Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1973
Davidson, Donald 1893–1968
Davidson, an American poet and critic, was a founder of the Fugitives, the agrarian poets group at Vanderbilt University. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)
It may well be argued that no one person has had a greater part in the development of a profession of letters in the twentieth-century South than has Donald Davidson. William Faulkner (because of the galvanizing effect of his success on young Southerners who would in other times have stifled their desire to write, because of what he did for the status of the writer in his region) and John Crowe Ransom (in that he was his younger friend and fellow Tennessean's teacher and precursor) are reasonable exceptions to this generalization. There are no others. Moreover, though Davidson's career has been by deliberate choice of greatest significance to his own people, it has on its merit and through the recognition of the Southern Renaissance which it helped engender, nourish, define, and call to the world's attention reached beyond sectional confines in numberless ways and instances. Davidson's impact—past, present, and continuing—is evident in the work of scores of essayists in opinion, historians, poets, critics, writers of fiction—teachers and/or makers of literature and keepers of the tradition of which literature makes a major part who came to Nashville or Vermont (Breadloaf) to study with him….
[His] manner and his matter always stand in close relation to what T. S. Eliot defined long ago as "the tradition," inside it even when innovating. His is a mimesis not in surface particulars but in essence and character, as not of what the elders did. He has, to quote [Louise] Cowan …, subjected his imagination "to the actual life of his people"—not of just the South but of that stream of Western culture of which the South has been one of the latest depositories. He has kept the memory, flesh and spirit—the "fable" which to lose is death—wherefore he answers the questions….
"The Tall Men" … can be approached from several directions. The making of it was of decisive importance to Davidson—and still is. There may be no better exploration of the problems that confronted the young Southerner of his generation (born in the years just before or just after the end of the century). And because intensity and anguish or a special kind of privacy sometimes overcharges or shortcircuits, it is uneven in spots. Yet he had to write it before he could make more formally polished poems. It stands in relation to the rest of his career as do The Prelude and kindred creations to Wordsworth's—as an assessment of the author's right to be the poet he intends to be. Or perhaps a better analogy is to Eliot, to The Waste Land….
After 1938, perhaps in reaction to oversimplifications concerning the nature and purpose of his art which the volume of that year [Lee in the Mountains] and his earlier verse and prose had called forth, Davidson wrote far less but, both in form and execution of intent, far more successful and less easily categorized poetry. The texture of his verse grew more and more certain and dignified; his mastery of tonal modulation, metaphor, and inversions of style more complete. All stridency disappeared and was replaced by an unbroken poise as he came into the fullest possession of the resources of his craft. Even the prosody of his verses (always felicitous) and the command of the dynamics of particular genres seem to have drawn sustenance from this corrective intent. Also, and more importantly, his subject matter changed. Or rather, to speculate a bit, he shifted to related but foreign versions of the same matter in order to protect all of his work, past and in progress, from distortion, oversimplified enthusiasm, and stupidity.
M. E. Bradford, "A Durable Fire: Donald Davidson and the Profession of Letters," in The Southern Review, Vol. III, No. 3, Summer, 1967, pp. 721-41.
[Davidson is dated] because he chooses to be; he has pledged his allegiance and his talents to a past world—not because he believes it can ever be the present world again, but because he believes it was right, the world as it should be. He has held to this in the same spirit in which Lee told his friends that he joined the cause of the South not in the necessary hope of victory, but because the South was his land. There is integrity in this, but I can't help wondering what integrity there is in guarding the bridge after the bridge has been crossed, and second, whether, if he were alive today, the Lee whom Mr. Davidson eulogizes would believe that to be a proud Southerner means to be also a die-hard racist. (If many of the poems I refer to here were written years ago, still Mr. Davidson has chosen them as among those for which he wants to be remembered, and some of his later work confirms his position)….
When Mr. Davidson turns his hand and his mind to what is substantive in the South (he never writes of anything which is not the South, and that is good) he tells us that there is a history we must not forget and a land we must not let go. He tells us again of all those qualities which we have called Southern—a sense of religion, land, history—in lines crafted out of what the poet is and has come from: a mixture of agrarianism and classicism.
This mixture does not always make for the most easily readable poetry, since agrarianism is a kind of romanticism which fits strangely into the classical mold. And since a poetry informed by a classical myth system is all but inaccessible to the average reader of the last half of the twentieth century. The fact is, of course, that Mr. Davidson has no interest in being easily accessible to anyone, and certainly not to our day's average reader.
This collection [Poems, 1922–1961] is important as a record of one time, as a final written defense of an indefensible world, as a kind of time capsule. This will be said of it, and this is true, but it is much more than this: it is, in good part, a passionate defense of essential and neglected human needs. It is the testament of one man who will not release his stubborn grip on the earth, its stones and trees. It is as anguished a protest against the dehumanizing force of progress as Animal Farm was….
