Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2351
Donald Davie is one of those increasingly rare individuals who is a significant force both as a creative writer and as a critic. The shape of his career harkens back to the long line of English masters of letters that includes John Dryden, Samuel Johnson, Matthew Arnold, and—in the twentieth century—such American figures as T. S. Eliot and Allen Tate. Equally at home with the creative or critical act, knowledgeable about the literary and social issues in both Great Britain and the United States, Davie is a fine exemplar of a vanishing breed. As a critic and editor, he has grappled with such topics as diction and syntax in English poetry, the languages of science and literature, the literature of English dissent, Augustan poetry, William Wordsworth, Thomas Hardy, and Ezra Pound; he has translated poems by Boris Pasternak, among others. Davie’s own poems have filled many volumes, beginning with Brides of Reason in 1955. His first twenty years of poetic activity were gathered in Collected Poems: 1950-1970 (1972). The present volume is a retrospective of what he has accomplished since then.
Collected Poems, 1970-1983 brings together three full-length collections, a cluster of three long poems, an appendix of two previously uncollected poems, and an introductory piece, “Pilate,” labeled “A Poem of the 1960s,” that explores the psychology of the keeper of standards. In “Pilate,” Davie makes an oblique assessment of his own role as a critic whose severity has been criticized in turn. The poem questions the motives and ultimate value of the keeper of standards in a political and moral context, but the literary context is easily imagined. One cannot be sure whether Davie wants mercy or justice for the poems that follow. Most readers will incline toward leniency.
In The Shires (1974), Davie presents an alphabet of England’s political geography, beginning with Bedfordshire and ending with his native Yorkshire. Each poem is named, simply, for the shire it describes, though description is both more and less than what Davie attempts. The Shires, which can be thought of as one long poem, risks tedium and sameness while it gains a natural unity. To solve the problem of encyclopedic dullness, Davie has pushed for the greatest formal, stylistic, and tonal variety from segment to segment while maintaining throughout a recognizable, consistent voice. This tour de force is successful. Hints of landscape, historical significances, native sons, and literary anecdote are effectively mixed with the poet’s subjective reactions to each place. Each poem takes a different shape, as if Davie sought to provide not only the appropriate images and language but also a formal objective correlative for his own inner sense of each locale.
Most of these poems are short sketches; as such, they illustrate Davie’s ability to be brief without being superficial. His well-honed vocabulary allows economy through precision, as in the following lines on Robert Walpole from “Norfolk”: “Walpole: heaven-high smell of/ Whitewash on tainted beef,/ Piquant in learning’s nostril.” While Davie’s work maintains a clear literal level, each word is suggestively ripe, and word combinations reveal shadings that entertain and enrich.
Davie is called, and has called himself, a traditionalist. This label, however, is not warranted by slavish employment of traditional devices or models. Davie refashions what he inherits. He is a traditionalist in that his poems are more reader-oriented than is now customary. The demands he makes on the reader are the demands of language itself, not private allusion or confessional minutiae: Davie insists that the reader be alert to histories, resonances, and boundaries of words. Another way in which Davie might be considered a traditionalist is that his poems are in the service of cultural conveyance. In these intellectually lively poems, the self is subordinated to the issue, the observation, the business of living in a complex world in which civilization’s networks are always informing one’s experience while simultaneously undergoing change.
The self, however, the reflecting, reacting persona, is what enlivens The Shires, itself a back-and-forth movement through British civilization. The poet’s interaction with place, whether it be casual and incidental or deeply affective, gives these poems an edge over the best guidebook verses. Most of these were probably finished after Davie made the United States his primary residence in 1968, allowing memory a useful distance, a distance from which the whole of Davie’s England is beheld.
