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Davidson, Donald 1893–1968
Davidson was an American poet, critic, historian, and rhetorician. One of the original founders of the Fugitive school of poetry, Davidson created a verse marked by an uncompromising loyalty to the precepts of the Southern Agrarian movement. He explicated his artistic vision in poetry whose syntax and diction is drawn from the classical and biblical tradition. Of focal concern for Davidson are the problems of religion, tradition, and the fundamental integrity of man in the modern world. (See also CLC, Vol. 2, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
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The works of Mr. Davidson are of a piece and evoke a problem in every instance—the problem of belief. A man extremely fertile in ideas, he is rare among Southern authors in having been able to contemplate experience from a settled and definable point of view; he has kept his sensibility undissociated in this, perhaps the most distracted of all eras since the collapse of the Roman Empire. He has achieved this success at the cost of many repudiations, for value after value which the society of our own time has come to esteem or despairingly to accept he has submitted to searching examination. Always the examination has been made in the light of an attitude that is traditional to the author, who might be characterized as a highly intelligent and gifted Southerner, one who knows and cherishes his personal and cultural past, his country's history, and the intentions of the men who established its constitution. (p. 13)
[Lee in the Mountains and Other Poems] remains, nonetheless, by long odds his most ambitious work, one which reflects the effort of a contemporary mind to integrate itself with its own personal past and with the past of the early Tennessee settlers, the tall men. In addition, it is a commentary on the present, in terms of the past, rendered by turns autobiographically, dramatically, and lyrically. The poem is also in certain passages satiric, and the validity of its strictures on the artistic generation that flourished during the 1920's reads with undiminished conviction today, now that we are able to contemplate that generation in the light of a certain perspective. (p. 19)
[Mainly the] poems of this interesting book recount Civil War stories such as the "Running of Streight," a fragment of the saga of General Forrest, or the simple story of the "Deserter," a Christmas Eclogue regarding the misunderstanding of the Confederate government—it could be any government, any abstract organization—in recording this word against a man who left camp overnight to see how his people were getting along and to make some effort to protect them against the invader. It is a poem fully understandable only by defeated peoples whose family allegiance is stronger than their devotion to the idea of statehood. It is told in the language which Wordsworth preferred but did not always use—the language of everyday life…. The alert modern, or modernized, reader will probably find [these poems] tame, too colloquial, too unrelieved by the exciting contrasts of mood and diction which he has come to demand in contemporary poetry. In brief, it represents a kind of writing that is "provincial" in subject and character. But one should immediately add that in its overtones it is universal and that, in the judgment of the poet, every way of thinking about life is provincial, since it is limited necessarily by individual experience. (p. 26)
In suggesting the development Mr. Davidson's poetry has taken, it might be said that from the romantic, Blakean, and often successful qualities of the Outland Piper it has moved into a far more serious stage for a reason already indicated—namely that he prefers to write what in the deepest sense he believes about man's nature and place in society. Poetry is thus anything but a diversion or an escape for him. He is no experimentalist in metrics nor is he particularly rewarding to the reader who is fond of arresting images. A certain rhetorical eloquence of speech (again like Wordsworth) is the substitute for these devices; he is most interesting when considered in terms of the total context of a given performance. Moreover, insofar as I know, he is unique in modern times in having made the effort Wordsworth undertook in his Prelude, which was to understand himself first, if he would later dedicate himself to a literary career. The Tall Men is the result of that undertaking, and its limitations are soon forgotten by anybody willing to think of the difficulties that would be involved were he to try to work them out in a similar fashion for himself. (pp. 26-7)
[Davidson] is certainly in the deepest sense a moralist, as Thoreau and Carlyle were moralists, and his characteristic subject matter is identical with theirs. His writings are, moreover, Christian in the fundamental sense that they recommend a drastic curtailment of emphasis upon economic values and in the further implied argument of Thoreau that men are unique and inviolable individuals whose integrity ought to be respected despite whatever institutions they have collectively evolved, either through church or state. To argue that, because of such thinking, he should be labelled a modern Jeremiah is in no sense to divorce him from the major secular prophets who have attempted to awaken Western Man to an understanding of his oldest question—What is my nature, what should I truly value, and what is my destiny?—a question which Mr. Davidson (again like Thoreau) has posed in terms of specifically contemporary issues. To add further that, so constituted, he belongs rightly in the Church is to compel the melancholy reply that the Church, being an institution, is by its nature too confined to contain him, in much the same sense that it was unable to contain Emerson. (p. 27)
Richmond C. Beatty, "Donald Davidson as Fugitive-Agrarian," in The Hopkins Review (copyright, 1952, by The Hopkins Review), Winter, 1952, pp. 12-27.
