Davie, Donald (Vol. 8)
Davie, Donald 1922–
Davie is a British poet and critic. Concerned as he is with style and grace, he is in many respects a neo-Augustan poet. His poetry, cerebral and technically complex, has often been criticized as deficient in humanity. Most critics, however, recognize and applaud the recent direction in Davie's poetry towards the personal. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
I first encountered Donald Davie through the challenging and inventive criticism found in the pages of his Purity of Diction in English Verse and Articulate Energy. Davie's imaginative selection and juxtapositions of poems were woven into continuous arguments that never disposed of those poems by wrapping them up in interpretative tinfoil ("well, now that's done and I'm glad it's over!") but helped them instead to open out and open up to the reader. The books were exhilarating stimulants to one's own critical practice; they provided a standard of loving care directed at the art of poetry which the critic never presumed was less than indispensable. In … Thomas Hardy and English Poetry,… the belief is still that the poet "is what society cannot dispense with", and Davie practices on Hardy and some modern and contemporary poets who are indebted to him, the kind of scrupulous, unfailingly lively attention we now expect from him as our right. It was probably because of my high regard for this criticism that, becoming aware of Davie as also a poet who had then published two volumes (Brides of Reason, 1955; A Winter Talent, 1957) I took the "also" literally and considered the poetry a pastime out of which had come some delightful, slight efforts, very much subordinate to his larger labors as a critic.
The publication of Davie's collected poems has made me reconsider my priorities to the extent of realizing that a body of work of this magnitude can't be taken as "also" to anything else, no matter how good the something else may be. Although it is perhaps rash to quote from a notebook entry Davie himself describes as a "vulnerable" piece of writing, I believe it has enough interest to figure as a more general musing about his poetic career taken whole:
It is true that I am not a poet by nature, only by inclination; for my mind moves most easily and happily among abstractions, it relates ideas far more readily than it relates experiences. I have little appetite, only profound admiration, for sensuous fullness and immediacy; I have not the poet's need for concreteness….
He goes on to say that most of the poems he had written thus far (it was 1957) were not "natural" since their thought could have been expressed in a non-poetic way; and that while these poems weren't shams he had determined in the future to write only poems "which are, if not naturally, at all events truly poems throughout"…. We might think then of the often-anthologized Remembering the Thirties with its dialectical and sprightly consideration of the virtues and limitations of "nowadays" preferring "a neutral tone". One understands the sense in which this witty poem is not "natural"—it can be firmly taken in hand once you work it out, though I doubt that its "thought" expressed in a non-poetic way could have stayed with me the way it has, because impressed on my ear through stanzas, rhyme, and the pointed intelligence of verse. But by 1957 Davie had also written The Mushroom Gatherers which sounded not at all like Remembering the Thirties…. (pp. 289-90)
[It] would be misleading to claim that Davie began to write "true poems" by suppressing his ego, by refusing to get the jump too quickly or thoroughly on his subject, or, relatedly, by insisting piously that the non-human, stone, what won't be turned into a symbol or translated, is what we should really admire instead of our messy psyches, reeking of the human (to appropriate one of his own coinages). Anyone who protests as much as Davie has in his poems that we should "Never care so much / For leaves or people, but you care for stone / A little more" is bound to protest too much. Charles Tomlinson can write about stone, stonily; Davie by contrast has to worry the notion within the poem, and is worried by it…. It is not that over the course of the years from Brides of Reason to Essex Poems and beyond Davie's "I" has turned into a real person …, but that the "I" has become more strange as his experience, with age, has authentically widened. (p. 291)
William H. Pritchard, "Donald Davie's Poetry," in Poetry (© 1973 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), August, 1973, pp. 289-93.
In his best work [Davie's] sparsity is inseparable from an animating elegance; but there is little elegant about the language of The Shires. What there is, rather, is a kind of resonant blankness both of form and content—a blankness which embodies the absence of any living relationship to the culture he writes of. Taking the English counties one by one may seem at first glance a kind of courteous ritual of re-engagement, but it emerges more as a mechanical set-piece, a literary sport, akin in some ways to the Epistles to Eva Hesse. It's difficult to repress the suspicion that Davie no longer has anything to write about—or at least that he won't have until he addresses himself with more candour and complexity than this book reveals to the 'unfinished business' (his phrase) of his fraught relation to English culture.
