Donald Davie Davie, Donald - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

(Poems). 1954

Brides of Reason 1955

A Winter Talent and Other Poems 1957

New and Selected Poems 1961

A Sequence for Francis Parkman 1961

Events and Wisdoms: Poems 1957-1963 1964

Essex Poems 1963-1967 1969

Poems 1969

Six Epistles to Eva Hesse 1970

Collected Poems, 1950-1970 1972

Orpheus 1974

The Shires: Poems 1974

In the Stopping Train and Other Poems 1977

Three for Water-Music 1981

Collected Poems, 1970-1983 1983

To Scorch or Freeze: Poems about the Sacred 1988

Collected Poems 1991

Poems and Melodramas 1996

Selected Poems 1997

Purity of Diction in English Verse (criticism) 1952

Articulate Energy: An Enquiry into the Syntax of English Poetry (criticism) 1955

The Heyday of Sir Walter Scott (criticism) 1961

The Language of Science and the Language of Literature, 1700-1740 (criticism) 1963

Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor (criticism) 1964

Thomas Hardy and British Poetry (criticism) 1972

Pound (criticism) 1975

The Poet in the Imaginary Museum: Essays of the Two Decades (criticism) 1976

A Gathered Church: The Literature of the English Dissenting Interest, 1700-1930 (criticism) 1978

Trying to Explain (criticism) 1979

These the Companions (memoirs) 1982

Czeslaw Milosz and the Insufficiency of Lyric (criticism) 1986

Under Briggflatts: A History of Poetry in Great Britain, 1960-1988 (criticism) 1989

The Eighteenth-Century Hymn in England (criticism) 1993

Older Masters: Essays and Reflections on English and American Literature (criticism) 1993

Essays of Discontent: Church, Chapel, and the Unitarian Conspiracy (essays) 1995

Bernard Bergonzi (essay date 1962)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Poetry of Donald Davie,” in The Critical Quarterly, Vol. 4, No. 4, Winter, 1962, pp. 293-304.

[In the following essay, Bergonzi examines stylistic and thematic aspects of Davie's early work.]

Donald Davie's first book was a cool, rather tough work of literary criticism, Purity of Diction in English Verse, published in 1952. This was ostensibly an academic study of the procedures of various minor eighteenth century poets, together with reflections on later poetry; it contained some admirable literary history, and was full of worthwhile hints for the student of Augustan verse. But Purity of Diction, despite its bland scholarly guise, had a barely concealed polemical purpose. It represented Davie's reaction against the dominant assumptions of twentieth century poetics: that the essence of poetry lay in metaphor, and particularly in the bold or violent collocation of images, and that syntax must inevitably be distorted or broken in the interests of poetic immediacy. The minor Augustans whom Davie admired had used metaphor sparingly, and ‘arresting’ images hardly at all; they preserved in their diction a tone that was carefully balanced between cultivated speech and literary usage (and which Davie saw as closely related to desirable moral qualities of poise and balance); and they employed a compressed, energetic syntax which, though based on the syntax of prose, was capable of a wide range of poetic effects: Davie's interest in syntax was to be expanded in his next critical work, Articulate Energy (1957). Occasionally the contemporary relevance of his scholarly investigations was made overt; in Purity of Diction he remarked, ‘there is no denying that modern poetry is obscure and that it would be less so if the poets adhered to the syntax of prose’.

When Davie's first collection of poems, Brides of Reason, came out in 1955 it was apparent that he had learnt the lessons presented in Purity of Diction with almost unnerving thoroughness. It was more than a book of verse, it was a manifesto in favour of poetic conservatism. It showed that verse could with advantage be written in the tightest of strict forms (though these sometimes tumbled over into merely mechanical regularity and a metronomic thump), and that vivid metaphor wasn’t essential for poetic effect. The diction showed a calculated conventionality, and Davie's subdued tone of voice was described by G. S. Fraser as ‘the lecturer's, calmly stressing our common involvement but not especially dramatizing his own’. The syntax, though deployed with subtlety and finesse, was rooted in the word-order of prose, without symbolist dislocations (though this, one might add, didn’t wholly exempt Davie from the obscurity he had complained of in Purity of Diction; his characteristic kind of obscurity has always stemmed from a combination of ellipsis and extreme allusiveness). A common reaction to this wilfully anti-dionysiac book was to dismiss it as ‘flat’ or ‘dull’, particularly from those who had grown up with the heady romanticism of the Dylan Thomas era. This, I think, was unjust, though one could see why the book failed to appeal widely. It contained a handful of very fine poems, but it was also marked by a variety of irritating mannerisms.

