Donald Davie Davie, Donald (Vol. 8)

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Davie, Donald (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Davie, Donald 1922–

Davie is a British poet and critic. Concerned as he is with style and grace, he is in many respects a neo-Augustan poet. His poetry, cerebral and technically complex, has often been criticized as deficient in humanity. Most critics, however, recognize and applaud the recent direction in Davie's poetry towards the personal. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

I first encountered Donald Davie through the challenging and inventive criticism found in the pages of his Purity of Diction in English Verse and Articulate Energy. Davie's imaginative selection and juxtapositions of poems were woven into continuous arguments that never disposed of those poems by wrapping them up in interpretative tinfoil ("well, now that's done and I'm glad it's over!") but helped them instead to open out and open up to the reader. The books were exhilarating stimulants to one's own critical practice; they provided a standard of loving care directed at the art of poetry which the critic never presumed was less than indispensable. In … Thomas Hardy and English Poetry,… the belief is still that the poet "is what society cannot dispense with", and Davie practices on Hardy and some modern and contemporary poets who are indebted to him, the kind of scrupulous, unfailingly lively attention we now expect from him as our right. It was probably because of my high regard for this criticism that, becoming aware of Davie as also a poet who had then published two volumes (Brides of Reason, 1955; A Winter Talent, 1957) I took the "also" literally and considered the poetry a pastime out of which had come some delightful, slight efforts, very much subordinate to his larger labors as a critic.

The publication of Davie's collected poems has made me reconsider my priorities to the extent of realizing that a body of work of this magnitude can't be taken as "also" to anything else, no matter how good the something else may be. Although it is perhaps rash to quote from a notebook entry Davie himself describes as a "vulnerable" piece of writing, I believe it has enough interest to figure as a more general musing about his poetic career taken whole:

It is true that I am not a poet by nature, only by inclination; for my mind moves most easily and happily among abstractions, it relates ideas far more readily than it relates experiences. I have little appetite, only profound admiration, for sensuous fullness and immediacy; I have not the poet's need for concreteness….

He goes on to say that most of the poems he had written thus far (it was 1957) were not "natural" since their thought could have been expressed in a non-poetic way; and that while these poems weren't shams he had determined in the future to write only poems "which are, if not naturally, at all events truly poems throughout"…. We might think then of the often-anthologized Remembering the Thirties with its dialectical and sprightly consideration of the virtues and limitations of "nowadays" preferring "a neutral tone". One understands the sense in which this witty poem is not "natural"—it can be firmly taken in hand once you work it out, though I doubt that its "thought" expressed in a non-poetic way could have stayed with me the way it has, because impressed on my ear through stanzas, rhyme, and the pointed intelligence of verse. But by 1957 Davie had also written The Mushroom Gatherers which sounded not at all like Remembering the Thirties…. (pp. 289-90)

[It] would be misleading to claim that Davie began to write "true poems" by suppressing his ego, by refusing to get the jump too quickly or thoroughly on his subject, or, relatedly, by insisting piously that the non-human, stone, what won't be turned into a symbol or translated, is what we should really admire instead of our messy psyches, reeking of the human (to appropriate one of his own coinages). Anyone who protests as much as Davie has in his poems that we should "Never care so much / For leaves or people, but you care...

(The entire section is 7,077 words.)