Study Guide

Donald Davie

Donald Davie Essay - Davie, Donald (Alfred)

Davie, Donald (Alfred)

Introduction

Donald (Alfred) Davie 1922–

English poet, critic, editor, 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 evidenced by the classical formalism of his first volume of poetry, The Brides of Reason (1955), and is the focus of his first critical work, The Purity of Diction in English Verse (1952). In The Purity of Diction, Davie argues for a return to the prose-like syntax, formal structures, and conservative metaphors of the eighteenth-century Augustan poets. In the 1950s Davie was associated with the Movement, a group of poets including Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, and Thom Gunn who believed in the importance of these qualities. 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.

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 (1957) which becomes more pronounced and deliberate in Events and Wisdoms (1964). Certain critics also assert that many of Davie's most successful poems are suffused with a sense of place and a sense of history associated with place. The most prominent example of this is The Shires (1974), a collection composed of forty poems, one for each county in England, in which Davie contemplates the past, present, and future of his native country. Davie's critical interest in other poets often affects his own poetic style. He translated Boris Pasternak's The Poems of Dr. Zhivago (1965) and has written critical works on Pasternak, Ezra Pound, and Thomas Hardy. Davie's reviewers attribute his experimental use of metaphor, symbolism, and loosely-structured verse forms to the influence of these poets.

Disillusioned with what he saw 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 in the late 1960s. Many of his poems deal with his ambivalent feelings toward England. Several poems from In the Stopping Train (1977) illuminate this tension as Davie attempts to come to terms with the England of his childhood and the England of today. Reviewing this collection, Michael Collins describes Davie's writing as "quiet, restrained, erudite, carefully-wrought—a poetry of statement rather than of image.".

Davie's critical works are as highly regarded as his poetry. In Articulating Energy (1955), a continuation of the arguments formulated in The Purity of Diction, Davie continues to stress the need for reason and clarity in literature. In two full-length works, Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor (1964) and Ezra Pound (1976), and in several essays in the collection Trying to Explain (1979), he analyzes the poetry of Ezra Pound. These works are praised for being provocative, insightful, and well-in-formed. In two other scholarly books, A Gathered Church: The Literature of the English Dissenting Interest, 1700–1930 (1978) and Dissentient Voice (1982), Davie traces the cultural and literary implications of religious dissent.

Davie has recently published Collected Poems, 1970–1983 (1983) and a volume of personal recollections entitled These the Companions (1982). These the Companions deals mainly with the people and places that have had the greatest effect on Davie and his work. Collected Poems includes previously published poems as well as a new sequence, The Battered Wife and Other Poems. The volume displays the directness and aesthetic control for which Davie has been commended throughout his career.

(See also CLC, Vols. 5, 8, 10; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 27.)

Carol Johnson

[Donald Davie's New and Selected Poems] perplexes with flaws of a kind totally unlooked for in the mode he practices. Among several of the better moments of contemporary verse are scattered hypermetric lines for which one cannot imagine an excuse. The most preposterous occurs in "Reflections on Deafness," a mistake from beginning to end, in which however 19 out of 20 lines scan as pentameters. One goes: "Distinguishingly human act of speech contorted." There are others, easily reparable. I make this criticism first off in some amazement that the poet has not done so himself before ever quitting his first draft. Yet alongside the boners, the untractable instants of prose, are some poems the lucid order of which is persistently satisfying…. The better poems, like "Samuel Beckett's Dublin," "On Hearing Russian Spoken," parts of "Remembering the Thirties" are agreeable … because they do not take themselves too seriously. Seriousness in clever poets can be beyond all supposition banal. It is in those poems with pretentions that Mr. Davie tends to go disastrously awry, blundering into hopeless turgidities when he falls, as it seems, out of touch (aural and conceptual) with his intended course. (pp. 520-21)

Carol Johnson, "Four Poets," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXX, No. 3, Summer, 1962, pp. 517-22.∗

Thom Gunn

In some of the reviews of Donald Davie's New and Selected Poems there is a certain reluctance to praise, though no good reason is given for the reluctance. He writes in meter, and meter is once again … becoming unfashionable: by definition, apparently, its user is an "academic poet." He uses his brain as well as his eyes. He is a sort of symbolist at a time when symbolism is scarcely the up-and-coming thing. Moreover there appears to be an implicit assumption that if you consider, say, Denise Levertov a good poet you cannot also consider Donald Davie good. But there is more than one type of excellence in poetry, and if meter and symbolism have ever been valid devices then they must still be so: to deny such truisms is to be oneself academic in the narrowest sense—confined by historical prejudice and blind to performance.