One thinks above all of Davie's habit of uncontrolled literary quotation and reference. He has argued that our experience of a poem or other work of art is just as valid a starting point for a poem as our experience of a landscape or of falling in love. I can accept this in principle, and I am extremely sympathetic with Davie's desire to align himself with the Classical and Renaissance concept of poetry as something that must inevitably draw on the work of other writers—as exemplified by all English poets from Chaucer to Pope—rather than with the Romantic view of a poem as the transcript of a unique and original experience, where any kind of ‘literariness’ is an unwelcome dilution. Still, there is a question of degree: a recent reviewer has remarked that the names of over thirty writers are mentioned in Brides of Reason. A rapid check of my own suggests that the number is in fact nearly forty; and this can surely be described as hammering home a point, valid in itself, with somewhat insolent emphasis. Allusions apart, many of the poems are about writing poetry, and the words ‘poem’, ‘poet’, and ‘poetic’ occur with some frequency. This inward-looking preoccupation was one that Davie shared with other poets of the Movement; and indeed it can be found in some of the greatest symbolist and post-symbolist poets. In this respect Davie, though conservative, was still fundamentally ‘modern’.

There is a sense in which the extreme literariness of much of Brides of Reason might be called a mark of Davie's personal honesty. He was, by vocation, a scholar and teacher of literature, for whom the classics of English literature were as alive as the Greek and Latin classics had been for the Augustans, and who was keenly interested in problems of poetic process. Why, then, shouldn’t he use them as valid poetic material? I’m half-convinced by this argument; but I still prefer those poems which are not primarily literary, but which present a marvellously exact and painful formulation of a moral dilemma. One of the best is ‘The Evangelist’:

‘My bretheren …’ And a bland, elastic smile
Basks on the mobile features of Dissent.
No hypocrite, you understand. The style
Befits a church that’s based on sentiment.
Solicitations of a swirling gown,
The sudden vox humana, and the pause,
The expert orchestration of a frown
Deserve, no doubt, a murmur of applause.
The tides of feeling round me rise and sink;
Bunyon, however, found a place for wit.
Yes, I am more persuaded than I think;
Which is, perhaps, why I disparage it.
You round upon me, generously keen:
The man, you say, is patently sincere.
Because he is so eloquent, you mean?
That test was never patented, my dear.
If, when he plays upon our sympathies,
I’m pleased to be fastidious, and you
To be inspired, the vice in it is this:
Each does us credit, and we know it too.

One notices here things derived from Davie's study of the Augustans: the personified abstraction in the second line, and, more significantly, the way in which, at the beginning of the third stanza, the subdued metaphor of the ‘tides of feeling’, very nearly a cliché, is revivified by careful syntactical placing, governing the kinetically vigorous verbs, ‘rise and sink’. But, more than these details, one is aware of the implacable mask of ironic good-breeding, and the way in which the gentle modulations of the verbal surface enact a quiet intellectual drama, giving us, first, the inner debate of the speaker, then moving into open dialogue with his interlocutrix; and culminating finally with the whip-lash of the seemingly flat last line. One finds here the economy of means which Davie so much admired in the Augustans. Only a singularly imperceptive reader could, I think, dismiss this poem as merely cerebral, as so much of Davie's early poetry was dismissed. There is, it seems to me, an under-current of intense feeling, almost of anguish, flowing strongly beneath the decorously rippling surface. The subject of Dissent, or Nonconformity, is clearly one with which Davie felt an extreme personal involvement from his early years, and it is reflected in several other poems, notably the sequence called ‘Dissentient Voice’ from his next collection, A Winter Talent (1957).