Charles Tomlinson is one of the English poets Donald Davie admires, and it isn't difficult to see why: both men are committed to an unusually intimate correlation between certain problems of aesthetic technique—of poise, control, clarity, perception—and the character of certain moral values by which they seek to live. In their equableness, moderation and scepticism, those values are firmly rooted in English social democratic ideology; part of Davie's problem, however, is that they also stand askew to the concrete social embodiments of that ideology in their high-toned preoccupation with style, privacy and excellence. Defending social democracy against 'extremism' while lambasting its philistinism, assailing the imaginative torpor of empiricist England while clinging to sophisticated versions of common sense: the contradictions within which Davie's work moves concern the relation of the liberal intellectual to an advanced stage of bourgeois society with which he can neither identify nor disengage. (pp. 75-6)
Terry Eagleton, in Stand (copyright © by Stand), Vol. 16, No. 3 (1975).
Davie's poetry is more rich in human interest than any of his English contemporary's excepting Larkin's. It is worth recalling that in the debate with A. Alvarez published in The Review in 1962 ("The New Aestheticism"), it was Davie who insisted that "A good poem is necessarily a response to a human situation."
His most recent book, The Shires, was leapt on rather gleefully by most English reviewers when it appeared: how silly he was to think he could get away with this, try for a modern Poly-olbion, one poem for each shire. If good poems are necessarily responses to human situations, in justice one would have to admit that the air in The Shires is something pretty thin, the "situations" gasping to be put in quotation marks…. Some of the shires fail, as it were, to jog Davie into rich enough reverie or rhetoric. Yet, and even though it's right in general to suspect appeals to the volume "as a whole" (thus redeeming individual poems from failure), this one is special enough, with its forty shire-poems in alphabetical order, Bedfordshire to Yorkshire, to disarm a too scrupulous worry over whether an individual poem really succeeds or not. They do help each other out.
Aside from the subject-matter, which as a geographically ill-informed and curious American fascinates me, one's pleasure is less in the experience of particular poems than in the tour (or tour de force) director's voice: polite, urbane, witty, speculative, resigned, sinking from high to low, from elevated sentiment to private mumbling, formal to unbuttoned. And it is through the variety and range of this voice that the "human situation" of the whole book emerges: that of somebody who lived there once—more or less intensely, depending on the shire—who chooses now to focus on a bit of imaginative territory by looking at its trees or its traffic patterns, its castles or cathedrals, its historical figures or remembered relatives…. Since, as Eliot reminds us, we can't say where "technique" begins or ends, I find that a humanly touching thing has been made out of trivial occurrence. Not deeply moving, but humanly touching; there is someone talking to me, exploring through performance his doubts and uncertainties, his momentary clarities…. And if, on occasion in this volume, the voice sounds too privately allusive, bluffingly cryptic rather than truly complex, it is also human to be these things. The poems to come from Donald Davie will, I suspect, extend the scrutiny of self, England, history, which is what The Shires is about. But they will also continue to charm and puzzle, tease and even annoy by their human presence; he couldn't get rid of his urbanity if he tried, and for the urbanity I am grateful. (pp. 231-34)
William H. Pritchard, in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring/Summer, 1976.
Donald Davie is still thought of as a 'Movement' poet, that is, one who made his name in the 1950s, publishing his poems in the same places as other university-based poets such as John Wain and Kingsley Amis….
[The] reasoning quality of Davie's first poems, like those of fellow 'Movement' poets, was ascribed to the influence of critics like Empson and Leavis. There certainly was, and still is, cross-fertilisation between his work as critic and teacher of literature and his work as poet. (p. 15)
In [his] second book [of poetry, A Winter Talent], the tendency to obscurity of utterance, which may derive from Empson's influence, has disappeared, what ambiguousness there may be in the style working now only to the poetry's advantage.