To one who has eyes to see with, Davie's performance is one of amplitude, variety, and liveliness. The present collection is wisely selected, and should show the American public that he is without a doubt one of the best three English poets of his generation…. The early poems are pleasant, and wear better than I would have expected, in spite of an occasional stiffness of movement and a certain over-ingenuity that takes the place of emotion. (pp. 136-37)

There is an astonishing range of perception, feeling, and technique to the poems in the second section, as can be seen from comparing "Time Passing, Beloved," "The Mushroom Gatherers," "Hearing Russian Spoken," and "Under St. Paul's," very different and very good poems. And the most recent poems show an expansion of powers, a secure mastery, whether in the bareness of "Against Confidences" … or in the rich emblems of "With the Grain." In particular I admire "To a Brother in the Mystery," the best dramatic monologue I have read since Edgar Bowers' "The Prince." It … not only establishes a dramatic situation fully and plausibly but gives it a meaning that goes beyond the situation. (p. 137)

Thom Gunn, "Things, Voices, Minds," in The Yale Review, Vol. LII, No. 1, Autumn, 1962, pp. 129-38.∗

Christopher Ricks

Most admirers of Pound truckle to his terms; [in "Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor] Professor Davie succeeds most usefully in describing and elucidating those terms, but he maintains our right to judge the terms themselves, to define the limits of what inherently could be accomplished given Pound's mode. The artistic case against Pound is a real one, both internally in his frequent failure to carry out his own poetic principles, and externally in the limitations of the principles themselves.

Mr Davie's praise of Pound is far more convincing than anyone else's, for two reasons. First, that he actually discusses how Pound uses words and rhythms—instead of paying the usual perfunctory tribute to Pound's 'technical mastery' and then scampering on. Whether Pound is a master of words or not, his is certainly not the kind of mastery which stamps itself at once and self-evidently on our minds and hearts, and the question 'What is Pound at?' is as needed for the style as for the larger concerns. The second source of Mr Davie's authority is his reluctance to exculpate Pound, technically or morally. The callous bigotry of Pound's politics is not evaded, and its appalling poetic consequences are conceded….

There is fervent admiration for Pound's translations, especially from the Chinese, for the Pisan Cantos and Rock-Drill. The admiration gains from the evidence that the critic is not selling Pound or sold on him. When, for instance, Pound mistranslates, Mr Davie is witty about it, instead of frothing like a pedagogue or claiming that Pound is being superbly 'creative'. He is prepared to offer arguments that are at once precise and tentative. He has the virtue which he praises in Pound, 'the ability to change opinion and confess as much'…. As a critical study, the book is notable for its habits of mind—and for its sense of fact, its ability to offer a plausible description of the works in hand. The subtitle, 'Poet as Sculptor', is justified by a very informative account (drawing impressively on the work of Adrian Stokes) of just exactly what Pound meant by invoking the analogy. The twists and turns of the prose works, especially the Guide to Kulchur and the translation from Confucius, are traced with a pertinacity that is possible only to the well-informed. A strong case is made that Pound's main poetic intention is to create 'a state of mind in which ideas...

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Martin Dodsworth

The fundamental principle of [Ezra Pound's Cantos is the] attempt to express ideas only in terms of sensory impression, and by its very nature it was bound to fail. Pound cannot, after all, stop us from inferring wrong ideas from the fact presented; as Yvor Winters has cogently argued, the method leaves us at best with "no way of knowing whether we have had any ideas or not." Pound, the dumb pedlar, sinks under the weight of his pack, a familiar and miscellaneous collection of fragments gathered in a lifetime of travels. He is an ancient mariner who cannot hold us, for he is unable to tell his story coherently.

It is not the least of Mr. Davie's virtues that in his excellent new book [Ezra...

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L. S. Dembo

Mr Davie's book [Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor] is announced as a "comprehensive critical study" that takes "a straightforward chronological approach" to the career of Ezra Pound and is not burdened with "complex thematic or metaphorical devices." The statement is just, and the book possesses many of the virtues implied, among them a moderate tone and an unlabored pace. On the other hand, it suffers from the defects possible to such an approach; not only is Davie's book not burdened with complex thematic devices, it is burdened with no real unifying principle, except the general one that appears in the metaphor of the title. The work is characterized by a series of arguments, occasionally related, and having a...