In the Stopping Train and Other Poems (1977) is as impressive in its range as The Shires is in its purposeful limitations. Art and artists are a central concern in this collection; poems such as “Rousseau in His Day,” “Mandelstam, on Dante,” and “Death of a Painter” remind one how much, for Davie, art is made out of art. In this way, too, he is a traditionalist—always ready to bring the history of art into present relevance or to make one artist’s accomplishment the springboard for a new poem. “Orpheus” and “Ars Poetica” are contemplations on the motives for and functions of the creative act and the artwork itself. The reader learns in “Ars Poetica,” an elegy for the sculptor Michael Ayrton, that
Most poems, or the best,Describe their own birth, and thisIs what they are—a spaceCleared to walk around in.
Other poems respond to Davie’s contemporaries; for example, “To Thom Gunn in Los Altos, California” and the “Judith Wright, Australian” section of the book’s title poem.
“In the Stopping Train” is the most ambitious and successful of a number of poems in which Davie works at self-understanding and self-correction. Not modishly confessional, “In the Stopping Train” develops an almost outlandish analogy in imaginative and moving ways. The man in the train that both stops and goes becomes a figure for the poet’s (and most readers’) obsession with destinations and purposes and with the paradoxical way in which stopping, starting, going, and ending are linked experiences. Also, the poem questions the humanity of the word-lover who may be living only at the level of language:
Jonquil is a sweet word.Is it a flowering bush?Let him helplessly wonderfor hours if perhaps he’s seen it.............................He never needed to see,not with his art to help him.He never needed to use hisnose, except for language.
Here, and in poems such as “His Themes,” “Morning,” and “To a Teacher of French,” Davie approaches an uneasy peace with his own habits of mind.
Formal disciplines are more noticeable in this collection than in The Shires. There are many tightly rhymed stanzaic poems, though Davie is so addicted to enjambment that there is not always a lyrical payoff. In fact, Davie’s lyric gift, if judged only by Collected Works, 1970-1983, may be questioned. Few poems, even the rhymed and measured ones, give forth a pleasurable music. Davie seems to resist musicality; he either mistrusts it or cannot achieve it. Given the satiric, critical impulse that lies behind many of the poems, the auditory flatness may be a conscious choice. Still, there is too much awkwardness and off-key phrasing. Davie’s writing rises to the status of poetry in part because he would otherwise be giving us excellent prose. He is an amazingly agile sentence-maker (as any reader of his criticism will discover), yet this skill alone would not be sufficient for poetry. Added to it is Davie’s ability to focus complex issues and experiences through powerful language and imagery; it is through such concentration and condensation that Davie reveals himself a poet.
In many of his poems, Davie is a man of ideas and a social critic. “Depravity: Two Sermons” finds him in this role. His affinities with the Augustan poetic stance, affinities to be expected from a survey of his critical undertakings, affect the kind of singing that Davie achieves. There is a constant search for sense, a constant application of reason that is antithetical to lyric outbursts. Like the Augustans, and like T. S. Eliot, Davie is a learned and allusive poet. “Horae Canonicae,” more euphonious than most poems in this collection, shows many of Davie’s strengths and predilections at once.
Before taking leave of The Stopping Train and Other Poems, one must notice the five-part revisiting of so many shires, the most overt connection between this volume and its predecessor. Finally, “Townend, 1976,” another return to Yorkshire, concludes the book with a characteristic blending of objective and subjective history. It is also one of those poems in which Davie’s endless curiosity about words is given play, here on the name “Townend” itself. The Shires and The Stopping Train and Other Poems reveal a mature poet of diverse gifts, one who shows his alertness to the passing spectacle and to passing poetic fashions but who has found his own way to go.
Three for Water-Music (1981) is an arresting grouping that has marginal connection to contemporary poetic manners, though the poems superficially resemble the modern poetic sequence. These poems are best characterized as irregular odes in the manner of Dryden, the several parts of each composition formally distinctive and unlike the others. Each of the odes is divided into five parts, and in each ode the opening section employs couplet rhyme to announce the theme. After this common opening, the odes develop differently: Some stanzas are carefully rhymed, while others use subdued rhymes or no rhymes at all.