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Of all the Fugitive poets who were writing and publishing verse from Nashville forty years ago, it is Donald Davidson who seems to have maintained continuity and development most steadily in his art…. It is Davidson who is most loyal to the old Southern way of life to which four of them [Tate, Ransom, Warren, and Davidson] gave allegiance in their Agrarian phase. His devotion is uncompromising; it is dangerously close to exclusive….
The title of Davidson's book [The Long Street] seems to be a key phrase to denote the culture which he is fighting. The Long Street is his image of the Southern industrial development, which was not stayed by the Agrarian agitation. (p. 202)
Other fine poems here are available for the critic's notice. But at least two are of extraordinary originality. They are fantasies, and it will be to the reader's advantage to explore and ponder them for himself. One is in this second section, entitled "Old Sailor's Choice": the narrator suddenly becomes Ulysses, telling an up-to-date Circe how he ran the twinned and monstrous dangers of Scylla and Charybdis; the lines the poet has given him are of an English colloquial and racy like Homer's Greek. The other poem is "The Case of Motorman 17," which constitutes Section IV. The motorman's family name is Brown, but the Christian name is Orestes. Does that signify anything? Here too there is a felicity of language, this time based on the jargon language of the civil courts. But the reader had better not try to predict the speeches, or the verdict of the court. (pp. 206-07)
John Crowe Ransom, "The Most Southern Poet," in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1962 by The University of the South), Spring, 1962, pp. 202-07.
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What Mr. Davidson may want to restore, or not restore, or to destroy or create, is not the issue raised by a reading of [The Long Street]. What, in his poems, he is concerned with is the opposition of an heroic myth to the secularization of man in our age. Looked at from this point of view, his poetry is no more concerned with the restoration of the Old South than the Aeneid is with the restoration of Troy…. There is not one poem in the book to which I cannot give entire assent; I should merely like to see more to assent to. These poems say something important about man in our time, even though they may be about a country fiddler or Mr. Davidson's patronymic ancestor, or about the mystery of time and motion in "At the Station." The gaze is into the past but the glance is at the present, and this glance is sharp and exact. (pp. 671-72)
[Mr. Davidson] is one of the best classical scholars I know; not a philologist, but a lover of literae humaniores. His life-long reading of the Latin and Greek classics is more and more reflected in the simplicity and elegance of his diction, and in the unobtrusive formalism of his versification. The Long Street is one of the most impressive collections of American poetry since the first World War. It is all the more remarkable for its appearance late in Donald Davidson's career. To bring one's affection and admiration together, so that these emotions, rare even in isolation, are indistinguishable, is a privilege enjoyed not more than three or four times in one's life. (p. 673)
Allen Tate, "The Gaze Past, The Glance Present," in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1962 by The University of the South), Autumn, 1962, pp. 671-73.
