Donald Davie Biography


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Donald Alfred Davie was born July 17, 1922, into a lower-middle-class Baptist family, the son of a shopkeeper and the grandson of domestic servants. He grew up amid the slag heaps of industrial West Riding. His mother frequently recited poetry, and, according to Davie, “Robin Hood . . . surely did more than any other single text to make me a compulsive reader for ever after.” His father, a lively and emotionally expressive man, encouraged the young boy to take piano lessons. Even as a child, however, Davie rankled at the pretensions and philistinism of his more well-to-do neighbors.

In 1940, Davie began his studies of seventeenth century religious oratory and architecture at St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge. He joined the Royal Navy in 1941 and between 1942 and 1943 was stationed in northern Russia, where he studied the poetry of Boris Pasternak, who was to become an important and lasting influence. He married Doreen John, from Plymouth, in 1945; they had three children. Davie returned to Cambridge in 1946 and studied under F. R. Leavis; he earned his B.A. in 1946, his M.A. in 1949, and his Ph.D. in 1951. Between 1950 and 1957, he taught at Trinity College, Dublin, where he met the writers and poets Joseph Hone, Austin Clarke, and Padraic Fallon. He spent 1957-1958 as visiting professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he was introduced to Yvor Winters, Thom Gunn, and Hugh Kenner (whose teaching post he actually filled for the...

(The entire section is 431 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The English poet, critic, editor, and translator Donald Alfred Davie was born the son of George Clarke Davie, a sergeant in a Scottish regiment, and Alice (Sugden) Davie, a schoolmistress who cultivated Davie’s predisposition for literary criticism by encouraging him to record the substance of every book he read. Donald Davie attended Cambridge University and joined the Royal Navy upon graduation. Assigned to Arctic Russia in World War II, he combated loneliness by reading the works of Robert Burns, Lord Byron, and Russian authors in translation. He later documented this period in These the Companions. In January, 1945, before going to India for the last months of the war, he married Doreen John.

After demobilization, Davie returned to Cambridge, where he began to learn the craft of poetry and corresponded with the American critic Yvor Winters, from whom he learned much about poetic rhythms. His review of an anthology by Winters in Poetry London is often viewed as the beginning of the Movement in English poetry. The Movement, a group of university-trained poets whose preference was for metrical verse, challenged the elitism of British culture.

Davie was an established critic before his first book of poems appeared. His first critical volume, The Purity of Diction in English Verse, draws parallels between the laws of syntax and the laws of society. Maintaining that the poet bears responsibility for purifying and correcting the spoken language, Davie finds virtue in eighteenth century Augustan poetry’s use of formal poetic structures and proselike syntax. In Articulate Energy, he argues the need for clarity, reason, and readability in modern verse, arguments consistent with those of other Movement poets in the 1950’s, notably Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, and Thom Gunn. Davie, an admirer of much contemporary verse, did not seek to ban poetic experimentation and verbal innovation; indeed, he was one of the principal champions in England of avant-garde American writers such as Charles Olson and Ed Dorn. Davie was, however, of the opinion that most poets did not have the ability to write truly innovative verse and that the ordinary syntax of the English language should thus be used as an instrument for writing urbane, literate verse that is accessible to all educated readers. Because of his reputation as a critic, Davie soon became the Movement’s most intellectual spokesman. Eschewing the symbolism and imagism characteristic of verse in the 1940’s, Davie called for intelligible, restrained poetry and for an improved social and moral content.

Davie’s most significant critical works are his two books on Ezra Pound, in which he praises...

(The entire section is 1107 words.)