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Donald (Alfred) Davie 1922–
English poet, critic, editor, 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 evidenced by the...
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Donald (Alfred) Davie 1922–
English poet, critic, editor, 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 evidenced by the classical formalism of his first volume of poetry, The Brides of Reason (1955), and is the focus of his first critical work, The Purity of Diction in English Verse (1952). In The Purity of Diction, Davie argues for a return to the prose-like syntax, formal structures, and conservative metaphors of the eighteenth-century Augustan poets. In the 1950s Davie was associated with the Movement, a group of poets including Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, and Thom Gunn who believed in the importance of these qualities. 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.
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 (1957) which becomes more pronounced and deliberate in Events and Wisdoms (1964). Certain critics also assert that many of Davie's most successful poems are suffused with a sense of place and a sense of history associated with place. The most prominent example of this is The Shires (1974), a collection composed of forty poems, one for each county in England, in which Davie contemplates the past, present, and future of his native country. Davie's critical interest in other poets often affects his own poetic style. He translated Boris Pasternak's The Poems of Dr. Zhivago (1965) and has written critical works on Pasternak, Ezra Pound, and Thomas Hardy. Davie's reviewers attribute his experimental use of metaphor, symbolism, and loosely-structured verse forms to the influence of these poets.
Disillusioned with what he saw 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 in the late 1960s. Many of his poems deal with his ambivalent feelings toward England. Several poems from In the Stopping Train (1977) illuminate this tension as Davie attempts to come to terms with the England of his childhood and the England of today. Reviewing this collection, Michael Collins describes Davie's writing as "quiet, restrained, erudite, carefully-wrought—a poetry of statement rather than of image.".
Davie's critical works are as highly regarded as his poetry. In Articulating Energy (1955), a continuation of the arguments formulated in The Purity of Diction, Davie continues to stress the need for reason and clarity in literature. In two full-length works, Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor (1964) and Ezra Pound (1976), and in several essays in the collection Trying to Explain (1979), he analyzes the poetry of Ezra Pound. These works are praised for being provocative, insightful, and well-in-formed. In two other scholarly books, A Gathered Church: The Literature of the English Dissenting Interest, 1700–1930 (1978) and Dissentient Voice (1982), Davie traces the cultural and literary implications of religious dissent.
Davie has recently published Collected Poems, 1970–1983 (1983) and a volume of personal recollections entitled These the Companions (1982). These the Companions deals mainly with the people and places that have had the greatest effect on Davie and his work. Collected Poems includes previously published poems as well as a new sequence, The Battered Wife and Other Poems. The volume displays the directness and aesthetic control for which Davie has been commended throughout his career.
(See also CLC, Vols. 5, 8, 10; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 27.)
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[Donald Davie's New and Selected Poems] perplexes with flaws of a kind totally unlooked for in the mode he practices. Among several of the better moments of contemporary verse are scattered hypermetric lines for which one cannot imagine an excuse. The most preposterous occurs in "Reflections on Deafness," a mistake from beginning to end, in which however 19 out of 20 lines scan as pentameters. One goes: "Distinguishingly human act of speech contorted." There are others, easily reparable. I make this criticism first off in some amazement that the poet has not done so himself before ever quitting his first draft. Yet alongside the boners, the untractable instants of prose, are some poems the lucid order of which is persistently satisfying…. The better poems, like "Samuel Beckett's Dublin," "On Hearing Russian Spoken," parts of "Remembering the Thirties" are agreeable … because they do not take themselves too seriously. Seriousness in clever poets can be beyond all supposition banal. It is in those poems with pretentions that Mr. Davie tends to go disastrously awry, blundering into hopeless turgidities when he falls, as it seems, out of touch (aural and conceptual) with his intended course. (pp. 520-21)
Carol Johnson, "Four Poets," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXX, No. 3, Summer, 1962, pp. 517-22.∗
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In some of the reviews of Donald Davie's New and Selected Poems there is a certain reluctance to praise, though no good reason is given for the reluctance. He writes in meter, and meter is once again … becoming unfashionable: by definition, apparently, its user is an "academic poet." He uses his brain as well as his eyes. He is a sort of symbolist at a time when symbolism is scarcely the up-and-coming thing. Moreover there appears to be an implicit assumption that if you consider, say, Denise Levertov a good poet you cannot also consider Donald Davie good. But there is more than one type of excellence in poetry, and if meter and symbolism have ever been valid devices then they must still be so: to deny such truisms is to be oneself academic in the narrowest sense—confined by historical prejudice and blind to performance.
