Davie, Donald (Alfred)
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.)
[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.∗
(The entire section is 206 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 353 words.)
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....
(The entire section is 989 words.)
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 Pound: Poet as Sculptor] he faces squarely such objections to Pound and yet argues convincingly for his status as a major poet of the century. He does not fall into the trap of total commitment to the Cantos, and there is no talk of an illusory coherence of design or strength of construction: instead we are made aware of the deeply conflicting elements in the poet's practice. Committed to a language of particulars, Pound is nevertheless fascinated by ideas, as only a dogmatist can be…. Although the Cantos fail as an epic account of history and in their attempt to establish standards of judgment and a pantheon of heroes, they do often succeed as lyric, the lyric that has to do with time past. "Wherever Pound deals with...
(The entire section is 416 words.)
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 common denominator more in an attitude than a point of view. One might insist that this method has its advantages, especially with a subject so evasive as Pound; nonetheless, it can bring us little more than the isolated illumination, the observation, or the general comparision, while it avoids the problems of explication and interpretation that cannot be avoided in systematic analysis.
Yet, even granting the author has methodology, there is much in this work that is either merely speculative or ill-reasoned. And often Davie's speculations are presented in so confusing a manner that one would be tempted to dismiss them as incomprehensible did they not seem to reduce themselves to oversimplification. (pp. 88-9)...
(The entire section is 383 words.)
[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 the poem as it is experienced. (p. 485)
What makes this book so valuable is that Davie's comments are both new and controversial; one feels positively impelled to disagree in some measure with almost everything he says, while his overall sense of Pound's work is both just and convincing. (p. 486)
The heart of Pound lies in chapter four ("Ideas in the Cantos"), where Davie offers a splendid enunciation of Pound's use of ideas. "As we start to read the Cantos," he says, "we float out upon a sea where we must be on the look-out for waterspouts. These, when they occur, are ideas, the only sort that this poem is going to give us." In magnificent and brilliant analyses of sections from canto 91...
(The entire section is 576 words.)
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 with his logic, I will make a single, literary comment: that if Pound built his poem as Davie indicates, it is a devastating mark of his failure that the poet's ear should have been so deaf to the impact his "opinions" would make on an audience.
Davie is excellently equipped to write an authoritative introduction to Pound's work. He is an accomplished poet and critic, familiar not only with Pound's writings of every sort but also with the scholarship on them. Though deeply responsive to Pound's verse, Davie is acutely aware of his limitations as a poet. He holds a sane, balanced view of Pound's importance in literary history but does not compromise with his evil banalities.
In an earlier book [Ezra...
(The entire section is 402 words.)
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: looking scared, and in the same sweaty, domestic way as the late Robert Lowell. It's not just the nearness to the surface here of Davie's family, friends and personal habits, or even the occasional red splash of schizophrenia …, but the auto-diagnostic impulse, the febrile, pulse-taking fear of self. More sinister, though—because one senses the strain Davie is experiencing in keeping his disgust bottled in images—is 'St Paul's Revisited', a 'sermon' on Depravity…. [Suddenly] Davie the moralist becomes Davie the unhonoured prophet, and looks not at all at home in this world. It is in the glowering light of [poems] … like this that simpler pieces, say 'A Wistful poem called "Readers"' …, take on the glint of paranoia. It all leaves one...
(The entire section is 278 words.)
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."…
Donald Davie goes a long way toward showing where and why Ezra Pound is better than everyone else. Davie shows too, humanely but clearly, where and why, despite revisions and because of them, Pound is worse. (p. 670)
William Clarkson, "Ezra Pound Ltd.," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXXV, No. 4, Fall, 1977, pp. 667-70.
(The entire section is 162 words.)
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 his poems in his new book proceed first by asking a question, then answering it, then moving forward until the next question is reached, followed by its answer, followed by moving forward again. The method mimics a state of mind suspicious of bold manoeuvres, of anything unreasonable, intemperate or seemingly immoderate. If he was to imagine something, or speculate, he would tell us first. He wouldn't want to think he was going off his own rails. There is of course an assumption of plain honesty in that manner. But there are times, too, when it looks like a greater degree of circumspection than poetry encourages. His poems strike me as conditioned by criticism of poetry, a phenomenon of the mid-20th century. If there is an academic...
(The entire section is 526 words.)
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, an impressive footnote, to nineteenth-century culture.
The Poet in the Imaginary Museum: Essays of Two Decades … publishes a selection of Davie's essays dating—despite the title—from 1950 to 1978. It reveals that Davie's mind has from the beginning pushed forward with the same preoccupations although he has modified particular views, as he acknowledges in new postscripts to some of the essays.
Like the early modernists whom he admires, Davie wishes the poet to keep his head in a confusing world by embracing the old role of the artist as artificer or maker, rather than secular prophet, thinker, or creator of alternative worlds…. Davie thinks of the poet as working somehow like other...
(The entire section is 1464 words.)
