Davie, Donald (Vol. 10)
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...
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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 Cambridge English school of the forties and fifties. His first critical book, Purity of Diction in English Verse (1952), found admirable moral qualities in the lexical restraint and controlled syntax of eighteenth-century poetry and was offered as a lesson in the neoclassical virtues to Davie's contemporaries. In his own poetry Davie embodied this lesson in the sharp, cool, ironic observations of Brides of Reason. Yet he is also an aesthete, who believes with Henry James that "it is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance." He was unable to remain satisfied for long with exclusively moral and social criteria for poetry; its significance, in the end, was ontological:
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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 too cerebral and academic in his poetry, he has been troubled by self-doubt: in 1957 he accused himself in a note of failing to be "a natural poet", and as recently as 1975 admitted to being one of the "steely trimmers" whose suspicion of pretension in art is not always distinguishable from mean-mindedness. But on the whole Davie has felt confident enough to assert that the characteristics prized in academic circles can also be the characteristics of the poet….
The publication of The Poet in the Imaginary Museum, a selection of Davie's critical writings between November 1950 and October 1977, is the best opportunity we have had so far to observe the relationship between the concerns of the critic and the...
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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 every one of these lapidary pentameters concerns the practice of poetry itself; even at this stage Davie was already the critic, or at any rate the discerning reader. The poems bristle with the names of the great…. If we didn't know that Davie was Barnsley born and bred, we might be forgiven for thinking that he was nurtured in the imaginary museum of his title [The Poet in the Imaginary Museum: Essays of Two Decades]. 'Nobody wants any more poems about philosophers or paintings or novelists or art galleries or mythology or foreign cities or other poems. At least I hope nobody wants them.' Thus, of course, Kingsley Amis, in a much quoted proscription of 1955; but Davie, despite certain 'Movement' attitudes ('Appear concerned only to...
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