1988, 256 p.
Collection of critical essays on Davie's poetry and literary criticism.
Dekker, George. “Donald Davie: New and Divergent Lines in English Poetry.” Agenda 14, No. 2 (Summer 1976): 45-57.
Considers the role of England in Davie's The Shires and compares his work to that of another English poet, Philip Larkin.
Dodsworth, Martin. “Donald Davie.” Agenda 14, No. 2 (Summer 1976): 15-22.
Traces the development of Davie's verse.
Powell, Neil. “Donald Davie: Dissentient Voice.” In British Poetry Since 1970: A Critical Survey, edited by Peter Jones and Michael Schmidt, pp. 39-45. New York: Persea Books, 1980.
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