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[Davidson's] poetic achievement has been continuous and considerable. Indeed it can reasonably be argued on the basis of his … collection of verse (1961), The Long Street (Davidson's favorite metaphor for his imaginative experience of life in this century), that his finest, most impressive poetry is coming at the end of his career; and what distinguishes and gives especial value to these productions of his artistic maturity is precisely what has set him off from his poetic contemporaries since the Fugitive days and the first publication of The Tall Men (1927)—a preference for and personal possession of a traditional idiom and sense of the metaphorical potential of the familiar. These he has drawn from the main streams of our Western cultural heritage, from Scripture, classics, and (as Louise Cowan has well described it) "a sacramental view of nature." That he seriously means this idiom and these metaphors gives to him what now fashionable critics might prefer to speak of as "a command of archetypes"—and (among the poets of this century) an almost unique relationship to his chosen role. (pp. 516-17)
An urgent concern for and anticipation of "the decline of the West" and the obliviousness with which we approach this dissolution Davidson has in common with a great many modern poets. We think immediately of his fellow Fugitive, Allen Tate; of Yeats ("The Second Coming" especially); of Auden, Eliot, and Pound. We have had no lack of apocalyptic oracles from contemporary English and American poets. However, Davidson's mature expression of his anxiety, well represented by the classical/Biblical idiom which is the flesh of this example of his most recent manner, has a quality of its own and is illustrative of a strategy itself worthy of attention. For Davidson is, in style, as indigenously American—of his particular heritage as a conservative Southerner, a product of classical education, orthodox religious orientation and experience of his times from the perspective which these, together, provide—as he is in theme. And the resolution of manner and vision in his recent verse … is as much high art as any of the now fashionable ingenious solipsisms whose example he has avoided. For reasons of history (i.e., origin, education, and open commitment to causes he could not and cannot but champion and still be himself), Davidson, as a poet and as a public man, has been denied the hearing he deserves. Too often has it been assumed that these commitments do themselves preclude any serious consideration of his art when in fact they are, insofar as they make "available" to him the language and perspective of our elder poets, a partial explanation of the merit of that art. (pp. 518-19)
The inveterate modern may cry out against a poetics such as that which operates in "A Touch of Snow," may object to the poet's scene. He may resent idiom, fable, and metaphorical texture when he perceives that all are seriously intended, that they are meant; for he is accustomed to structures which serve only as a platform for verbal displays. And he may miss the mannered "tension" of the pseudometaphysical in verse whose irony comes of the weighted application of a traditional language to homely materials. The aesthetic "shock" he anticipates is not the shock of recognition, the revival of memory. He expects … a clever "surprise," a reassurance of his membership in a self-designated elite whose only connection with the "funded wisdom" of his civilization is their rejection of it. But the poetry of earth is never dead. Like Antaeus, Davidson renews his vision wherever he looks; he has heard his own teaching and gives us more than "exhibitions." What he believes to be the true nature (and defense) of poetry makes him comfortable with and gives him authority in a language that to many of his contemporaries is (in the phrasing of Scott) "a clasped book and a sealed fountain." That they often do not perceive the world as he does he is willing to accept in the faith that they too shall hereafter be "encouraged." (pp. 522-23)
M. E. Bradford, "Meaning and Metaphor in Donald Davidson's 'A Touch of Snow'," in The Southern Review (copyright, 1966, by M. E. Bradford), Vol. II, No. 3, Summer, 1966, pp. 516-23.
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Davidson's first poems were about lovers and dragons, tigers and tiger-women. This choice of subject may reveal the poet's inclination to avoid some of the unpleasant aspects of the materialistic world in which he lived and to escape into an imaginative realm where lovers, singers, and others of acute sensibilities could be shielded from the harsh realities of an unsympathetic society. (pp. 42-3)
"The Valley of the Dragon" … is typical. Filled with images of "colored flies on honeyed errands," "golden sunsets," "silver moons," "thatch so kind … against the cold and rain," and "Love's low breathing," it is a romantic tale of an idyllic love that flourished in a land where the lovers are shielded "from the serpent-thoughts of men."…
The Tiger poems follow the same pattern. (p. 43)
In these poems the poet's dissatisfaction with his predicament is evident, as is his desire to escape the restrictions of a materialistic world to find fulfillment in love and nature. "The curse, the hope, the beauty" can be found only outside the patterns of "civilized" living. (p. 44)
In addition to a crude kind of lyric symbolism, these first poems are seminal in that they introduce a basic theme found in much of the later poetry: a profound sense of loss in the modern world. The method, however changes: the approach becomes more direct and expository; the style, less lyrical; the rhythm, less regular; and the imagery, less romantic. Certainly these poems do constitute more than "a symbolic flight" from reality …; they are the first vague and incomplete statements of a theme which appears in much of Davidson's later poetry, the search for a rightful heritage, and which is fully developed for the first time in The Tall Men. (p. 46)
Again [in "Old Harp"] Davidson is expressing his longing for something which man once possessed but which now seems forever lost. This time, in rhythm appropriately elegiac, he laments the loss of the great songs, the passing of the lyric and folk tradition. (pp. 46-7)
An underlying theme in many of these early poems is the thinness of the present contrasted with the richness of the past. Here the poet laments the decline of poetry, its disappearance as a vital force in the lives of a people; later these views led him to pointed arguments in defense of traditionalism. (p. 47)
The best poetry in the second section of An Outland Piper contains what Davidson calls the "packed line." The poet is not striving in these poems for simplicity of execution: his approach is indirect; his intentions more deliberately modern; his tone more consciously ironical.
