Study Guide

Donald Davie

Donald Davie Essay - Davie, Donald (Vol. 5)

Davie, Donald (Vol. 5)

Davie, Donald 1922–

Davie, an English poet and critic, is best known for his association with "the Movement"—the postwar suspiciousness of the romantic imprecision of some British poetry of the 1940's—and for his contributions to the New Lines anthology. Although less coldly intellectual than his early work, his recent poems still exhibit his sense of responsibility to his literary inheritance and his concern for formal elegance. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

As poet, Davie is urbane, lucid, and down-to-earth. His best poems are little hymns to rationality. His critical commitments inhibit him somewhat but at the same time they have enabled him to discover and develop the convention that suits him. When imagination and feeling win victories over theory, he achieves what the eighteenth-century critics called "graces beyond the reach of art." (p. 124)

William Van O'Connor, in his The New University Wits and the End of Modernism (copyright © 1963, Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Southern Illinois University Press, 1963.

Generally speaking,… the author of Essex Poems puts his 'literature' to conspicuously good use. The very last poems in the volume are brutally primitive in a new and admired manner. I would prefer, I think, less 'manner', a more genuine simplicity; or a much longer poem.

Of the many virtues Essex Poems displays I would myself single out Davie's handling of metre as the aspect of his formal expertise most worthy of emulation, or envy. Post-romantic poetics emphasize sincerity and the 'rhythms of the speaking voice' (generally 'urgent')—as if the poet were actually speaking to us!—whereas the formerly well-advertised satisfactions to be had from a perfect deployment of words within a musically interesting 'tune' are currently undervalued. (p. 81)

Michael Alexander, "Donald Davie's 'Essex Poems'," in Agenda, Autumn-Winter, 1970, pp. 78-82.

In Donald Davie's work the relation of the critic to the poet seems deeply ironical. We can enjoy the vitality of the newest experimenters in verse without denying the strength of Mr Davie's warnings against them….

Mr Davie has not been afraid to recommend and use models painfully created by the forebears of our poetry. He has pleaded for aesthetic control and praised moral principles even when they suited the fixed order of society. He has distrusted easy motions and infringed on no legitimate privacies. At the same time, he has utterly rejected provincialism and studied poets who live in regions or speak languages ignored by many of his contemporaries. He has willingly experimented with the styles and structures of three centuries. He has maintained a record of conscious integrity, misrepresenting his character neither to himself nor to others. So he has admitted tergiversations and failures to meet his own requirements.

"A Candour under Control," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1972; reproduced by permission), December 22, 1972, p. 1548.

Mr. Davie is a believer in linearity. Philosophically, he stands in firm but amiable opposition to the submerging of the individual in the cyclical myth. In his craft he finds that traditional discipline is ultimately less restrictive of the poet's intellectual liberty than the traditional eccentricities of free forms and the compulsory convolutions of composition by field. Mr. Davie claims that his natural affinity is to ideas and that for him poetic concreteness and sensuousness are achieved only with the greatest effort. As a result of this self-consciousness, the poet's contact with his own senses is rigorous: never are flamboyant words substituted for honest perceptions of the world. (p. lxi)

Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1973, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 49, No. 2 (Spring, 1973).

Professor Davie's poems tend to make use of a strongly-disciplined, often subdued tone of self-confession or soliloquy, with the intelligence probing or debating upon the situations presented by personal experience, history and landscape—sometimes, perhaps, to a fault. In an early poem, for instance, 'Evangelist', I feel that the interjection of the two listeners at the end of the poem deflects from the dramatic potential of the preacher's personality, well-realised at the start….

Of course, this is to suggest, unfairly, that it has the potential of being a different poem. Yet is not the switch from the well-realised persona in the first verse, to a comment about attitudes to style and rhetoric in the last, an impoverishing one? Doesn't the reader feel that the rhythms themselves are tamped down, as it were, from the 'dramatic' to the 'literary' by the end? In contrast, the direct voice of regret that ends 'The Garden Party' points its poem up more, and for this reason it pleased as much as any in the early verse. Generally in this early verse, the metre trips along fluently, rather lacking in variation, in a contrast of light and shade. Poems often dwell on 'literary' themes or on matters of personal literary attitude, while some court the dull old maid of obscurity.

In A Winter Talent, the fine and well-known 'Time Passing, Beloved' and 'Heigh-ho on a Winter Afternoon' stand out, partly because the rhythms go more naturally and vividly, partly because in them the poet heightens and transcends the reasonable, ironic tone into a confident, direct 'voice'. (p. 77)

After The Forests of Lithuania, which are poems on historical incidents that don't rise enough to excite this reviewer, hard though he tried, it is Events and Wisdoms where the dramatic heightening and rhythmic heightening combine to give some marvellous, enduring successes—the summit of this poet's achievement, so far…. The pastoral and elegaic tone, caught in this collection, especially in these outstanding poems, also catches life … at its more vivid and dramatic moments.

