Davie, Donald 1922–
A British poet, critic, editor, and translator, Davie writes accomplished, stylized verse. His is a disciplined, technically polished poetry that is often both elegant and compressed. As a critic, he admires the structure and purity of eighteenth-century literature, and is against certain modernism, as well as the Romanticism of the forties. Often considered overly academic, Davie has shifted among various schools of poetic thought. He has recently experimented with confessional poetry and with looser verse forms. (See also CLC, Vols. 5, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Of all the first-rate poets of the age, Donald Davie is the most notably reactionary. If only with some strain, we might see him, to advantage, as mining in the great ascetic vein of contemporary art, where the classical spirit thins away—as in Rothko, Bresson, Sarraute, Beckett, Cage—in ever starker forms. And yet Davie stands far to the right of most of his fellow ascetics—indeed, within hailing distance of the eighteenth century. In tone, diction, and verse form, he often recalls the late Augustan poets, of whom he has written well and whom he has also anthologised. Above all he has tried, like the Augustans, to be urbane: to voice (in words he quotes from Matthew Arnold) "the tone and spirit of the center." This is reactionary indeed. For of course there is no longer any center. Or the center is but a maelstrom, a contention. (p. 66)
[It] is just the poet's voice, and only this, that we hear speaking in Davie's poetry. It could not be otherwise. "To make poetry out of moral commonplace," Davie notes, "a poet has to make it clear that he speaks not in his own voice (that would be impertinent) but as the spokesman of a social tradition."… [To] "make poetry out of moral commonplace," as Davie tries to do, when the commonplace itself seems damaged, indeed marooned—indeed, forlorn—does require something like impertinence; and rapping on roving knuckles with yardsticks borrowed from old classrooms, impertinently using the word "impertinence" with its haughty assumption of determinate absolutes, what Davie himself exemplifies, we may feel, is not "the tone and spirit" of any center, but something more courageous and significant, not to say lonely: the individual man working out the necessities of his conscience. Moreover, what really fires this conscience, we may feel, is not at all being at the center, whatever that may happen to be in any age, but being right: right about the need for civilized restraint, for faith in the idea of civilization itself. We hear in Davie's poetry a voice that will speak out in spite of its knowledge of the indifference or incredulity that awaits it—a voice consciously coming, not from the center of contemporary culture, but from out on the edge, in a kind of nagging nostalgia for an austerer day, when men lived and died by Nonconformist lights, or for Reason, Loyalty, Restraint, the Right. It is the voice of a conscience that—protestingly—finds itself left behind.
Davie's conscience is … more complex than I have yet suggested—or than he himself seems quite to have grasped. Almost dramatically self-divided, it contains its own principle of self-correction. It is larger and wiser, as it were, than Davie himself, since Davie, at any one time, embodies but half of it. There is, however, some justice in emphasizing its jaundiced and vigilant side; for there can be no doubt that Davie himself is partial to it. Indeed, it often seems that Davie has taken it as his peculiar role among contemporary poets to be perversely pure and dour—to knock on the ceiling shaken by the reckless goings-on of the present with the broom of the Puritan (or simply the reasonable) past. And if he has made too much of this, cramming himself into a niche that is really too small for him and from which, now and again, he has had to break out and stretch his limbs and take the air, still the niche is of his own carving—is in its measure congenial to him. And, having assumed it so often, he has indeed inclined us to regard him as the poet of "urbane" and reactionary admonitions, partial as this identity must seem in a final view. And certainly he has assumed it often enough to force us to ask what effect it has had on his art. (pp. 66-7)
[To] be an "urbane poet," if one is indeed a poet, is to be out of line with oneself, and out of line with poetry. The chief effect of Davie's attempt to be urbane—and not only in the Arnoldian sense but in the root sense of "civilized, polished, refined, witty"—has been a waste of his poetic abilities, a silencing while lesser instruments are played. In much of his work, Davie has gone through the motions of poetry, and given the result its name; but the rope he has walked has been utilitarian clothesline, its height but a little way above the ground, and the performance, accordingly, altogether lacking in that power to astonish which genuine poetry always displays….