The significant changes in Davie's work do not appear, however, until after the publication of A Winter Talent…. The later poetry, from The Forests of Lithuania (1959) on, may be seen as aiming at a way of knowing the world we are in, as turned away from the extreme self-consciousness of the 'Movement' in favour of commitment to the world beyond the self, absorption in experience of the world shared with others. (pp. 16-17)
[Eliot and Yeats] admonish, they exhort, they curse, they pray, but they rarely work in the modest fashion of Davie's poetry. The difference is not accidental; it is a difference of stance. Davie is among us, living with us; his predecessors were in important ways outside the society for which they wrote. They saw themselves as prophet or priest; his role is that of a man speaking of men, a man speaking to men. (p. 19)
In Davie we have to do with a poet who has applied himself just as much as Eliot or Yeats ever did to the problems of modern society, one who has fashioned a style and found a subject-matter appropriate to that society in much their way. Only he has rejected their stance, their removal in spirit from their own society. (When Davie writes about Eliot and Yeats—and he has done so at length about the former—he tends to underplay the prophetic role in Eliot, and to overplay it in Yeats.) The poet in the modern tradition whom Davie finds most congenial is Ezra Pound, about whom he has written two books; perhaps the reason is that Pound's wanderings … gave him a perspective on life, an attentiveness to things in themselves and to the idiosyncracies of place and custom, and even a modesty, which are all lacking in his rivals but which must commend themselves to such a poet of man-on-the-move as Davie…. Pound's modesty, Pound's heightened sense of human mobility (the protagonist of The Cantos is, in one light, Ulysses, the supreme wanderer of the western world), Pound's restatements of the most ancient human values ('What thou lovest well remains …'), all these are qualities held in common with Davie.
Add one more: Pound's awareness of voice as the medium of poetry, and his consequent opposition to what he termed 'the rhythm of the metronome'. In Pound's poetry this led to the adoption of free verse, a refusal to be content with the current notions of the rhythms permissible in English verse. 'I believe,' he said, 'in an absolute rhythm, a rhythm, that is, in poetry which corresponds exactly to the emotion or shade of emotion to be expressed'. Such exactitude seemed to demand, often, the 'freedom' of free verse.
Davie uses free verse—unrhymed, with no regular distribution of stress, with no established length of line—occasionally. He does not appeal to Pound's practice consistently, except in so far as it embodies Pound's principle: 'to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome'. Sticking to that principle means attending very carefully to the potentialities of the human instrument, the voice. Davie has been helped in this not only by the example of Pound, but also by that of the Russian poet Boris Pasternak, who far excels Pound in richness of sound and rhythm.
His work has been of the greatest importance for Davie. Pasternak's Poems 1955–59, published with a good translation into English by Michael Harari (1960), radically changed the nature of Davie's poetry, revealing gifts hitherto unsuspected, allowing Davie to speak in his own voice by one of those fruitful exchanges between one culture and another of which Eliot's transmutation of French models gives us another example. Events and Wisdoms (1964) is the book in which this influence is first felt; it is also, and not by accident, that in which the idea of poetry as a way of knowing the world we are in finds its most complete expression. (pp. 20-1)
Davie has always favoured traditional poetic forms. Rhyme and metre are important to him. (p. 22)
[The attention to sound and rhythm, the variety of tone,] the flexibility of a line subdued to 'the rhythm of a metronome'—these are all qualities of the poetry of our own century deployed by Davie on behalf of a view of what our unsettled, our mobile society needs, the stability of judiciousness and fair-mindedness. It is our very rootlessness that makes such placeless, timeless little dramas as are the matter of 'Vying' [a post-Pasternak poem] important for us: our certainties have to be these, of personal pieties and honesties, and we would wish to possess them as completely as this poet, poised yet quick to each nuance of feeling, does here. Among his contemporaries Davie has one equal only in the evocation of such human assurances—Philip Larkin. (pp. 23-4)
Davie's kind of 'strength' is associated with the use of a plain diction, drawing as much on the traditions of prose as on those of poetry. This … he derives from the eighteenth century, and it may be seen at work in 'Tunstall Forest', where it is a kind of leaven to the more poetical lines like 'But quiet is a lovely essence'. That is a poem of the 'sixties; Davie's first two books recall far more often, and it would seem intentionally, the formality, the accuracy, the prosaic strength of poets like Johnson, Goldsmith and Cowper. (p. 26)
[Generalisation] was congenial to Davie in his beginnings—'my mind moves most easily and happily among abstractions, it relates ideas far more readily than it relates experience,' he noted of himself in those days. And his fondness for it was strengthened by his admiration for poets like Cowper or Goldsmith. To my mind, though, it is [the] generalising mode [of 'The Garden Party'] that makes it, polished and elegant as it is, a minor thing. Such generalisation belongs to the eighteenth century; it is confident of values which are shared, of a community of feeling which in our time cannot be assumed, has to be won, as the obliquity of '"Abbeyforde"' or 'Tunstall Forest' does it….