The best poems in the second section of the book are "Corymba," "Dryad," "Naiad," and "Avalon"—the ones Tate called "the Pan series." In all of these poems Davidson is attempting to combine a "certain satiric touch," a "hardness of texture" with "lyrical beauty." All of them are based on a theme of protest, and they employ an ironic and sometimes sarcastic tone….
[Davidson's] poems about dragons, tigers, and tiger-ladies were attempts at [a] "mythologizing or quasi-mythological" treatment; but they did not "come off" because the basis of the myth was too personal and esoteric, the treatment too directly romantic…. (p. 48)
With the exception of the title poem and "Old Harp," the poems in the Pan series are the most successful in the book….
Except for "The Wolf," the remaining poems in section two and those of section three are the least satisfying in the collection. Many of these poems treat various derogatory aspects of the American materialistic civilization, and they tend toward despair and cynicism. Their unity of tone is often disturbed by a pertness and by an attempt to shock.
The most successful of the poems concerned with the fallibilities of man is "The Wolf." Set in a country store, it employs the kind of material that Davidson later used; and, like "Corymba," it shows the poet experimenting with the theory of correspondences. According to this theory, "an idea out of one class of experience may be dressed up in the vocabulary of another." Using the language and imagery naturally associated with the country storekeeper in his usual surroundings, Davidson succeeds in presenting convincingly man's animalistic nature, his blood-sucking rapaciousness. In this context, the man becomes a wolf. The poem succeeds because of its language: simple and concrete, it appeals simultaneously to the senses and the intellect. Blending perfectly with the subject matter of the poem and its tone of high seriousness, the language succeeds in presenting, not stating, the poetic object…. (pp. 53-4)
Davidson's other satires on various aspects of twentieth-century life are much less successful than "The Wolf." They reveal an indecisiveness about poetic technique and, perhaps, a lack of conviction in what he is trying to do. (p. 54)
The fourth section of An Outland Piper is composed of a single poem—"The Man Who Would Not Die." The longest piece in the book,… it, along with "The Swinging Bridge" and "Legend in Bronze," is most indicative of the subject matter and the manner of Davidson's mature poetry. The three poems anticipate Davidson's characteristic tone and mature style, first found in The Tall Men. The tone, particularly of "The Man Who Would Not Die," is sardonic rather than cynical. The blank verse, though conversational, is precisely phrased, looking toward the dignified, clear, and smooth, but not swinging, line of the mature poetry. His experimentation with the ballad stanza and with tetrameter and pentameter quatrains that is characteristic of much of his early verse is almost finished. He is moving toward the blank-verse line as the medium that gives greatest freedom to his narrative and descriptive abilities. (p. 56)
The period of experimentation ended … as his personal convictions, his historical bias, and his intellectual views combined to persuade him that the South was more than an accidental locale for his artistic creations. As he became convinced that the section "still possessed remnants, maybe more than remnants, of a traditional society," his struggle to "unite the form" of his poetry "with the myth that ought to belong to it" was almost won; his search for subject was over. In the period immediately following, Davidson's poetic skill was challenged and his creative energy was consumed by the writing of his most ambitious poem—The Tall Men. (p. 58)
The Tall Men (1927) clarifies Davidson's development as a poet….