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 so. Aesthetic judgements may be faulted if they conflict with doctrinal considerations, and vice versa. By another strategy ('I was there') Professor Davie assumes the privilege of personal association with the tradition…. A certain privilege we may allow. I do allow it: Professor Davie has a deep, but narrow, arc of sympathy which may derive from his familial inheritance. But we cannot allow it too far, or we make nonsense of the work of critics and historians, who must, in a sense, always be 'there'. Are we to suppose that only female royalists are privileged to write the history of Queens?
By yet another strategy, political and social interests disqualify the writers Professor Davie dislikes but commend those...
(The entire section is 1393 words.)
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 standards. That is part of his interest as an essayist, and what a splendidly trenchant and clear writer, what an impressively rational explainer he is. I failed to find one uninteresting paragraph in this book. Its lucidity makes it easy to disagree with, but even the miscalculation of some of its attacks on the wilder fringe of writers is honourable and endearing. Donald Davie's photograph on the jacket is that of some rare, mid-Atlantic seabird, literary and intellectual and in full spate of explanation. But his phobia against socialism, which he allows to weaken even his case against the fascism of Yeats and Pound, is less sympathetic, and his rage against Dylan Thomas is exaggerated….
But all Davie's prejudices are honest...
(The entire section is 593 words.)
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 plainly often asked himself: why, being English and predominantly concerned about English, or British, matters, does he live and work in America? Or rather, some answers to that are clear: it is because in England 'the nonacademic makers and moulders of literary opinion are judging poetry by standards which are 60 years out of date', and because of the 'arrogant rationalism and authoritarianism of British socialism'.
The question he is really troubled by is, what are the perils for him of his self-exile? This puts him in a good position, involved yet detached, to meditate the case of Ezra Pound, who, though an American, never before and never after felt so much at home as in England …, yet eventually quitted the place, in an...
(The entire section is 1185 words.)
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 "Father, The Cavalier," the efforts add up to nothing more than rhetorical adroitness—the withholding or the correct placing of a word. The work's final "mostly," sentimentalizing the photo, qualifies "unnoticed" but also echoes the assertion / qualification of the poem's second stanza—"A surrogate / Virility, perhaps." "The Harrow" creates its tension syntactically by withholding the verb "stir." These techniques work well in the opening half of "Depravity: Two Sermons" and in "Bedfordshire" to bring irony to the conventions of occasional poems. Although in poems like "Morning," "To a Teacher of French," "Widowers," and "A Spring Song," Davie emerges with a live voice, readers may wonder whether there is not as much artifice in this voice...
(The entire section is 312 words.)
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. Lawrence. One of his central propositions is that there is an aesthetic specifically linked to religious Dissent. Its characteristic virtues were "simplicity, sobriety, and measure." Important examples are the hymns of Isaac Watts, the prose of 'Mark Rutherford.' This severely restrained poetic echoes more recent poetics such as that of the "Objectivists" in the United States….
But Davie's concern is not narrowly literary. It is the broader cultural role of Dissent and its literature which is the central concern of the lectures: "since what we are concerned with is English culture, our history cannot be a history of ideas, nor a history of events, nor yet a narrowly literary history, but a history of people and the styles in...
(The entire section is 561 words.)
[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 —a far richer book than it at first appears—as well as many of the pieces at the end of the Collected Poems  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 volume; but the perplexed and unresolved tensions with England continue to reverberate….
The responses to England contained in The Shires are far from comfortable but they are glancingly, and therefore the more sharply, affectionate: if 'love' has not 'drained away', it has become infinitely complicated. (p. 40)
Behind The Shires, inevitably, is 'Essex', at whose university Davie was Professor of English and which
Better than I can give it
Who have unfinished business
(The entire section is 1260 words.)
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 plots of ground are generally satisfying confines to walk around in.
The poems here have the qualities we expect of Donald Davie: they are quiet, restrained, erudite, carefully wrought—a poetry of statement rather than of image. They are generally public and, in some cases, occasional rather than private or intensely personal. Particular people and places, as they often do with Davie, figure prominently in the collection….
[Davie is] a particularly allusive poet, and as a result, his poems can be, for me at least, difficult to understand without research and rereading. And yet, while some of the poems take time, others are almost immediately accessible and effective. "To a Teacher of French," for...
(The entire section is 318 words.)
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 of ideas. In the fifties the most intelligent and ardent polemicist for the Movement, Davie was also the quickest to see its shortcomings. The pieces in Trying to Explain, mainly about poetry, his own and others', were all published in the seventies; they cover a variety of topics, but in this context what is most striking is the persistence, alongside new interests and some changes of outlook, of Movement attitudes and habits of mind. The moral recoil from the cult of the lyric poet as "one who is absolved from all civic responsibilities and all moral restraints" is as sharp as it ever was. His scorn for "the sublime," in ancient or modern dress, has not relaxed. "Disaffection, resentment, acedia, malaise, 'alienation'—all those...
(The entire section is 525 words.)
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 metre of Shelley's 'Arethusa' to celebrate not only the original poem, but his own precociousness—and to pay homage to his mother whose love of literature made it possible:
In a parlour game,
Required to name
Mountains beginning with A,
Proudly, aged ten,
I pronounced it then:
The Akrokeraunian Mountain!