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THOMAS McKEOWN

[Donald Davie's Ezra Pound] stimulates disagreements of a constructive kind. This alone should be enough to recommend it. Davie gets the year of Pound's death wrong (1972, not 1973), the year of first publication of the Urcantos wrong (1917, not 1919), and still manages to produce the most trust-worthy and acute introduction to Pound's mind and art that we yet possess. If we cannot always rely on this book for facts concerning dates, we can rely fully upon Davie's ear to pick up sounds and rhythms that we were previously unaware of, and to demonstrate their function in the poem as a whole. Moreover, Davie provides us as well with original interpretations of the reasons behind Pound's methods which square with...

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Irvin Ehrenpreis

Donald Davie, in his new book [Ezra Pound], takes the Cantos very seriously, and tries to dispose of the ideological difficulties by separating the "opinions" from the "ideas" of the poem. He pleads, I think, that the appalling doctrines on politics and race belong to mere opinion or prejudice, and are not central to the meaning, but that Pound's ultimate values (justice, beauty, love, order)—not stated but embodied in processes of rapt vision arising from immediate experience—constitute the ideas or real meaning.

I put the analysis in my own words because Davie's account is troubled and obscure; he may well disagree with the paraphrase. But rather than study his terms and quarrel...

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Russell Davies

In the stopping train is just as full of jolts as it sounds, largely because Davie so often leaps out of his reverie to hang desperately on the communication-cord. There are some items in his book, to be sure, which appear to proceed according to plan…. But other poems here are invaded and overcome by apprehensive clamminess….

'To Thom Gunn in Los Altos, California' sets out with a mock-and matey-heroic 'Conquistador! Live dangerously, my Byron', but quickly becomes a long shudder at the Californian coastline, the far edge of the world, looking out over the be-numbing indifference of the Pacific. 'What am I doing, I who am scared of edges?', Davie ends by asking. The answer is often:...

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William Clarkson

Donald Davie's excellent Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor was published in 1964. He has now written a new introduction to Pound [entitled Ezra Pound] … which duplicates little of his earlier work; it is tightly compressed, thoroughly eccentric, and equally indispensable. Davie surveys Pound's important work, probes much of the major work on Pound, and offers suggestions as to where scholarship had better look next. Despite this scope the book is nothing in the way of a reader's guide, but it includes important contributions to the discovery of Allen Upward's relation to Pound and the Cantos, and a brilliant treatment of the Pound sound in a chapter on "Rhythms in the Cantos."…

...

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Douglas Dunn

Donald Davie's new collection [In the Stopping Train] is as nicely fashioned as ever before. His title poem is more subfusc than usual, a sombre but firm performance. It's characteristic of Davie's styles that his poems move neatly to their clinching lines without assuming too much that they should do so. Indeed, his manner is more properly relaxed in In the Stopping Train than it was in The Shires, where it was relaxed into a state of suave chat. There are five more poems to add to the Shires series, one of them, "Bedfordshire", being perhaps the best of the lot. (pp. 82-3)

[Davie's] points of reference are self-consciously cultural and social. He conducts arguments. A number of...

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D. E. Richardson

Donald Davie's criticism conveys the sense that the making and criticizing of poems continue to matter. Such critics as Harold Rosenberg have noticed the absence of a genuine avant-garde in the arts today and have even questioned the usefulness of the notion avant-garde. If the notion is dead, and that is perhaps just as well, one misses the sense of historic enterprise which the idea of the avant-garde carried and which is noticeable everywhere in the criticism of such modernists as Pound and Eliot. The modernists, however much they differed on fundamental matters, all hoped to go beyond the failures of nineteenth-century art. Yet scholars of modernism have encouraged us to see twentieth-century poetry as a footnote,...

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E. P. Thompson

[A Gathered Church: The Literature of the English Dissenting Interest, 1700–1930] is a work of committed criticism. (p. 164)

But the points [of Davie's Clark Lectures collected here] are argued by indirection, allusion, and selection, and we are conducted in no recognizable discipline. Some part of each lecture is given over to rhetorical strategies designed to show that Professor Davie's judgements are endowed with a peculiar privilege denied to other critics. Historians, literary and especially social, are disqualified at the outset, as having no criteria relevant to aesthetic judgement. But much of this book is, quite simply, a rewriting of history, without an appropriate discipline to do...

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Peter Levi

The best of Donald Davie's essays [in Trying to Explain] are subtle, reasonable and serious discussions of the detail of [Ezra Pound's] work; they range widely, they explain, and they give great pleasure. But they take Pound too seriously as a moral being. He was a poet of great genius, and we read him constantly, but to put it mildly, 'he could not make it all cohere'. Donald Davie is not necessarily right to put the blame for Pound's alienation from England on the amateurism and hopelessness of the British literary culture from 1900 to 1920. The distinction that involves between professional and amateur poets is obscure and doubtful.