To one who has eyes to see with, Davie's performance is one of amplitude, variety, and liveliness. The present collection is wisely selected, and should show the American public that he is without a doubt one of the best three English poets of his generation…. The early poems are pleasant, and wear better than I would have expected, in spite of an occasional stiffness of movement and a certain over-ingenuity that takes the place of emotion. (pp. 136-37)
There is an astonishing range of perception, feeling, and technique to the poems in the second section, as can be seen from comparing "Time Passing, Beloved," "The Mushroom Gatherers," "Hearing Russian Spoken," and "Under St. Paul's," very different and very good poems. And the most recent poems show an expansion of powers, a secure mastery, whether in the bareness of "Against Confidences" … or in the rich emblems of "With the Grain." In particular I admire "To a Brother in the Mystery," the best dramatic monologue I have read since Edgar Bowers' "The Prince." It … not only establishes a dramatic situation fully and plausibly but gives it a meaning that goes beyond the situation. (p. 137)
Thom Gunn, "Things, Voices, Minds," in The Yale Review, Vol. LII, No. 1, Autumn, 1962, pp. 129-38.∗
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Most admirers of Pound truckle to his terms; [in "Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor] Professor Davie succeeds most usefully in describing and elucidating those terms, but he maintains our right to judge the terms themselves, to define the limits of what inherently could be accomplished given Pound's mode. The artistic case against Pound is a real one, both internally in his frequent failure to carry out his own poetic principles, and externally in the limitations of the principles themselves.
Mr Davie's praise of Pound is far more convincing than anyone else's, for two reasons. First, that he actually discusses how Pound uses words and rhythms—instead of paying the usual perfunctory tribute to Pound's 'technical mastery' and then scampering on. Whether Pound is a master of words or not, his is certainly not the kind of mastery which stamps itself at once and self-evidently on our minds and hearts, and the question 'What is Pound at?' is as needed for the style as for the larger concerns. The second source of Mr Davie's authority is his reluctance to exculpate Pound, technically or morally. The callous bigotry of Pound's politics is not evaded, and its appalling poetic consequences are conceded….
There is fervent admiration for Pound's translations, especially from the Chinese, for the Pisan Cantos and Rock-Drill. The admiration gains from the evidence that the critic is not selling Pound or sold on him. When, for instance, Pound mistranslates, Mr Davie is witty about it, instead of frothing like a pedagogue or claiming that Pound is being superbly 'creative'. He is prepared to offer arguments that are at once precise and tentative. He has the virtue which he praises in Pound, 'the ability to change opinion and confess as much'…. As a critical study, the book is notable for its habits of mind—and for its sense of fact, its ability to offer a plausible description of the works in hand. The subtitle, 'Poet as Sculptor', is justified by a very informative account (drawing impressively on the work of Adrian Stokes) of just exactly what Pound meant by invoking the analogy. The twists and turns of the prose works, especially the Guide to Kulchur and the translation from Confucius, are traced with a pertinacity that is possible only to the well-informed. A strong case is made that Pound's main poetic intention is to create 'a state of mind in which ideas tremble on the edge of expression.' Recurrent, though not repetitive, use is made of the insight that in metre and rhythm Pound was preoccupied with composition by verse-line rather than by larger units such as the verse-paragraph. One thing saves all these diverse matters from flying apart into just such as bric à brac as the Cantos themselves: Mr Davie's remarkable gifts (apparent in all his books) as a commentator on style, his ability to say something both new and true about the lines of verse there before our eyes. What we are given is a convincing account of what Pound wished to do, how he wished to do it, and how—intermittently—he did it.
And yet … To me it still seems that Mr. Davie has been, though not soft, softish on Pound's basic poetic decisions and principles. Why is the translation from Cavalcanti in Canto 36 so impenetrably obscure? Because there are surviving phenomena that are impenetrably obscure, and 'in such cases the most faithful translation is the one making least sense.' This book, it is true, contains what can be said against as well as for Pound, but it does not admit quite how damagingly radical its own objections are…. Mr Davie seems to have refrained from drawing the (harsh) conclusions that really follow from his own arguments….
Another leniency is that Pound is often allowed to escape under cover of an antithesis. If Pound were to be praised simply as a talented minor poet, there would be no harm in saying without comment that he gives us this rather than that. But such antitheses are precisely those which we are not forced to make on behalf of major poets, those poets whom Pound insists that we shall consider his peers. To combine what would seem incompatibles, to unite polar opposites such as novelty and nature—these are the terms of a major poet. So that to defend Pound by quoting his attack on 'those who mistake the eye for the mind' is to admit the smaller standards appropriate to smaller poetry. Why not both the eye and the mind?