In the more recent Essex Poems, 'A Winter Landscape near Ely' discreetly but powerfully expresses the theme of waste and death: does not its directness link it to the poems just indicated? But there is surely a levelling-off in this collection. Its 'sparseness' was commented upon at the time when it appeared, but I feel it may really be a thinning of dramatic texture. Some of the poems read like 'notations'—or painter's 'sketches'—rather than fully confident artefacts. The much-noticed 'Or, Solitude' does not fully engage me; Professor Davie sighs for the 'metaphysicality of poetry', but I get the sense of a poem about private poetic attitudes and problems whose public importance has not been firmly enough established by the dramatic force of the poems before. 'A Winter Landscape', for example, is surely moving and metaphysical enough?

I feel the same when Professor Davie talks of 'England'. The England his verse establishes does not convince me as as generally valid as say, the English locality that Norman Nicholson brings to life, or the England of Mr. Larkin. A poem with the title 'England' shows an incursion of a freewheeling, fragmented, Yankee verse-manner into Professor Davie's poetry that is quite surprising; the poem leaves me standing. (pp. 78-9)

In some of the most recent poems, whose subject touches on the fascinating one of Captain Cook's voyages, and the lives of explorers like Barry and Trevewen, does the verse truly enact the adventurousness, the possibilities, of the theme?

The technique of the 'Six Epistles to Eva Hesse', however, point forward. These poems come through well…. (p. 79)

Simon Curtis, "Collected Davie," in Phoenix (8 Cavendish Road, Heaton Mersey, Stockport, Cheshire, England), July, 1973, pp. 77-80.

Since the publishing of … his Collected Poems Donald Davie's poetry has been moving fast and variously…. There seems to be a fresh daring in the creative act. (p. 109)

[A] glance at the Collected Poems shows that, from shortly after the beginning of his career, he has been drawn to more sustained works: The Forests of Lithuania, A Sequence for Francis Parkman, 'England', Six Epistles to Eva Hesse…. The appeal long poems may have for a writer is clear: they allow him to explore aesthetic structures, and developments and meshings of experience, which would otherwise be unapproachable. And these larger measures are necessary; don't we need to note their rarity more than we do? It's not that long poems are somehow better than short ones, but that we are lacking if almost the only poetry we have is small-scale, however complex, intense, and indeed resonant. Davie's example is important.

The aims of his extended pieces have been varied, as have the means he has found for their articulation. The blurb of The Forests of Lithuania, which he seems partly to have inspired, speaks of 'the long poem's privilege of dealing with common human experiences in the way they are commonly perceived, as slowly and gradually evolving amid a wealth of familiar and particular images', and contends that he has 'attempted to win back some of this territory from the novelist'. Certainly, to shift a famous expression of Mallarmé, a decision to 'reprendre au roman notre bien' would afford a fertile programme for poetry, and one worth examining further; though it doesn't necessarily involve appropriating the novel's not-quite-modern powers of dense realism. (pp. 109-10)

The later long works abandon the novel as a formal bearing and also come differently at history and geography. The most complex is Six Epistles to Eva Hesse, at once satirical, didactic and narrative verse, in cascading octosyllabic couplets. It's a kind of Art of Poetry, which associates certain severe 'English' values: sanity, common sense, a sense of proportion, compassion, with a particular view of history: empirical, linear, individualist, moralising, and with the use of fixed metres and rhyme. This it sets, under the aegis of Comedy, against the Einsteinian and mythic free-wheeling transcendence of history in the open forms of Pound's Cantos and Olson's Maximus Poems. Thomas Hardy and British Poetry has similar concerns.

Six Epistles enacts the discipline it urges. It takes over the documentary method of the Cantos and their progeny, in the interests of establishing the poem on a world objectively beyond itself. The procedure is even wittily exaggerated. The Forests of Lithuania had adapted a historical poem; A Sequence for Francis Parkman had consisted partly of centos of passages from a work of historical scholarship, Parkman's France and England in North America; Six Epistles has for its immediate pre-text, of all things, a volume of collective literary criticism, Eva Hesse's New Approaches to Ezra Pound. (pp. 110-11)

Naturally, Six Epistles is a conservative work. It brings to sharp focus Davie's continuing wrestle with Modernism and especially with Pound. His whole career has been an urgent rearguard action, from Brides of Reason to Six Epistles, from Purity of Diction in English Verse to Thomas Hardy and British Poetry, against dominant modes of writing and ultimately, indeed, against 'the age'. Could it be that his impingement on poetry in general, through both his poems and his prose, has been essentially, and enlighteningly, critical rather than creative? Here, his showdown with a certain highhanded conjuring with history is wholesome (although one notices that his defence of linearity amounts to no less than a demur about most of modern literature). On the other hand, it's hard to see how his own reading of history, and his prescriptions for 'humanising the globe', generous and self-forgetful though they are, might energise the imagination. (p. 111)

The signs are that Davie is searching. The long works, for instance, bulk large in his output; yet according to Bernard Bergonzi he regards A Sequence for Francis Parkman as a poetic luxury not part of his true development, and he claims to have written Six Epistles to Eva Hesse lightheartedly. I may be ludicrously mistaken, but I do sense that, having begun with a very clear notion of what he was about, he is now, possibly, undecided, and perhaps at odds with himself. Even Thomas Hardy and British Poetry, despite many instructive delights, doesn't, I think, hang together.