The openness to experience and to the reader which we find in the later poems is not to be found [in the earlier poems]: and yet such openness, such assurance of basic human qualities as are manifest, and with such wit and tenderness, in 'Vying', are the very qualities that our unsettledness requires.
Davie, then, is a poet who has changed and grown with the passing of time, yet without abandoning what was truly of value in his early work, its 'strength', the poetic use of a prosaic diction. The distinctions between words made in 'Tunstall Forest' are not of the same order as that contained in the line in 'The Garden Party' 'I shook absurdly as I shook her hand', but they are built upon that order. In 'Tunstall Forest' the poet's voice and stance are quite different. 'The Garden Party' does demand a certain kind of voice to complete its meaning: 'There is that sort of equalizing rule'—the tone is one of enforced reasonableness, a resigned detachment. But in 'Tunstall Forest', where the sentence uncoils at length, flexed against the regular alternation of line-length, we are close to a developing utterance, one whose responsive poise changes from one moment to another as perception itself shifts, sees further—we are, in short, close to those 'knots of intonation which carry the voice without pause from one line to the next' that [has been] admired in Pasternak. (pp. 27-8)
To invoke [Wordsworth's] name is at once to see the qualities which are absent in Davie. His poetry, it seems to me, lacks a sense of the religious; and though he is not averse to thinking in his poetry there is no stretch of thought we could compare, say, with 'Tintern Abbey'. And though Wordsworth is famous for his egotism and Davie populates his poems with his family and his friends, it is Wordsworth who strikes one as seeing more deeply into the individual nature. There is, too, enough of the prophet in Wordsworth to allow us to see the necessary short-comings of fairmindedness. The positive Wordsworthian aspect of Davie lies in his subject-matter and in his manner of being dramatically lyrical. (p. 30)
In so far as Davie is concerned with 'elemental sanctity and natural piety' in a landscape where 'all the sanctuaries have been violated' (we can imagine what 'Abbeyforde' looks like), he is extending a central Wordsworthian theme in a natural fashion. The author of '"Abbeyforde"' is, then, Wordsworthian, and the same Wordsworthian light shines around such a poem as 'Middlesex' … from The Shires (1974)—a book pretty generally misunderstood …, but whose intention is very fully glossed by the passage just quoted…. (p. 31)
Pound; Pasternak; the English eighteenth century; Wordsworth. The real poets take their place with their masters, true both to their own day and to a tradition. Donald Davie is one of them. (p. 32)
Martin Dodsworth, "Donald Davie," in Agenda, Summer, 1976, pp. 15-32.
'In the Stopping Train' may prove as crucial a poem in Davie's development as 'With the Grain' and 'England', though it is more satisfyingly complete as a poem than 'England' and rhythmically more compelling than 'With the Grain'. Intellectually it is less obscure and emotionally more probing than either. The earlier poems were symptoms of formal and ethical changes in the poet, while 'In the Stopping Train', engaging as it does, albeit gingerly, profoundly personal issues along with wider social issues, is a consolidation, a fusion of Davie's public and private voices in a puzzling but resonant parable. In it meaning and medium are so fused that the reader is not tempted to paraphrase. If he were, the poem would not submit to it. Here Davie is triumphantly, to re-apply his own words about 'With the Grain', 'a poet by nature', not 'only by inclination'. If abstractions occur, the incidents and images give rise to them and provide them with substance. The immediacy, if not 'sensuous', is fully dramatic in rhythmic modulation and in the episodic presentation. Davie's resolution of his earlier problem with abstraction has not been, finally, his conscious attempts at particularity—in the long historical poems especially—nor in his fine satirical writing, but in the allusive spoken verse of Essex Poems, in The Shires, and now supremely in 'In the Stopping Train'.
This poem is part and parcel with The Shires because they, too, if not always so compelling, occupy that region between the subjective and the communal experience—of landscape, history, and culture—and attempt to integrate the particular experience and response, the tissue of the I's experience, with that of the You's he has addressed, latently or patently, in many of his earlier poems. The Shires is not travelogue, nor is it autobiography, though it has elements of the latter. In it Davie attempts to do with literal particulars what more fashionable poets have attempted with legend, myth, or easy rhetoric, projecting their vision without examining—as a responsbile artist will—the nature and quality of the projector. In The Shires and 'In the Stopping Train' Davie is engaged in just this: examining the voice and the experiences that make it speak as it does.