Although the poem may not be intentionally autobiographical, the persona from whose point of view the materials of the poem are presented has a background very much like Davidson's. His identity is clearly established in the Prologue "The Long Street": he is a modern Southerner examining his traditional heritage in an attempt to discover if he can continue to function as an integrated personality in a society that seems intent upon destroying the eternal verities upon which man has traditionally based his life. The metaphor of the Long Street is more than the old vague trope of life as a journey. Occurring many times in the nine sections of The Tall Men, and in much of Davidson's other poetry, the street isolates and identifies the most destructive characteristics of modern life. The figure suggests that the predicament of modern man has been caused by an enemy more definite and deadly than chance or circumstance. The endless, smoke-infested street, where only the steel thews of houses flourish, is so desolate and so sterile that the poet wonders "If anything in this vague inconceivable world/Can end, lie still, be set apart, be named."
Unwilling to submit to the anonymity of modern life, the persona indicates at the beginning of the poem that he is seeking self-identity. He recounts the past in an attempt to find the "permanent and vital stream behind history and behind all the cultural elements going into the making of modern man." (p. 65)
The Long Street, the route that the modern Southerner takes in search of his identity, leads him from the time of the pioneers and the first settlers, the original tall men of his region, to another period of his past, that immediately preceding the Civil War. The tone of the opening section of "The Sod of Battle-Fields" blends perfectly with the closing lines of "The Tall Men." As "The Tall Men" concludes, men of the twentieth century are presented as they "glide home/Impatiently," "speeding with effort only of ankle and wrist."… In this century, we are reminded, the Southerner is forbidden to remember his sectional heritage; for "The Union is saved. Lee has surrendered forever."… One must not concern himself with the past; it is over and would best be forgotten. He cannot mourn for lost battles and for the virtues, either real or imaginary, of a civilization that has passed forever. If the Old South of moonshine and magnolias ever really existed, and there is real doubt that it did, it surely cannot be resurrected; consequently, one must concentrate on the problems of the present. (pp. 70-1)
As the streams of the past and present are continually brought together, [the modern Southerner] attempts to sift out the elements or influences that make him what he is, to get back to and restate deep sources of racial experiences. In emphasizing the heroic and romantic, the poet attempts "to arrive at some basis for an attitude of acceptance which, while resting on the past, would not wholly reject the present—a mood of positiveness rather than the gesture of defeat to be found, say in The Waste Land." (p. 72)
Written out of a deep-seated dissatisfaction with the literary treatments of [World War I] available in the 1920's, the sections of "The Faring" dealing with the combat experiences of McCrory and his fellow soldiers are as good as any poetry Davidson wrote before "Lee in the Mountains." (p. 78)
In ["The Faring"] Davidson's blank verse functions well. The easy-flowing, run-on lines keep the fast-paced action constantly before the reader and create within him the impression of the horrors of modern warfare. Always the vision is limited to the minute—and perhaps inconsequential—sector of the battlefield in which McCrory and his comrades live, fight, and die. No editorial comments and no ironic overtones intrude as in other sections of the poem; there are no suggestions, subtle or otherwise, that modern man is entangled in some rather sorry institutions. The McCrory of World War I is, as was his ancestor in pioneer days, a well-trained, severely disciplined soldier. Although the modern soldier's actions are a little more mechanical than those of his courageous forebear, they are no less brave. Because the poet is content to present the action without comment, he avoids the taint of false sentimentality. (p. 79)