One of the few poems from Brides of Reason in which Davie allows himself a directly rather than obliquely personal utterance is ‘The Garden Party’. It’s quite well-known and is extremely skilful, though some of its appeal may come from the way in which it conveys, delicately and honestly, a sense of its period. But this may well be true of much more literature than we imagine, perhaps in some measure of all, as Lionel Trilling has persuasively argued in his essay, ‘The Sense of the Past’. The early fifties saw the emergence of a sensibility acutely aware of the painfulness of social uprooting and the blurring of traditional class patterns. One finds these themes enacted in a number of celebrated works: Lucky Jim, Room at the Top, Look Back in Anger, The Uses of Literacy (as much a work of autobiography as of social criticism). But in the twenty lines of this poem Davie has captured the essence of this state of feeling with great economy and precision:

Above a stretch of still unravaged weald
In our Black Country, in a cedar-shade,
I found, shared out in tennis courts, a field
Where children of the local magnates played.
And I grew envious of their moneyed ease
In Scott Fitzgerald's unembarrassed vein.
Let prigs, I thought, fool others as they please,
I only wish I had my time again.
To crown a situation as contrived
As any in ‘The Beautiful and Damned’,
The phantom of my earliest love arrived;
I shook absurdly as I shook her hand.
As dusk drew in on cultivated cries,
Faces hung pearls upon a cedar-bough;
And gin could blur the glitter of her eyes,
But it’s too late to learn to tango now.
My father, of a more submissive school,
Remarks the rich themselves are always sad.
There is that sort of equalizing rule;
But theirs is all the youth we might have had.

As in ‘The Evangelist’, the sting of the poem is reserved for the final line, a sad, rebellious outcry.

Brides of Reason, for all its limitations, was an important and accomplished collection. In a sense, it was too accomplished: it showed that Davie had discovered precisely the kind of poetry he wanted to write, could write it skilfully, and might go on writing into the foreseeable future. Some of the other Movement poets have done just that, with no noticeable development. But Davie's next book of verse, A Winter Talent, was something of a surprise. Several of the poems in it were in much the same style as those in Brides of Reason, and were probably written at about the same time. But others showed an opening up of technique and an unexpected movement towards symbolism. In Purity of Diction Davie had shown a rather prim distaste towards symbolism and its derivatives, a distaste which seemed as much moral and even political as literary; he had remarked of Pound, for example, that ‘the development from imagism in poetry to fascism in politics is clear and unbroken’. But in 1955, in a note contributed to D. J. Enright's anthology, Poets of the 1950's, published in Tokyo, Davie referred to Pound as a poet ‘who has influenced me more deeply and more constantly than any other poet of the present century’. In the same year, Articulate Energy, though still manifesting a conservative bias in favour of prose syntax in poetry, and in favour of a Wordsworthian openness to the aspirations of ordinary humanity rather than a closed symbolist system, had also shown a remarkable sympathy to individual poems that were undoubtedly symbolist in their methods. Looking at Davie's subsequent poetry and criticism, one can only conclude that he had succumbed to the strange magnetic attraction that symbolism has for those who attempt to study it in a spirit of detachment or even suspicion.

A Winter Talent opens with a very beautiful love poem, ‘Time Passing, Beloved’, which shows how interestingly Davie had developed from the manner of Brides of Reason:

Time passing, and the memories of love
Coming back to me, carissima, no more mockingly
Than ever before; time...

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Donald Greene (essay date 1973)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Breakthrough into Spaciousness: The ‘Collected Poems’ of Donald Davie,” in Queen's Quarterly, Vol. LXXX, No. 4, Winter, 1973, pp. 601-15.

[In the following essay, Greene emphasizes the importance of Canada to Davie's verse.]


Eight hours between us, eight
hours by the clock between us,
eleven hours flying time.