The Shires are poems of dissent and celebration—dissent against elements in his own past, our common past, and the contemporary realities of England, and the apparently wilful neglect of our most precious common possession: language. In 'Essex', more disturbingly than ever before, Davie works his dominant 'language theme', not satirically as often in the past, but with his intense personal perplexity at his own experiences at Essex University. Language—and our culture, our traditions of order and community, all come into his considerations. This and other poems in The Shires evoke the empty forms and the broken or corrupted forms—social ('Sussex'), intellectual and imaginative ('Cornwall'), and communal ('Devonshire'). Hollow habit, ignorant ceremony, naive conservatism, ahistorical radicalism, are aspects of England he, revisting, dissents from, with a measured passion in some respects like Yeats's fury against materialism among the Irish petit bourgeois, though without Yeats's flamboyance, with more of a sense that he, too, is implicated.
His celebrations are equally measured and potent. They can be historical, but most interesting is his celebration of a beloved who becomes representative of a larger object and a particularly passionate identity with place and nation. She, like most of the women in the sequence, has common sense, fidelity, and intelligence which reflect on him. He does not idealise—he seldom does—but celebrates, even if he must satirise himself in the celebration ('Worcester-shire', 'Hampshire'). Implicit, too, in the terms of the expression, these poems—like the Six Epistles to Eva Hesse—suggest the values, the history (personal and cultural) and the attitudes which prompt dissent. The language, the complex of traditions and historical accidents which impell the poet to speak in the way he does and to subject himself to criticism, are better—one must use the word morally better—than the individual who speaks. They provide a context where things fall into perspective. The speaker becomes one among those 'things'. This is something very different from impersonality of voice. It is more like the eighteenth century voice Davie now seldom directly imitates. He may be speaker, but he is always squaring himself with the outer world, he is one among many subjects. His response is to situation, not to self. The little dramas of his own past he enacts not to re-present and grandify the Young Davie but to present the experience which is the point of relevance, the only point of communication. He shares this approach with Hardy, showing himself unwilling to falsify particulars. That is why his 'I' is not distracting and we follow it and watch, not what it is but what it says and does, those empirical events which may contain meaning for us. This anti-subjectivism in a sequence so full of autobiography is one of The Shires most perplexing qualities. 'In the Stopping Train', tending towards parable, heightens this particular paradox and is—perhaps therefore—more penetrating. In it, not incidents of a literal past but essentially mental experiences are realised. There are few empirical facts to be squared; the entire spare structure of images (especially that of the reflecting pane) and ideas, which another poet might make confessional, Davie makes resonant with political and moral overtones, without limiting the poem to one meaning. Stripped of literal autobiography, the poem can be taken as typical. This he does, in part, by identifying a 'he' beside the 'I' and contemplating that curious third person. Between them, finally, there is 'you', 'dear reader'. Davie calls us in as mediators between the 'I' and 'he'. He would cause us to judge, and yet we would be judging, I imagine, our own case as much as his. Where, previously, he has addressed us, here he implicates us.
Davie's predicament—rare enough at this time—is that he is a poet with public meanings, well aware of the romantic element in any espousal of Augustan values in an age such as this, devoid of consensus, community, standards of truth—in fine, moral and cultural constants. But he is not a public poet, cajoling us from the rostrum. What enriches his most recent poetry—and worries his readers a little, too—is the spirit in which he has recourse to autobiography, the tendency in some of The Shires poems to be over-referential and obscure. Earlier obscurities in his work could be resolved by the reader's patient study; the new allusiveness seems occasionally remote, impenetrable. (pp. 33-6)
Davie's work, all of it, is beamed towards England…. His exile has intensified his commitments, not dulled or altered them.