The Tall Men concludes with the plea that man must not forget his heritage; it must not be for naught that the tall men fought and died to beat back the Indians who would drive them out of the Tennessee hills. He must remember Hnaef and his sixty warriors "greedy for battle-joy." A careful reading of the poem reveals Davidson's "feeling of intense disgust with the spiritual disorder of modern life—its destruction of human integrity and its lack of purpose." But in one sense the journey down the Long Street, the current mind of his society, has been highly successful. The journey back through his experiences has not been easy; it has been painful because at almost every point there rose the inevitable comparisons between the heroism and common devotion of the previous age and the physical and spiritual softness of his own; it has been frustrating because the vagueness of the modern world prohibits even the simple act of naming objects. (p. 90)
Although The Tall Men, as Davidson has pointed out, is not intentionally autobiographical, it is obviously a very personal poem. In the recapitulation of the past, in the penetrating scrutiny of the present, and in the obvious contrasts between the two, the poet has discovered "that permanent and vital stream behind history and behind all the cultural elements going into the making of modern man."…
The artist had found his subject; from this time forward—in essay, poem, debate, and newspaper article—Davidson expressed his disgust with the spiritual disorder and lack of purpose of modern life. He had arrived, with The Tall Men, at a basis for an attitude of acceptance, which, while drawing on the past for its pattern, did not wholly reject the present…. His affirmation is embedded in his conviction that the present struggle must be to retain spiritual values "against the fiery gnawing of industrialism." He is no longer content to be a detached intellectual artist; and his future career can best be understood in terms of his attempt to "retire more deeply within the body of the [Southern] tradition to some point when he can utter himself with the greatest consciousness of his dignity as an artist." (p. 91)
Davidson's Agrarian views are everywhere present in [Lee in the Mountains and Other Poems]. In "The Tall Men" he had pictured the modern urban community as purposeless and as almost meaningless—as an existence without life…. In poem after poem in Lee in the Mountains and Other Poems, these convictions receive fuller and more forceful poetic expression. Davidson reiterated his impression of an urban wasteland; and in some poems—"Aunt Maria and the Gourds," "The Last Charge," and "Randall, My Son"—he utters a prophecy of doom for the modern industrial society. The emphasis is always on the necessity of preserving one's tradition, but the poems are often so declamatory and argumentative that the poet emerges as the injured prophet—as one who has foreseen and suffered. (pp. 98-9)
["Lee in the Mountains," the title poem of the volume,] succeeds because the poet is able to unite the form of the verse with the myth that ought to belong to it. In the tragic, final days of one of America's few truly great heroes, Davidson could see a profoundly moving example set by a man whose every act exemplified a life of principle and honor. Here with "the grandest face that ever looked/Victory to the conquered" was the noblest of the tall men—one whose greatness of soul compelled him to choose what he felt was the right even when another choice might have been of more immediate personal advantage.
The total purpose of the Agrarians, Davidson has said, was "to seek the image of the South which he could cherish with high conviction that to give it, wherever we could, the finality of art in those forms, fictional, poetical, or dramatic, that have the character of myth." (p. 101)
In technique, some of the latest poems are among Davidson's best. They demonstrate the master craftsmanship that one associates with the author of The Tall Men and "Lee in the Mountains": a sure ear for sound and rhythmic cadence; a simple, direct, straightforward, yet elegant, diction that reflects the poet's lifelong interest in the Roman and Greek classics; and a stately, or dignified, line devoid of esoteric vocabulary and erudite references. The poetic forms vary considerably. "Old Sailor's Choice" is written in verse paragraphs of varying lengths, some rhymed and some unrhymed. "The Case of Motorman 17" is verse drama; "The Gradual of the Northern Summer," also in verse paragraphs, is composed of strongly rhymed couplets; "A Touch of Snow" has a carefully controlled stanza pattern and a regular rhyme scheme. "Meditation on Literary Fame" approximates the form of Pindar's Epinician odes. With their flavor of the folk ballad, some of the brief narratives—"Fiddler Dow," "Joe Clisby," and "The Old Man of Thorn"—demonstrate the poet's nearness to his folk heritage.