Donald Davie is torn between British and American...

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P. N. Furbank

Donald Davie's new book [Trying to Explain], a collection of reprinted pieces, is a jumpy one, as is indicated by its fretful title and the expression (faintly exasperated) on his face on the dust-jacket, as well as by a lecture on 'Art and Anger', and 'Second Thoughts' on the same subject, in which he defends anger (with its corollary, contempt) as a salutary emotion and one suitable to great art. Anger, as opposed to hatred, rancour and even indignation, is purgative and goes with clear thought—reasons, he says, why it is unwelcome in democracies where 'contempt is unforgivable, as ultimately hatred isn't'.

You could state all the themes of his book in terms of a question which he has...

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Jerome Mazzaro

Donald Davie's In the Stopping Train indicates that [a] tendency toward reduced style [exists in] contemporary English poetry …, though for Davie's book … one can see the tendency as part of a larger desire to test the language's ability to treat emotions that are often ignored by unitary visions. For Davie, who praises his French teacher for giving him the language of Ronsard, conventional themes provide occasions to see "the whole / Diction kit begin to fall apart," and the interest in his collection lies in the self-consciousness of his efforts to shun the "unlikely … enormous, louring resonant spaces / carved out by a Virgil" and gauge his style to "small clearances, small poems." At times, as in...

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John Seed

This short but vivid and provocative book [A Gathered Church] consists of the Clark Lectures given at Cambridge in 1976, with an additional thirty-odd pages of 'Notes' which amplify some of the arguments. Davie is concerned with the Dissenting tradition's contribution to English literature and culture since the late seventeenth century—a contribution which he argues is important if in some ways very limited. His aim is frankly polemical: as he puts it, "clearing the dissenting tradition of various libels that circulate about it."

He ranges widely, looking at writers as diverse as Bunyan, Mathew Green, Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, William Blake, George Eliot, 'Mark Rutherford,' and D. H....

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Neil Powell

[Any account of Davie's] work since 1970 must be at least partly concerned with the tension (at best a creative tension) between Davie and his English audience or, more bluntly, between Davie and England. (p. 39)

The restless, ruminative sense of a mind moving among half-understood echoes and associations informs the poems in The Shires [1974]—a far richer book than it at first appears—as well as many of the pieces at the end of the Collected Poems [1972] and in Davie's most recent collection, In the Stopping Train (1977). The circumstances surrounding Davie's emigration to California in 1968, and the poems written at that time, are outside the chronological scope of this...

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Michael J. Collins

A poem, writes Donald Davie in "Ars Poetica," is "a space / Cleared to walk around in." The definition, better than many, seems to apply particularly to the twenty-eight short poems that make up In the Stopping Train…. As we read through the poems here, we encounter, as Davie puts it, "small clearances," each of which, with its distinct boundaries, excludes "the turbulence it was cleared from." Each poem, to use Frost's words, seems "a momentary stay against confusion": it takes us, quietly and skillfully, through twenty or forty or fifty lines to a firm conclusion. While we find no "enormous … spaces" here (even the six-page poem "In the Stopping Train" is really a sequence of short ones), these scanty...

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Michael Kirkham

Davie as a critic has sometimes seemed to the dazed bystander to be in perpetual motion, perpetual transition from one phase of opinion to another. But many of the same issues recur, newly formulated and presented, but the same; the truth may be that he is perpetually oscillating between sets of opposite opinions. It does not matter which. His criticism always vibrates with the immediate and pressing interest that poetry in its technical, moral, social, and spiritual realities has for him; it tingles with an air of urgency that vitalizes literary discussion; not infrequently it gives off a brimstone stench of literary warfare. Sometimes I wish he would retire from the fight long enough to settle the internal conflict...

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Simon Rae

Talk of Donald Davie's 'new' collection would not be strictly accurate. Even parts of the title sequence, Three for Water Music, are borrowed from his last volume, In the Stopping Train, and the bulk of the book is simply a reprint of his earlier work, The Shires. 'Three Poems of Sicily' are shared between the two Mediterranean pieces, 'The Fountain of Cyanë' and 'The Fountain of Arethusa' which sandwich the very English ('deuce, Fred Perry serving …') 'Wild Boar Clough'. Myth and personal memories (of childhood, 'Infidel youth' and shrine-seeking maturity) mingle with musings on familiar Davie themes in series of separate poems employing a wide range of imitative styles. Here Davie borrows the...