For Mr. Davidson, I think, it would be enough to say that these are good poems. They are testaments, as all of his poems are. The point is that Mr. Davidson has a number of poems addressing themselves to concerns men take seriously—alienation of the spirit, loss of innocence, separation from Nature. If such a testament is not good poetry, then it is not a testament at all, but the best of Mr. Davidson's work is poetry good enough for any man, and tells us where we are so that we believe it.
Miller Williams, in Shenandoah, Winter, 1968, pp. 84-7.
As a young man, [Davidson] took his ground at the heart of the history and tradition of his alma mater, his city, his state, and the South, and there did battle for his vision of them until he died. He was an impassioned localist and traditionalist—some have said, archaist. Nevertheless, it was his genius to sense what lay beyond the tumult of his day in the world at large….
A poet's perception and fire infused all that he did or endeavored, and his accomplishments were many. Beyond the five volumes that represent his poetry, his works range from literary criticism to history, from philosophic essays to textbooks, a folk opera, a conspicuous half-century of teaching English, and direct political action….
[It] was not among Mr. Davidson's friends and fellow-poets that his "obsession" with the oral tradition of poetry was to find response, nor even his defense of classical rhetoric. With the characteristic unaccountability and irony of prophetic fulfilment a new oral use that would embrace traditional poetry is espoused by such futurists as Marshall McLuhan and Walter J. Ong. And Davidson's appreciation of classical rhetoric finds vindication among today's teachers of speech.
Brainard Cheney, "Donald Davidson," in Sewanee Review (© 1968 by The University of the South), Autumn, 1968, pp. 691-93.
I know of no other man [aside from Donald Davidson] who, in himself, more effectively gave the lie to recently "updated" versions of Southern history and psychological interpretations of the region's "peculiarities," no magister better loved by the faithful among his disciples, no man of letters who so well personified the fundamental seriousness of that calling. Like the prophet of old, he was with those who honored him "a defenced city, and an iron pillar, and brasen walls against the whole land." Though he gave us sufficient warning in his occasional mention of late that age had slowed his hand, and though we had learned from him to respect contingency in all its forms, we were not prepared to lose him. To the end he labored on a number of important tasks with an energy and determination that belied his age. And he never ceased to teach.
M. E. Bradford, "Donald Davidson: 1893–1968," in The Southern Review, Vol. IV, No. 4, Autumn, 1968, pp. 1110-11.
In treating history, Donald Davidson has followed the method of Sophocles. The point of the method is that underneath the flux of every present there are permanent things, so that life holds a pattern. The shadows of the eternal things are sharp enough to convince man of a substance which casts the shadow, but they are shadowy enough to evoke the mystery of men's movements. The method is familiar in the modern world wherever Christian typology is remembered. And Davidson's typology is to be distinguished from Platonism just as Christian typology is distinguished from Platonism….
Twenty-three years after the publication of Lee in the Mountains and Other Poems Donald Davidson published The Long Street. Many say that his finest poems are to be found here. Though he compiled The Long Street as an old man, he still clutched in verse the "feeling of dignity and movement of great poetry", which, he says, he had first felt when he read aloud the hexameters of the Odyssey at a country preparatory school in Tennessee. He still clutched, too, myth and religious faith. He had found Nausicaä. Where was she? Not watching the plaster Parthenon. Not in a seminar at a great Eastern university. She was hanging out clothes in Vermont, and of all things she was wearing shorts. And Odysseus? He has been found in "Old Sailor's Choice". Piercing the disguise of the modern mortician, he has discovered Circe. She recognizes him who knows the truth, broadcast intermittently these days, and then in Greek only. He leaves Circe, and sails by Charybdis, where he escapes the swirling waters by clutching a lonely fig-tree, until the great suck stops and he can drop.
Ward Allen, "Donald Davidson," in Sewanee Review (© 1970 by The University of the South), Spring, 1970, pp. 390-404.
It has been remarked of Davidson that he is not an ironist, and to most modern tastes that seems a deficiency. But "there is a Spirit beyond the Spirit of Irony," the subtle ironist John Crowe Ransom has written lately, "which we had best call the Classical Spirit." In "The Ninth Part of Speech," "Gradual of the Northern Summer," or "Lines Written for Allen Tate on His Sixtieth Anniversary," Davidson achieves a quality that could be called the Classical Spirit. And that is as it should be, for it is the traditionalist who has first right to the assured tone.
Robert Buffington, "Mr. Davidson in the Formal Garden," in Georgia Review, Summer, 1970, pp. 121-31.
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