Donald Davie

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1107

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.

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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 Pound’s rhythmical and linguistic talents. These methodological studies consider Pound’s translations and their originals as well as difficult sections of Pound’s Cantos, which he elucidates. Although Davie ranked Pound as one of the great world poets, he was no apologist for Pound’s politics and the corrupting influence they brought to his work.

Davie began writing criticism to understand his own poems, and his early book of poetry, Brides of Reason, displays a classical formalism compatible with his criticism. In 1950, Davie began a seven-year self-imposed exile in Dublin, and his perspective of an Englishman living in Ireland prefigures the sectarian violence of subsequent decades.

In 1957, Davie made the first of many trips to the United States, resulting in the publication of A Sequence for Francis Parkman. Like his friend Charles Tomlinson (whom he called the most accomplished British poet of his generation), Davie made trips to North America to broaden his knowledge of the English language rather than to escape the stultifying world of British letters. Davie was a highly esteemed teacher and adviser to several generations of American poets and critics. His kinship with the United States prompted him over the years to accept various teaching positions there, including ones at Stanford and Vanderbilt.

Increasingly interested in Slavic literature, Davie wrote The Forests of Lithuania, his version of Adam Mickiewicz’s Polish romantic verse novel Pan Tadeusz (1834; English translation, 1917). Like Pound, Davie sought to condense a masterpiece worthy of emulation. Moreover, Pound had suggested that a poet should translate to improve his style; thus, to escape the rigors of metrical verse, Davie also translated the poems of Boris Pasternak. Essex Poems, written after Davie took up an important teaching and administrative position at the new University of Essex in the late 1960’s, contains several remarkable poems that at once exemplify and question Davie’s own mode of poetry; in this work, he subjects his personal practice to ruthless self-scrutiny. Poems such as “Excellence” are not just versified critical credos but also virtuoso examples of the poem as an exercise in mental alertness and vigilance.

Nostalgia and a sense of loss pervade The Shires, a collection of forty poems, one for each county in England. His following volume, In the Stopping Train, also addresses the England of yesteryear but displays a more relaxed, though still self-conscious, style. Its twenty-eight poems often employ a dialectical technique wherein Davie poses questions, then answers, then further questions and answers.

In A Gathered Church and Dissentient Voice Davie traces the literary and cultural implications of his religious dissent. In These the Companions, a personal literary memoir, he more clearly addresses the important influences on his literary career, particularly the influence of F. R. Leavis and Winters, whom he calls puritans, by which he means persons of unwavering principle for whom matters of morality and intellect are absolute. In The Poet in the Imaginary Museum, Davie attempts to vindicate his aestheticism by claiming that the poet can be an artificer or maker rather than a prophet or creator. Davie’s generally perceived conservatism—though as a working-class Yorkshireman he was never the standard-bearer of the elite—and his opposition to Soviet totalitarianism annoyed many critics. Those academics who would separate poetry and criticism have judged his verses pretentious or banal. He was, however, warmly received by many others, especially other Movement poets, who appreciated his unwillingness to condescend to readers. Gunn, for example, called Davie one of the best three English poets of his generation, and John Lucas wrote in New Statesman, “If poems were made solely of ideas there would be few more interesting poets than Donald Davie.”

To Scorch or Freeze, Davie’s final volume published before his death in 1995, goes beyond his earlier work. In this book, in which he rewrites the biblical Psalms in modern-day verse, Davie passionately affirms the beliefs of Christianity even as he examines the ways in which those beliefs affect the human soul in its most immediate thoughts and sensation. Davie’s poetry, long neglected in favor of his excellent criticism, rewards deeper study.

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Critical Essays