These the Companions Essay - Critical Context

Donald Davie

Critical Context

In These the Companions, as in both his poetry and his scholarly work, Davie consciously goes against the tide of contemporary culture. The contemporary literary scene is dominated by theories of language and texts according to which genuine meaning is nearly impossible because of the ambiguous, self-destructing nature of words. Ethical and moral considerations, whether arising from the text or brought to it, have long been seen as irrelevant. In many circles, close attention to the craft and tradition of poetry has been secondary to notions of self-expression or to sincerity of feeling or politics.

Davie registers his complaint against these trends, and records his own different path, without expending much effort to refute them. There is a sort of diffidence in Davie’s autobiography that perhaps grows out of his sense of his own shortcomings and from the awareness that he has fought the good fight in other contexts.

Those other contexts include both his poetry and his academic writing. Davie is known in both these areas as a defender of classical qualities: restraint, control, urbanity, wit, formal elegance, and public morality. In the 1950’s he was associated with a loose affiliation of writers known as “the Movement,” who reacted against what they saw as the romantic excesses of the Anglo-American modernists and later poets such as Dylan Thomas, Robert Lowell, and Sylvia Plath, whose poetry was marked by verbal and emotional self-indulgence.

These the Companions is consistent with Davie’s lifelong work. It is sometimes poignant yet emotionally restrained. It speaks out for classical values in a romantic age, yet with a certain sense of defeat that is also found in Davie’s later poetry. It reflects Davie’s desire for something more stable than that provided by twentieth century culture, yet also demonstrates once again his great interest in poets such as Pound (about whom he has written two books) whose basic approach to poetry is at odds with his own.