In his title, Davie may be alluding to the Water Music of the great neoclassical composer, George Frederick Handel. Water Music was written at the request of Handel’s patron, King George I of England, and was so titled because it was meant to accompany the movement of the royal barge along the Thames. Handel, who set a number of Dryden’s lyrics to music, would be a congenial eighteenth century figure to inspire Donald Davie, though Davie may have had quite another kind of water music in mind. Because two of the poems in this grouping refer to fountains, the movement of the fountain water could be considered a kind of visual music to which the poems are responsive.
Each poem addresses sexual aggression, and the first and last retell, in part, ancient myths of rape. In one case, “The Fountain of Cyanë,” tears of grief turn Cyanë into a pool when she learns of her friend’s rape. “The Fountain of Arethusa” is a similar “explanation” of how a certain body of water came into being. The middle poem, “Wild Boar Clough,” tells a modern British story of brutishness, its celebration, inevitability, and consequences. Moving backward and forward in time in each poem, Davie weaves a complex triptych that involves considerations both transient and universal, political and aesthetic, personal and public. Three for Water-Music shows the fire and wit of Davie’s other work, but here there is more virtuoso display of craft and even more homage to literary traditions.
Davie’s most recent title to be housed in this collected works is The Battered Wife and Other Poems (1982), a considerably larger assemblage than either The Shires or In the Stopping Train. The poems here are even more splendidly varied, the level of achievement quite high, and the faults and strengths shine through even more intensely. When Davie does manage to sound lyric, he sounds least original—sometimes like Hardy, sometimes like an anonymous balladeer. More often, he exhibits a concern for craft that is effective in diction and compactness, but almost tone-deaf. There is a poem in The Battered Wife that may be a clue to Davie’s limitations. “Having No Ear,” while it concerns appreciating music, may have application to the oral and auditory qualities of poetry:
Having no ear, I hearAnd do not hear the piano-tuner ping,Ping, ping one string beneath me here, where IPing-ping one string of Caroline English toTell if Edward Taylor tellsThe truth, or no.
The poem is one of many concerned with moral integrity and religious fervor; as such, it mirrors Davie’s critical studies of religious writers and movements, reminding one once again of how essentially unified his career has been:
Dear God, such gratitudeAs I owe thee for giving, in defaultOf a true ear or of true holiness,This trained and special gift of knowing whenReligious poets speak themselves to God,And when, to men.
Davie, most often, speaks to men. He is entertaining and always careful to be clear, but not at the expense of his genuine complexity of thought. The current of thought is the shaping current of his best work, whether or not it be supported by rhymes or stanzaic scaffolding. In poems such as “Artifex in Extremis,” Davie shows his talent for this kind of meditative verse, and he shows that he is a poet still improving, still finding the occasional grand success that justifies the marginal achievements.
The Battered Wife and Other Poems is divided into four parts, the last of which is a group of “Translations and Imitations” that testifies, once again, to Davie’s sense of poetry as a continuum of many voices. These exercises suggest how Davie’s poetry and criticism feed each other, how the critical and creative faculties can merge rather than be at war. Davie’s models in this section are Pierre de Ronsard, Boris Pasternak, and Osip Mandelstam, while he addresses his contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic, Robert Pinsky and Seamus Heaney.
Two final poems—one on nineteenth century England (“Lady Cochrane”) and one on the poet’s relationship to his homeland today (“To Londoners”)—and Davie’s Collected Poems, 1970-1983 comes to an end. It is a winning performance, an honest, intense series of probings into language and thought, culture, history, and personality. If Davie’s lines go flat too often, if his line breaks are often suspect, if his sense of language’s music is weak, one can forgive him for his true and able concern with the making of literature: his versatility in prosodic forms; his accurate sense of what makes a proper subject for his poems; his care in the development of complex issues and experiences; his respect for tradition, for language, and for his readers.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 19
Christian Science Monitor. December 2, 1983, p. Bl.
Listener. September 1, 1983, p. 22.
London Review of Books. August 18, 1983, p. 23.
New Statesman. August 5, 1983, p. 23.
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