This is maybe no bad experience to pass through, for a poet of Davie's gifts. Which I hope I haven't been undervaluing: looking back over what I've written I'm surprised to see so many reservations—no doubt because it's only relevant to discuss his works in terms of major achievement. Let me, then, say the obvious, that the Collected Poems already contains any amount of admirable writing, learned, supple, various, and well beyond the attainment of most. And also, that that perpetual severe questioning, from the very beginning of his career, arrests. (pp. 113-14)

Michael Edwards, "Donald Davie and British Poetry," in Poetry Nation (© copyright Poetry Nation, 1974), No. 3, 1974, pp. 109-14.

A handsome production, with many poems that give us passages of that balanced, chaste sort of elegance we expect of him, [The Shires] is still an oddly misconceived venture for so fastidious a poet. This collection of 40 poems, one for each county in England—and collectively seeking to explore the writer's 'deep sense of being English'—could have made a fascinating account of the fabric of current English life and landscape. Could have, if Professor Davie had stopped, looked, listened, thought and written as assiduously with all of his shires as he has with a few. The book could, alternatively, have been an engaging, perhaps a moving, autobiographical exercise if he had drawn every county (as he does with some) into relationship with his own personal memories. Or, had he concentrated on history and literature, The Shires might have come out as the kind of highly individual disquisition so worth listening in to (if not to agree with) when he does it in his criticism. Instead, the book is an uncomfortable mixture of all three. (p. 545)

What is as disappointing … as the scantiness of the attention given to most of the shires is the vacuously cryptic quality of many of the reflections to which they give rise. Davie's arcane manner once upon a time, one feels, concealed witty, disturbing, chastening thoughts which it was worth working quite hard to pick up. Listening closely to his utterances on the English counties, one wonders if there really is much profundity there at all, or if the familiar insouciant precision hasn't somehow slackened here into a mere insouciant ordinariness…. The good habit of looking for hidden interest and value in the simplest Davie statements had me wondering over these banalities for quite a time before concluding that the best of poets will sometimes write at a very low pressure indeed. (p. 546)

Alan Brownjohn, "Being English," in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), October 18, 1974, pp. 545-46.

Anyone acquainted with Donald Davie's work will not be surprised at my calling it one of the more considerable ventures in literature in our time…. I admire his struggle toward honesty, his intelligence, his defense of the quieter, less impressive, since less assertive, virtues. The struggle he is involved in is nothing other than that of poetry and life itself, not only in a wounded, diminished England, but in the world at large. (p. 113)

After [an] examination of Davie's criticism readers should be prepared to learn from their scrutiny of his poems that they have been, as the flyleaf [of Collected Poems 1950–1970] says, "written in the faith that there are still distinctively English—rather than Anglo-American or 'international'—ways of responding imaginatively to the terms of life in the twentieth century." (One might demur, at least a little, for the many poems under the influence of foreign places and poets, especially Pasternak.) And readers should be prepared to hear in the first poem—appropriately, "Homage to William Cowper"—that Davie, even as he is aware with Cowper that "Honor starts, like Charity, at home," regards himself "A pasticheur of the late-Augustan styles." Fortunately he is also rather more than that. The first three formal, witty poems, set apart almost like epigraphs, establish basic themes; all three recognize the troubles and failures, if not horrors, of domesticity, geography, society, and reason—Davie's essential concerns. (p. 130)

It is the human, reflected in ideas and laws, defined by the resolutely other world (though if nature disappears what is that other world but other people and man-made society?), that he is after, and not the identification with that world (usually the "natural") of a Keats or a Rilke. Davie's lyricism is often personal but (as he said of Hardy) in an impersonal, if not "reposeful," way, concerned more than not with lack of feeling and related problems of style. The writing, usually hard and definite, but rather metallic than of carved stone, is rarely possessed of the evocativeness Pound, say, often magically managed. (p. 136)

Theodore Weiss, "Between Two Worlds or On The Move," in Parnassus (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Fall/Winter, 1974, pp. 113-40.

[The Shires] struck me at first as the title of a book in which I would be likely to find an interesting sense of history. No, I was to be disappointed. What I find is a large subject "gone over" in such a way as to reduce it to the scale of the closely personal. Donald Davie has a fine notion of writing. More than anything else, it is "fineness", a deliberately courted delicacy and elegance, that defeats my prior willingness to welcome The Shires. Having re-read his Collected Poems, I was ready for this new book, and ready to like it.

What irritated me most was its chattiness….

Davie's language is the language of education, of culture. I can see sherries at sundown, comfortable motorcars waiting on the drive….

The Shires carries a weight of reminiscence, autobiography, and private sensation, for which the virtually archaeological title does not prepare us. It is a book by a motorist—"Driving up from Tees-side…." Poet-as-driver is a man I find hard to accept. He's a figure who ought to get out and walk. Or just be in a place, settled. Poets should never learn how to drive. (pp. 85-6)

Douglas Dunn, in Encounter (© 1975 by Encounter, Ltd.), March, 1975.