In both his poetry and his critical commentary, Donald Davie advocated a poetry of formal structure and prose syntax, along with restrained metaphor and feeling. He urged repeatedly that art communicate rational statement and moral purpose in technically disciplined forms. His work, usually highly compressed, erudite, and formally elegant, is sometimes criticized for its lack of feeling and for tending toward the overly academic—in short, for the notable absence of the personal element. Davie, nevertheless, stood firm in his position that the poet is responsible primarily to the community in which he writes for purifying and thus correcting the spoken language: “The central act of poetry as of music, is the creation of syntax, of meaningful arrangement.” The poet thus helps one understand one’s feelings; he improves the very process of one’s thinking, and hence one’s subsequent actions. Ultimately, the poet helps correct the moral behavior of the community at large.
Davie’s poetry, frequently labeled neo-Augustan, is characterized by formal elegance, urbane wit, technical purity, and plain diction. A widely respected poet, Davie pursued a refined and austere art to counter the disorder of the modern world. Shortly after publishing his Collected Poems, 1950-1970, he described the spirit of mid-century as “on the side of all that was insane and suicidal, without order and without proportion, against civilization.” To Davie, the artist’s purification of the word might restore moderation, propriety, and control—the very values that inspire integrity and courage. The poet, by improving the spoken language of his society, might actually inspire the creative, moral, and social betterment of civilization. Again and again, Davie explained that “the abandonment of syntax testifies to . . . a loss of confidence in the intelligible structure of the conscious mind, and the validity of its activity.” The main activity of the mind is moral and social.
Davie gained recognition with the New Lines anthology published in 1956 and the Movement of the 1950’s. His name was linked with John Wain, Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, Gunn, Robert Conquest, D. J. Enright, Elizabeth Jennings, and John Holloway, along with the other reactionary poets who stood against the romantic excesses, “tawdry amoralism,” and Imagism and Symbolism of the British poets of the 1940’s, such as Dylan Thomas, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound. The Movement argued for a return to conventional prose syntax and a more formal poetry that utilized the conservative metaphors of the eighteenth century Augustans. These poets, who shared a similar class background, as well as similar educational and professional goals, were, in addition, linked to various Reactionary Generation Americans such as Winters, Louise Bogan, the Fugitives, and even Hart Crane, and to those poets who were pursuing concrete poetry, such as H. D. and Pound. For Davie and the Movement, a decorous diction was to be selected according to subject or genre; so, too, structure was to be logical rather than musical.
Brides of Reason
The first poem of Davie’s first volume, Brides of Reason , introduces a theme that persisted throughout his career—English identity abroad: the would-be-exile-becomes-hero, the poet inhabiting and striving to unite two different national psyches. Now in Ireland, he describes his “Hands [as] acknowledging no allegiance./ Gloved for good against brutal chance” (“Demi-Exile. Howth”). He also wrote, again in neoclassical form, that his work is intended to appeal to the “logic” in his reader, so that “poets may astonish you/ With what is not, but should be, true,/ And shackle on a moral shape” (“Hypochondriac Logic”). The frequent obscurities and ambiguities of this volume reflect the influence of William Empson and F. R. Leavis, although more noteworthy is...
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- Critical Essays