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Barbara Everett

Donald Davie's new sequence of poems, 'Three for Water-Music' [in the volume of the same title] …, refers not only to pleasant 18th-century entertainments by water, but to something like Yeats's 'words for music, perhaps': or like Eliot's Four Quartets, to which the sequence declares some relationship. For Davie's three poems lie somewhere between late Symbolist poetry and a more quietly literal tradition of English topography; they are a species of modern half-abstract landscape poem, which locate in the real certain transparencies of thought. They show concept both created and creating, as a fountain might be heard to rise and fall again. And indeed of the poet's three locations which have given rise to...

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Valentine Cunningham

Donald Davie speaks up for Old Dissent—for its religious life and the literature it generated—with what might be thought of as an aptly persistent dissentience. He naturally believes he must dissent from the bulk of Dissent's usual enemies. Even more, though, he feels led to dissent from some of the most insistent of Dissent's friends. Crustily, he stands between, on the one hand, the scornful majority who borrow the terminologies of Matthew Arnold for their dismissals of all Dissent as barbarously uncultured philistinism, and, on the other, that colonising minority who want to specialise Dissent into the ranks of the progressive and leftist.

It's an awkward, contentious corner to hold out in....

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Christopher Ricks

Donald Davie's critical arguments are often happily reminis-cential, and his reminiscences are often happily argumentative, so the difference in kind between these two admirable books doesn't make for any great difference of temper. The critical essays which make up Dissentient Voice: Enlightenment and Christian Dissent are an act of making good; they fulfil the promise and they repair the deficiencies of Davie's earlier book on Dissent and culture, A Gathered Church. The recollections gathered as These the Companions are an act of making permanent, with such permanence as time has; they fulfil a promise often made and often kept in Davie's poems but which these days asks, too, for the expatiating...

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Louis Simpson

The imagination, Donald Davie says, is concerned with "one particular person, in one place, at one time, in one sort of weather." Therefore [in "These the Companions"] he is recreating the individuals, some of them obscure, and the places, some well off the beaten path, that contributed to his growth as a writer. He is speaking of "companions," individuals who have meant something to him personally, rather than those he has met in his career as poet, teacher and critic. Like the Russian novelists he admires, he aims to render things as they were. He is not drawing morals, for, he says, he does not have "the heart for it," but is making a truthful record so that the people, places and times he is describing may invite...

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John Lucas

If poems were made solely of ideas there would be few more interesting poets than Donald Davie. For his seriousness about ideas is never in doubt: he ponders, questions, argues with himself and others, and it seems inevitable that, reading him, you want to argue back. Davie's [Collected Poems 1970–1983] is, in short, remarkable for its prose virtues, although these have more to do with articulate energy than with purity of diction. For he can be very clumsy and his ear is by no means true. This is especially the case whenever he tries to move towards the colloquial or the demotic. It is not merely that his lines lack grace, or that they quite fail to suggest an attentiveness to those rhythms that imply human...

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Emily Grosholz

Donald Davie's latest book, Three for Water Music, is a composite of three reflections on water and the long poem "The Shires," Davie's idiosyncratic commentary on each of the English shires. The whole book is dense and finely balanced, another welcome product by one of the master-workers of our language.

In "The Fountain of Cyanë," Davie writes about poetry with the fluency of Dryden, but a wholly modern irreverence for mythical subjects and a reflexive irony towards poetry's ability to gloze over even the most terrible events. The occasion is his visit to the pool of Cyanë in Sicily where, on Ovid's account, Persephone was carried off by the Lord of the Underworld and her grief-stricken...

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Alan Shapiro

At a time when we are accustomed to thinking about the lives of poets more in terms of marital chaos, alcoholism, and breakdown than in terms of poetry, it is refreshing to read Donald Davie's memoir [These the Companions], which not only is an episodic account of events and personalities but also is a serious meditation on his lifelong involvement with literature. The two acquaintances whom he remembers most acutely and generously are F. R. Leavis and Yvor Winters, writers he portrays as puritans in their thinking about art. By puritan he means a person of principle, someone for whom not all moral and intellectual judgments are relative, someone who insists "that in the arts, as between the genuine and...

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William H. Pritchard

There are of course many reasons to be grateful for Donald Davie's continuing presence, but after reading the most recent poems in his volume of collected poems from the years since 1970 [Collected Poems 1970–1983] … I decided that one of the reasons was that he rhymed. Rhyme, so conspicuously absent in the volumes considered here, is present in Davie's late poem "Artifex in Extremis," which begins with "Let him rehearse the gifts reserved for age / Much as the poet Eliot did" and goes on to explore the consciousness of a dying artist. This exploration is given strength and shape by its rhymes…. The new poems from The Battered Wife (1982) include, notably, the title poem, "Screech Owl," "Having No...

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