[In] one way Davie has indeed achieved, within poetry, a notable urbanity: an urbanity, not of voice or position, but of language. Linguistic urbanity lies (in a phrase Davie quotes from T. S. Eliot) in "the perfection of a common language." Here as elsewhere, the urbane principle is, of course, that of enlightened modesty: the intelligence, the sheer sociality deposited in a language seems so large, the poet's own inventions, his own ego, so small. The urbane mind scorns the folly and fears the vice of all private perspective; it trusts in the justice of the general. Accordingly, the ideal style, to it, is a style without style, as clear, unmarked, and compliant as water—and like water, wholesome, easy to assimilate, and used by everyone…. (p. 67)
What confronts us in [the examples of Davie's finest "urbane poetry"] is language rather than style—the common language filtered and purified. Impossible to parody: it would be easier to take hold of the air. Fleeing from a "distinctive" voice as from the very principle of evil, Davie, it is true, in a sense achieves one: in the midst of voices with a signature, his stands out by virtue of its choice impersonality. But clearly its intention is otherwise: Davie's is a language, as it were, surprised and found, not forged and made. If his words distinguish themselves, it is not by their manner, but by their "good manners," their social finality, their intention to communicate…. [It is from] the heart of the perfected common language, that Davie writes his poetry. And if he fails to make it seem the necessary place for poetry, still he proves it to be one of the positions of excellence.
And yet, to repeat, there has also been unhappy waste in this insistence on urbanity—unnecessary limitation and futility. The temptation to slight the real, unpredictable, and slovenly body of experience, to keep it at a polite and useful distance, to talk and civilize and "purify" the language rather than to write poems, has been more than Davie has been able to withstand…. And he has been, in consequence, a poet only when he has escaped from his theories—when he has opened the door, quietly so as not to waken the urbane guards, and stepped out into the surprising world. (pp. 68-9)
Toward the primal energy of poetry, which is evolving feeling—imagination intently migrating, arriving, arrived—Davie is in the position of the man who would rather not acknowledge a disreputable family connection. And yet there is, after all, no poetry without it; there is only prose. (p. 69)
Davie's ambition lies in "a poetry of urbane and momentous statement." Yet what Davie actually writes in such a piece as "Portrait of the Artist" is not poetry at all, but versified prose discourse—in brief, verse. Verse is poetry that we name as such only by grace of its turning rhythm and lines: it is the form of poetry without the substance, and so we call it, justly, by its vehicle alone. (p. 71)
What is troublesome [about verse] is the way it trifles with, and lowers, a form potentially great and beautiful…. [The]...
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[Davie's Collected Poems, 1950–1970] shows that Davie soon moved on from the quasi-Augustan formality he had cultivated in the fifties, and since then has written in many styles and been open to a wide range of poetic influences, mostly American and Continental European. (p. 345)
[That Davie is an interesting writer] arises less from the character of Davie's poems, taken separately, than from the total impression one gets from all his writing of a powerful literary personality struggling with obsessions and endeavoring, with unexpected success, to balance or combine attitudes usually thought of as contradictory. Thus, Davie is emphatically a moralist, imbued with the rigorous spirit of the...
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Rationalism, scepticism, fastidiousness, fair-mindedness: the qualities which Donald Davie has claimed for himself over the years are not the qualities we have been taught to expect of a poet. Part of Davie's task has been to persuade us, and himself, that we have been wrongly taught—that our conception of the poet as a daring and passionate outsider is historically foreshortened, and that a broader, pre-Romantic conception of the poet could be profitably restored. From the earliest poems Davie has presented himself as an opposite, or anti-type, of the Romantic poet: as a "bride of reason", a "winter talent", "an even tenor", a "good fellow" but "pertinacious to a fault". Occasionally stung by suggestions that he is...
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What a pity that Donald Davie is less interesting as a poet than as a critic. Picking up the Collected Poems, as I not infrequently do, I find myself returning constantly to the earliest volumes, Brides of Reason (1955) and A Winter Talent (1957). Here, it seems to me—in 'The Garden Party', 'Remembering the Thirties', 'Hearing Russian Spoken' and 'Rejoinder to a Critic'—he wrote with a confidence and poise that he has never (in verse) quite managed since. The early poems are full of quotations: 'Yet irony itself is doctrinaire', 'A neutral tone is nowadays preferred', 'Abjure politic brokenness for good', 'Appear concerned only to make it scan'.
Note, however, that each and...
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