But even with these impressive technical qualities, these poems are in no way contrived. In the carefully molded lines there is always an intensity of feeling that comes from an inner integrity and from a strictly defined set of sincere convictions. The momentary lapses into near cynicism, apparent in some of the poems in the Lee volume, are gone; but the irony, grave and stern, remains. It is evident, too, in these poems that Davidson has avoided the "guarded style," against which he cautioned his fellow poets in "Poetry as Tradition." He not only has sincere convictions, but he employs his poems as vehicles to carry these beliefs. He had warned his readers of the dangers of the poet's isolating himself from his community—of writing esoteric and sophisticated poetry intended for the perusal of none except his fellow artists. This practice, he insisted, would assure the demise of poetry and the destruction of society. This verse, with its simplicity and elegance of diction and its direct, forceful assertiveness, is written in a most "unguarded" style. (pp. 110-11)
The later poems reveal a restraint and tolerance not always present in the earlier verse. Although Davidson is quick to suggest the error of man's deserting his traditional heritage, there is no bitterness; instead, the poet seems to hope that some of the foolish will yet see the way. (p. 111)
One of Davidson's favorite themes is modern man's dissociation, his alienation from his tradition, and his lack of concern about the dissolution of his society…. [Most] men are as complacent as the two painters in "A Touch of Snow" who disregard the natural signs indicating that summer is over and that the bad weather of winter is just ahead…. It is a man's nature, the poet suggests, to be oblivious to the future as long as things seem to be all right in the present. But the poet must warn them and lament that they are not wise enough to sense the impending danger facing the Western world. (p. 112)
One of [Davidson's] purposes is to restore to poetry its social function: to serve as "messenger" to his people and to "evoke/New praise and old remembrance."… At times in his role of bard and prophet, Davidson's argument becomes so obtrusive that the poem suffers. But, in the best of his verse, the totality of his vision, the range of his imagination, and the force and clarity of his presentation give him a place almost unique among his contemporaries. (p. 118)
Whether Davidson's reputation will rest primarily upon his achievements as a poet or as an essayist is not certain. While his best creative periods for poetry were occasional, prose was a dominant form of expression throughout his career as a literary critic and as a social and political philosopher, historian, scholar of native traditions, and rhetorician. One thing is certain—his prose, of a remarkably even quality, is distinguished by stylistic grace and persuasive logic. In one sense, poetry is easier to write because, as Davidson noted, "poetry is that form of statement which does not require or even imply proof." Convincing prose, on the other hand, demands cogent reasoning and demonstrated authority, both of which characterize his work. (p. 119)
It is difficult to say with any certainty what part Davidson will play in a future literary history of his era. He found himself among friends and colleagues, three of whom—John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren—left the South and attained national and international recognition for their creative achievement. Such a historical fact has made it difficult for Davidson's work to receive a fair and objective assessment as the inevitable comparison of his work with theirs is always misleading. As men of distinctive temperaments and talents, each deserves a separate hearing and this has seldom been accorded Davidson. Yet, as a prose stylist, Davidson has few peers in contemporary American literature. Neither Ransom, Tate, nor Warren has written essays with a precision, a grace, a force, or a conviction to match Davidson's. Because, however, modern society has not been entirely amenable to what Davidson had to say, it has little heeded or sought to appreciate how he said it. There is every reason to believe, when all is said and done, that Davidson will endure as a prose stylist of the first order in this century.
As a poet, Davidson's work has not been so sharply limited as Ransom's, so intellectually opaque as Tate's, or so undisciplined as Warren's but it is more reasonable to say that his work is distinctive and decidedly different rather than equal or superior to theirs. Actually, it is difficult to compare their achievements because each poet has created from a set of attitudes and poetic principles radically different from those of his fellows. In principle and practice, Davidson wanted to be a poet not of the academy but of the people, which is not to say that he descends to the democratically literal level of a Carl Sandburg. His mature work is closer to that of his Vermont friend and neighbor Robert Frost, in that a minimum of knowledge of poetic technique, and a genuine appreciation of the American language for its potential lyric beauty, enable the reader to yield to the power of his verse.
Like Frost, Davidson turned to the regional experience of his native soil rather than to Europe for his language and subject matter; and, through artistic intensity, he raised this material to a level of universal urgency. Every reading yields a meaning; and, the more often one reads his more successful poems, the fuller the complexity of meaning becomes. And seldom does one find in modern literature, as one does in The Tall Men, such a sustained, probing, disturbing poetic analysis of modern man—one that is aware of the influence of his traditional past and fearful of the destruction inherent in the technological path modern society has elected to follow. Because of the totality of Davidson's vision, the seriousness of his intent, and the integrity of his craftsmanship, he merits the attention of posterity. (pp. 148-49)
Thomas Daniel Young and M. Thomas Inge, in their Donald Davidson (copyright 1971 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, A Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1971.
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