The egotistical impulse gains momentum through the rest of the volume, The...
(The entire section is 219 words.)
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 epiphanies, the first and last are, in fact, Sicilian 'fountains' or pools, each named after an Ovidian legend of loss of love; the second is a brown pool in a torrential stream between steep English hillsides. The sequence, recording 'Epiphanies all around us / Always perhaps', in a sense finds no answer to its opening question: 'And what's to be made of that?' Any sense of answer or reconciliation is confined to the expressive forms of the poems themselves, which always—like music—imply the silence behind them….
Donald Davie is on occasion a superlative poet, and [Three for Water-Music] is one of the occasions. Reticence and a love of the theoretical often combine to make his communications a triumph of style....
(The entire section is 880 words.)
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. Davie knowingly boxed himself into it in his Clark Lectures, A Gathered Church (1976), and these more recent lectures and articles [collected in Dissentient Voice: Enlightenment and Christian Dissent] show him still contentedly there, still jabbing foxily away with intent to outrage his chosen opponents. His beloved 18th-century Dissenters, so his argument goes, didn't just happen to hit off a clutch of memorable hymns. Watts and Charles Wesley, Newton and Doddridge wrote their great poems because their religion sited them comfortably within the Age of Reason. Nobody was more intellectually serious and reasonable than Watts and Co., with their abstractions and their theological paradoxes. The Enlightenment was—and...
(The entire section is 818 words.)
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 element of prose: the exercise of 'the faculty of pious memory'.
There is no reason to question the sincerity of the foreword's concluding insistence: 'For certainly I'm not writing to vindicate myself, if only because in this book I am not the principal character. You must bear with the first person singular only so as to have me introduce you to persons and places and ambiences that have a singularity and a value such as I won't claim for myself.' The trouble is that this is an insistence. The swell and throb of the title, These the Companions (as against, say, Charles Tomlinson's recent recollections, Some Americans), are evidence, not just that Davie will over-forgive Ezra Pound almost anything ('Lordly...
(The entire section is 2332 words.)
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 "different reflections from those of the narrator." In this I think he has succeeded, for as I read about his adventures and considered his reflections, my reflections were frequently very different from his….
[Mr. Davie's frankness] invites a certain sort of reader to feel superior. He says that he has been a "coward before life," a prig and a prude. To write so doubtfully about oneself is to put a weapon in the hands of envy and malice. Most writers only admit to failings—promiscuous sexual activity, for example—that most people do not regard as failings. In reading Mr. Davie's admissions, I had, as it were, to protect him from himself, from his zeal for explaining his limitations. He is not a prig now, if he ever...
(The entire section is 703 words.)
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 depths tapped through speech utterance. It is also that although he requires us to be good listeners he is not a good listener himself. This is perhaps a consequence of his donnishness, of a literariness that seems ill at ease with the familiar. At all events there are some remarkably phoney moments in his poetry. 'The beery ram that mounted / His niece and, hissing "Belt up", had her.' How do you hiss 'Belt up'? And can you really believe in the desire of a poet to make it new who writes of 'a hulking great villain' or who carelessly repeats 'there's' 'theirs' and 'there's' in the space of three lines?
Well, yes, you can. Because set against these faults, and in spite of a lack of canorousness so great that trying...
(The entire section is 438 words.)
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 companion Cyanë wept herself into a pool. (p. 583)
Considering the springs of inspiration and the poet's way of drawing upon them, Davie argues that poetry requires formality, but not so that it suppresses the anarchic violence which is part of the truth of reality. Language should crack a little for grief into fault-traceries on the perfection of form. Epiphanies "like the closed-off / Precincts all right, but never / When those exult in their closures." Moreover, poetry requires a subject which, though it may not have the necessity of existence, should at least be a postulate useful for making sense of life, one of those permanent myths that explain, for instance, why we endure long winter nights and trust in the return...
(The entire section is 359 words.)
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 the fake, or between the achieved and the unachieved, there cannot be any halfway house."
These the Companions is not a book of unqualified praise for puritanism so much as it is a deeply felt reaction against the tendency in himself and in important friends and mentors to divide too brutally the sheep from the goats, the genuine from the fake. What animates his assessment of men like Winters and Leavis and what stands uneasily back of his assessment of his own intellectual and literary habits is a troubled awareness of how an appetite for rigorous and absolute criteria, however necessary, can constrict one's sympathies; yet at the same time he also can acknowledge how sympathy uninformed by principle can degenerate...
(The entire section is 655 words.)
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 Ear," "Siloam," "Three Beyond," and "Two From Ireland," in the last of which the older poet looks back on his younger self, once a don at Trinity College, Dublin. Now, returning in 1977 to the country of the "troubles," he finds himself oddly charmed…. As always, to read this poet is to experience intelligence, control, and a quotient of obscurity; but … also a lyric of song. The title of one of these poems, "Having No Ear," is about listening to music. But Davie's ear is in his poetry. (pp. 340-42)
William H. Pritchard, "Aboard the Poetry Omnibus," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXXVII, No. 2, Summer, 1984, pp. 327-42.∗
(The entire section is 222 words.)