Davie's exile seems to me to have been an inevitable product of his Englishness, an attempt to preserve intact cultural roots, values, his very language, challenged by force, not argument, in various ways in England; while at the same time maintaining his dual vocation as poet and teacher. There is a sense in which Davie, among our poets, is the arch-Parliamentarian, as Sisson is the arch-Monarchist. (p. 36)
Exile has of course changed his poetry. The transition, the shock of it, was registered in Essex Poems most accurately, where he doubted his motives, and where his technical resources grew. The Shires are interesting because, now the shock has worn off, and now England has changed further, he returns as a once-insider to register survivals and changes. He brings his own experiences of England, his beliefs about what has happened here since his departure, and squares them with the reality he finds. (p. 37)
Davie's peculiar relationship with his own and our common past, and his explorations of it, are often like Hardy's. While a poet such as Tennyson idealises the past, Hardy again and again—in poems and novels—shows it as unrealised. A wrong turn, an oversight, blight a life permanently. If this is true of the individual, some of Davie's poems suggest obliquely how true it may also be of a community or a whole society. 'Devonshire' in The Shires is an obvious example. So too are 'Staffordshire', 'Sussex', etc…. What is left undone, lost, forgotten, despised, what is ill-done or destroyed, despoils the future. The area affected might be a place, an institution, our language. Hardy's pessimism is essentially psychological. Davie's seems to me social. Without uttering prophesies, the poems subtly warn, presenting the evidence. The present is contrasted with a past—not necessarily pre-Industrial—in which culture and ethics, in the Arnoldian sense, were complementary aspects of a single truth, in which the artist was socially as responsible for the ideas he promulgated as the teacher, clergyman or politician, and in which ideas had consequences, and the poet who spoke falsehood spoke at his peril, for he addressed men of common sense. (pp. 38-9)
A comparison between 'Gloucestershire' and 'Devonshire'—complementary poems—shows the two sides of Davie's concern, the dissent and the celebration. The 'native gift for townscape' of the 'pre-industrial English' contrasts with the evocation of Plymouth, re-destroyed after the Blitz by what Betjeman has called the 'Plansters'.
'In the Stopping Train' complements and extends The Shires because it helps to define a speaker. If there are analogues for the poem, one might be Yeats's 'Hic et Ille'. For Davie identifies a 'he', while continuing to speak as 'I'. The 'he' is not, mercifully, shrouded in incense and mystery like Yeats's Africanus…. The 'he' is 'the man going mad inside me'; not 'me', rather, a might have been or still to be 'me', a haunting presence, not an identity. It is a 'he' whom experience reduces, does not mature. That 'he' is 'the bastard', the Edmund in the Edgar figure (there is more than a slight touch of dementia—Kafkaesque if not Shakespearean—in the speaker's rhythms and syntax). The 'he' is punished by being compelled to inaction, on a slow train, deprived of distraction, forced back upon himself. The 'train'—offering only time, jolts, stops and starts, is a 'train of thought' as much as anything else. Its ultimate destination, in the most unsettling part of the poem, is self-knowledge and the action that can follow it…. (pp. 39-40)
There may be an excess of cuteness in the writing …, the stage directions, the 'rising' panic forced back by 'Sit down!', the pun, and the clever line endings. My feeling is that the rhythm is sufficiently strong to force these distracting effects into service and make them part of the thought process of the 'he' undergoing the punishment. (p. 41)
The journey reveals the nature of 'his' hatreds (human), and loves (artistic). Implicit in the poem, in the 'I' as it were, is a rejection of the wilful, subjective use of reality; a rejection of an art not responsible to its subject matter, and a language used restrictively, of perhaps—and this is why the poem is so interesting in the context of Davie's oeuvre—an exclusive diction which reflects an excluding attitude of mind, a choice to reflect in a work of art not wholeness but preference, a partisanship which has no commerce with truth. But of course, beyond the moral issues the poem raises, are the psychological issues. 'I' and 'he' are aspects of one character wrestling with itself. (pp. 41-2)
The poem seems to me crucial to an understanding of Davie's recent work. 'I' and 'he' occupy one carriage in the train, and in Davie. Despite the wit of the language, there is an element in the rhythms and the abrupt enjambments of uncontrolled, or at least indeterminate, tone—almost wry, yet somehow manic. As a poem, it seems 'a gift', as though it came as a surprise to the poet, as to us; and it suggests almost a new source of poetry that Davie has seldom tapped before. It is a matter of rhythm and the organisation this rhythm finds in the matter. Basically three-stress, like much of Davie's recent work, the lines distribute their stresses not prosaically, as in the weaker of The Shires poems, nor with the emphasis of thought, but with a haunting apparent regularity, like the running of a train over sleepers, altering pace, but constant—though we could not scan them. Also, even those sections which do not rhyme seem to rhyme, a curious authority I have found only in one other modern poet.
Unfamiliar, new, it may stand as a model for Davie of the intensity of poem he will court in future, though it is absurd of me to suggest that such poems can be willed into being. But certainly the 'Medallions', two short poems published in Poetry Nation V, give reason to believe that Davie, whose evolution from the 'pasticheur of late-Augustan styles' has already been momentous, is going further. The obscurities are no longer literary, obscurities of references, but more often darknesses, resonant without the ear-trumpet of a footnote. His 'self-consciousness' is becoming, not a consciousness of style or persona, but of self.
