Donald Davie 1922-1995
English poet, critic, editor, memoirist, and translator.
Davie is well respected for both his creative and his critical contributions to contemporary literature. His belief that the poet “is responsible to the community in which he writes for purifying and correcting the spoken language” is manifested by the classical formalism of his verse. Although his work is often considered overly academic, it is also recognized as both elegant and compressed.
Davie was born in Barnsley, Yorkshire, England on July 17, 1922. In 1941 he enlisted in the Royal Navy. After World War II he attended Cambridge, receiving his doctoral degree in 1951. In the 1950s Davie was associated with the Movement, a group of poets that included Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, and Thom Gunn. In contrast to English poets of the 1940s who were influenced by imagism and symbolism, the Movement poets emphasized restrained language, traditional syntax, and the moral and social implications of poetic content. In the late 1950s Davie spent several years teaching in Ireland. Disillusioned with what he viewed as a declining English culture and feeling himself alienated from English academics who emphasized the separateness of poetry and criticism, Davie moved to the United States. He taught several years at Stanford University and Vanderbilt University before moving back to England. He continued to write poetry and criticism until his death in 1995.
Davie has described himself as a poet for whom intellectual concerns take precedence over expressions of sensual experience. Some critics, however, note a sensuous attraction to nature in several poems in A Winter Talent and Other Poems which became more pronounced and deliberate in Events and Wisdoms. Many of Davie's poems deal with his ambivalent feeling toward England. Several poems from In the Stopping Train illuminate this tension as Davie attempts to come to terms with the England of his childhood and the England of today. The Shires is comprised of forty poems, one for each county in England, in which Davie contemplates the past, present, and future of his native country. His Collected Poems and Selected Poems are collections of verse that display the directness and aesthetic control for which Davie has been commended throughout his career.
It has been asserted that many of Davie's most successful poems are suffused with a sense of place and a sense of history associated with place. Among these, Essex Poems considers the differences between England and America. Other commentators have underscored the role of Ireland and Canada in his work. It has also been noted that Davie's critical interest in other poets often affects his own poetic style. He has written critical works on Boris Pasternak, Ezra Pound, and Thomas Hardy; it follows that commentators attribute his experimental use of metaphor, symbolism, and loosely-structured verse forms to the influence of these poets. Stylistically, analyses have focused on Davie's adherence to the aesthetic considerations of the Movement poets: prose-like syntax, formal structures, and the conservative metaphors of the eighteenth-century Augustan poets. Finally, recent critical commentary has identified and discussed the importance of religious and political issues in Davie's work.