Collected Poems, 1970-1983
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...
(The entire section is 2351 words.)