I like to think that, were Davie putting together The Shires this year rather than last, he would include more than he did in that book. Even if 'In the Stopping Train' was written in France, and about an experience there, and other poems in California, and others somewhere between, they belong together, as his Collected Poems did. There he had the audacity to give us everything he could find. His next book should include The Shires enriched—and clarified—by the work around them. (pp. 43-4)
Michael Schmidt, "'Time and Again': The Recent Poetry of Donald Davie," in Agenda, Summer, 1976, pp. 33-44.
The title of [Davie's] most recent book is The Shires, and it suggests something of the nostalgia and, yes, old-fashioned inclusiveness of design in this expatriate's attempt to gather up the whole of his well-remembered England in one sequence of short poems. However, The Shires only manifests unmistakably certain qualities which have always been present in his poetry and which make it as intrinsically English as that of any post-war writer. (p. 45)
[A] combination of poise and directness distinguishes much of Davie's later poetry, and even when we disagree with his values it can often be … extremely powerful and moving. But the cost in personal and artistic terms has also to be reckoned …: for Davie there never has been an easy and sympathetic commerce with the everyday urbanized England, sordid elements and all, of Larkin's poetry. Though Davie has always insisted, rightly, that his poetry is concerned with 'the relationship of man with man', the men and women he has in mind are not Titch Thomas nor Mr Bleaney nor the unforgettable suburban housewives of 'Afternoons'. Among Davie's more personal and accessible lyrics are many beautiful love poems and portraits of friends, but his love poems are to his wife and his friends are exceptional people; the people loved and portrayed are not not-English but neither are they representative as Larkin's characters (himself included) usually are. (p. 47)
Davie's poetry of England has historical geographical and 'high-cultural' dimensions which are all but missing from Larkin's—which are, indeed, uncharacteristic of the poetry written by Englishmen of their generation. [Although their differences are significant, it is important to keep in mind] Davie's close early association with the poets—Kingsley Amis, Thom Gunn and Larkin among them—who appeared with him in New Lines and together constituted the nearest thing to a collective reform movement in English poetry that has surfaced in a long time.
I do not wish to exaggerate the cohesiveness, much less the supposed grey uniformity, of 'the Movement', nor do I mean entirely to deny that it was, among other things, a publicity gimmick. But the published statements of Davie, Amis, Robert Conquest and D. J. Enright at that time leave no room for doubt that they were consciously working along similar lines and in reaction to the excesses, real and supposed, of the British poets of the preceding generation and the early Anglo-American modernists. Certainly they shared similar social class origins, educational experiences and professional aims. In these respects (and in some few of their poems) they also resembled the brilliant American 'Reactionary Generation' of Yvor Winters, Louise Bogan, the Fugitives and—admittedly a special case—Hart Crane. The parallel may remind us, among other things, how far even a very wayward genius must normally carve with the grain of his generation if he is to make anything at once authentic and new, but also, because there are now several mature (but not strictly national) literatures in one language, how extremely difficult it might be to identify one's true brethren and ancestors…. [A] transitional poem, 'North Dublin',… is characteristic of the Movement in important respects but is peculiarly Davie's own in others and points ahead to his more experimental pieces of the Sixties. Though apparently slight, it is a sturdy and elegant poem…. (pp. 47-8)
'North Dublin' exemplifies many of the central virtues—and limitations—of Movement poetry. Above all it is lucid and rational, syntactical and (though 'irregular' by Movement standards) traditionally measured. While implicitly acknowledging the power and impressiveness of radical ideologies and the rhetoric they employ, the author goes in fear of fanaticism and all appeals to the irrational. To say that his poetics are Apollonian rather than Dionysian would be broadly accurate but would still imply larger claims for poetry than, at that time, Davie and the other Movement poets cared to make. If such poetry strikes us as 'verse' rather than 'Poetry', it does so partly because of its modest themes and tone but also, especially, because of its poverty of metaphor. In the last stanza of 'North Dublin' the only metaphor—'By their lights'—is so shopworn that we hardly recognize it as such. But that of course is the point: we have lost touch with the origins of this metaphor for enlightenment, in the Inner Light of the Puritans, and it is Davie's object to draw attention to the cultural power these 'dead' metaphors of dead creeds still have to control our living processes of thought and feeling. In doing so he is following his own prescription, in Purity of Diction in English Verse, for
the poetry which attempts, in Mr. Eliot's phrase, to 'purify the language of the tribe'. For if the poet who coins new metaphors enlarges the language, the poet who enlivens dead metaphors can be said to purify the language.