Canada nowadays is what you fly over when travelling non-stop between California and Europe. The plane takes off, circling over the blue Pacific water and white sand beaches of Venice (California) and Malibu, dotted with surfboarders and scuba divers; then over the rugged mountain chain surrounding the...

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Augustine Martin (essay date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Donald Davie and Ireland,” in Donald Davie and the Responsibilities of Literature, edited by George Dekker, Carcanet New Press, 1983, pp. 49-63.

[In the following essay, Martin analyzes Davie's complex relationship to Ireland and how it affects his poetry.]

In February 1980 Donald Davie published two poems side by side in the San Francisco journal Inquiry and coupled them beneath the caption, ‘English in Ireland’. The caption is subtle, because it refers, I think, to language as well as to people and history. The collocation of the two poems, one written eight years later than the other, marks and defines a significant phase in the English...

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Gregory A. Schirmer (essay date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “This That I Am Heir to: Donald Davie and Religion,” in Donald Davie and the Responsibilities of Literature, edited by George Dekker, Carcanet New Press, 1983, pp. 129-42.

[In the following essay, Schirmer considers the role of religion in Davie's work.]

Even a casual reading of the poetry and criticism of Donald Davie must notice the important place that religion, specifically the Dissenting tradition in England, has always held in his work. Most obviously, a number of the poems in the Collected Poems 1950-1970 concern the Dissenting tradition in general, while others express Davie's own ambiguous response to the particular, Baptist faith in which...

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Kieran Quinlan (essay date 1984)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Donald Davie: The Irish Years,” in The Southern Review, Vol. 20, No. 1, January, 1984, pp. 29-40.

[In the following essay, Quinlan explores autobiographical aspects of Davie's Irish poems.]

Donald Davie was an English don at Trinity College, Dublin, from 1950 until 1957. It was during these years that he published the books on which a substantial part of his reputation both as poet and critic still rests: Purity of Diction in English Verse (1952), Brides of Reason (1955), Articulate Energy (1955), A Winter Talent & Other Poems (1957). And it was in Ireland also that he formed many of his opinions as to what the ideal...

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Seamus Heaney (essay date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Or, Solitude’: A Reading,” in On Modern Poetry: Essays Presented to Donald Davie, edited by Vereen Bell and Laurence Lerner, Vanderbilt University Press, 1988, pp. 81-87.

[In the following essay, Heaney deems “Or, Solitude” a “poetic happening” and an “important event in the history of British poetry over the last quarter of a century.”]

An unexpected sensation of furtherance: that is what I remember of my first reading of Donald Davie's poem “Or, Solitude” in an issue of New Statesman late in 1965. What exactly the poem meant I could not have said, nor could I have formulated my response in the terms I now propose, yet the...

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Mark Jarman (essay date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Shared Humanity: ‘In the Stopping Train’ and ‘The Whitsun Weddings’,” in On Modern Poetry: Essays Presented to Donald Davie, edited by Vereen Bell and Laurence Lerner, Vanderbilt University Press, 1988, pp. 89-101.

[In the following essay, Jarman contrasts the role of the poet as evinced in Davie's “In the Stopping Train” and Philip Larkin's “The Whitsun Weddings.”]

These are my customs and establishments.
It would be much more serious to refuse.
—Philip Larkin
“The Importance of Elsewhere”
                                                            A man who ought to know me...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Bateson, F. W. “The Analysis of Poetic Texts: Owen's ‘Futility’ and Davie's ‘The Garden Party’.” Essays in Criticism 29, No. 2 (April 1979): 156-64.

Compares stylistic aspects of Wilfred Owen's “Futility” and Davie's “The Garden Party.”

Bedient, Calvin. “On Donald Davie.” The Iowa Review 2, No. 2 (Spring 1971): 66-88.

Discusses the defining characteristics of Davie's verse.

Bell, Vereen and Laurence Lerner, eds. On Modern Poetry: Essays Presented to Donald Davie. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1988, 256 p.

Collection of...

(The entire section is 333 words.)