Though they might choose other means to do the job, probably all of the Movement poets could have agreed to a common aim to 'purify the language of the tribe'. They aimed, all of them, to write poetry which at least had the virtues of good prose. (p. 51)
Purity of Diction and still more Articulate Energy (1955) betrayed more familiarity and even sympathy with Pound's writings than was considered good for an Englishman and poet during the early Fifties, and Davie went so far as to maintain provocatively that the American poet had influenced him 'more deeply and constantly than any other poet of the present century'. I am not sure that this was quite true in 1955, but it was rapidly becoming true and often the influence was most significant when least apparent. For the most Poundian aspects of Davie's career during the past two decades have been those which required a departure from the particular practices not merely of his English contemporaries but of Pound as well. 'North Dublin' is a case in point. Aside from its American Offshot, eighteenth-century British civilization was only marginally interesting to Pound, but Davie is nowhere closer to him and further from the Movement than in the many poems in which he has sought to recover that civilization (especially during its intenser moments of interaction with foreign cultures) for the modern literary imagination. And it may well be that these 'history poems', the chief of which is the quite recent 'Trevenen', will turn out to be Davie's richest gift to his countrymen. Another Poundian aspect of Davie's career has been his openness to many poetic influences from many literatures—so that, particularly during the middle and late Sixties, his ways of seeing and writing probably were influenced as much by Pasternak as by Pound. Often, of course, Davie's 'imitations' of Pound have been of his methods as well as his spirit, and any comprehensive account would have to include instances of indebtedness ranging from the Poundian 'homage' of The Forests of Lithuania (1959) to the ideogrammic medley of 'England' (1969). (pp. 52-3)
'Dorset', from The Shires, may be taken to represent, in many respects, Davie's happiest adaptations of Poundian method to the norms of English poetry…. [While] 'Dorset' is written in fairly regular blank verse and correct English syntax, the organizing principles of the poem are chiefly those of the Pisan Cantos. The procedure is essentially that of reverie, with sudden and apparently wayward shifts of perspective and with multiple allusions to learned or autobiographical matters. In Pound's case this procedure often bewilders readers at the outset and turns them away without a crumb of meaning, but in Davie's less radical variant enough is immediately communicated to encourage a further and closer reading, supported perhaps by reference to the most obvious and available glosses. (pp. 53-4)
['Dorset'] closes with a hint of improvisation, confirming our sense that here and in many other post-Movement poems Davie has learned from Hardy but rejected his formal symmetries in favour of a more fluid, though still carefully channeled, movement of sound and image.
'Dorset' then is not the sort of poem that once led Charles Tomlinson to speculate that 'what fertilized Davie's talent was, I think, the example of … that excellent poet, Yvor Winters … like Mr. Winters', Davie's poetry can be "laurel, archaic, Rude," without being unduly self-conscious'. For in turning his back on the Gothic symmetries of Hardy, Davie was also moving away from the neoclassical symmetries of his late, great predecessor at Stanford, and also, as in 'Dorset', sometimes venturing to employ the cryptic allusions, abrupt transitions and associative structures which Winters condemned in the poetry of Pound and Eliot a full generation earlier than the Movement. So much for the example of Winters? Well, we have to recall that Winters and the Movement had their differences, too, and that even in an exceptionally 'Poundian' poem like 'Dorset' Davie's poetry retains enough of the virtues of good prose (and the virtues of an accentual-syllabic measure) to exclude it from the camp of American open-form poetry. His is not quite Winters' way of conserving the traditional strength of English poetry whilst at the same time capitalizing on the technical and perceptual gains of the French symboliste and American modernist masters, but, as Tomlinson contends, Winters' example was probably crucial for Davie's development beyond as well as within the Movement. For whatever the differences between Davie and Winters and Pound—and they are sometimes major and irreconcilable differences—Davie shares with the two Americans a similar internationalist perspective on the art of poetry and an equally proud, candid estimate of the poet's high, learned calling. His fellowship with these transatlantic shades is a living kinship as well as with the mighty dead of his own native tradition. (p. 56)
George Dekker, "Donald Davie: New and Divergent Lines in English Poetry," in Agenda, Summer, 1976, pp. 45-56.