The antithetical excuse affects even the admirable account of Pound's insistence on the verse-line. 'Only when the line was isolated as a rhythmical unit did it become possible for the line to be rhythmically disrupted or dismembered from within.' Why 'only when'? It is true that Pound was able to achieve an effective internal disruption within the line only by eschewing both enjambment and any larger verse-unit than the line. But the antitheses (verse-member versus verse-line versus verse-paragraph) are exactly those that it is not necessary to invoke for a true master of verse. In Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth (and many others), the verse does not find itself having to sacrifice large units in order to achieve small ones, or vice versa. 'For the members of the line to achieve some rhythmical independence of the line, it was essential that the rhythmical impetus through the line as a whole be slackened.' Essential for Pound, yes—but to say so is to deny Pound's claim to high technical mastery. In the work of a real master, impetus would surprisingly coexist with poise, just as local effectiveness would fight not against but alongside over-all effectiveness. Pound's terms, the terms on which Mr Davie correctly asks us to discover what is best in Pound, are by their nature an implicit admission of Pound's drastic limitations.
Christopher Ricks, "Davie's Pound," in New Statesman, Vol, LXIX, No. 1779, April 16, 1965, p. 610.
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The fundamental principle of [Ezra Pound's Cantos is the] attempt to express ideas only in terms of sensory impression, and by its very nature it was bound to fail. Pound cannot, after all, stop us from inferring wrong ideas from the fact presented; as Yvor Winters has cogently argued, the method leaves us at best with "no way of knowing whether we have had any ideas or not." Pound, the dumb pedlar, sinks under the weight of his pack, a familiar and miscellaneous collection of fragments gathered in a lifetime of travels. He is an ancient mariner who cannot hold us, for he is unable to tell his story coherently.
It is not the least of Mr. Davie's virtues that in his excellent new book [Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor] he faces squarely such objections to Pound and yet argues convincingly for his status as a major poet of the century. He does not fall into the trap of total commitment to the Cantos, and there is no talk of an illusory coherence of design or strength of construction: instead we are made aware of the deeply conflicting elements in the poet's practice. Committed to a language of particulars, Pound is nevertheless fascinated by ideas, as only a dogmatist can be…. Although the Cantos fail as an epic account of history and in their attempt to establish standards of judgment and a pantheon of heroes, they do often succeed as lyric, the lyric that has to do with time past. "Wherever Pound deals with history successfully, he does so in an elegiac, not an epic, spirit"; and so Mr. Davie rests the burden of his case on the reflective verse of The Pisan Cantos and Section Rock-Drill. Mr. Davie is able to seize this essential point about Pound's poetry as it has not been grasped before…. (pp. 75-6)
Mr. Davie has written a book that is a necessary companion to Hugh Kenner's pioneer study, The Poetry of Ezra Pound; it is well-informed, provocative, and readable. Although it was probably a mistake to begin the book with a discussion of the version of the Confucian Odes—surely not as good as all that—Mr. Davie rarely falters thereafter. Thanks to him, Pound is steadier in the literary stock-exchange, and all the more so for the high value Mr. Davie attaches to creative activity itself—"the great happiness and the great proof of being alive." (p. 76)
Martin Dodsworth, "Pound Revalued," in Encounter, Vol. XXV, No. 1, July, 1965, pp. 74-6.
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Mr Davie's book [Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor] is announced as a "comprehensive critical study" that takes "a straightforward chronological approach" to the career of Ezra Pound and is not burdened with "complex thematic or metaphorical devices." The statement is just, and the book possesses many of the virtues implied, among them a moderate tone and an unlabored pace. On the other hand, it suffers from the defects possible to such an approach; not only is Davie's book not burdened with complex thematic devices, it is burdened with no real unifying principle, except the general one that appears in the metaphor of the title. The work is characterized by a series of arguments, occasionally related, and having a common denominator more in an attitude than a point of view. One might insist that this method has its advantages, especially with a subject so evasive as Pound; nonetheless, it can bring us little more than the isolated illumination, the observation, or the general comparision, while it avoids the problems of explication and interpretation that cannot be avoided in systematic analysis.
Yet, even granting the author has methodology, there is much in this work that is either merely speculative or ill-reasoned. And often Davie's speculations are presented in so confusing a manner that one would be tempted to dismiss them as incomprehensible did they not seem to reduce themselves to oversimplification. (pp. 88-9)
Yet despite its lack of rigor and its frequent confusions, Mr. Davie's book is not wholly devoid of merit. The author does bring to his subject a wide range of reading and he does make his awareness of the canon of Pound criticism evident. But most important is that his comments are at least on the level of critical insight, and even when those insights are spurious they are not without a certain interest. When they are not spurious, as for example in the discussion of Pound's conception of forma as an underlying principle in the Cantos, they can be illuminating indeed. The work will not, one feels, "take its place as the primary critical study," but it may provide some excellent points of departure for the book that does. (p. 90)
L. S. Dembo, in a review of "Ezra Pound: Poet As Sculptor," in Modern Philology, Vol. LXIII, No. 1, August, 1965, pp. 88-90.
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[Donald Davie's Ezra Pound] stimulates disagreements of a constructive kind. This alone should be enough to recommend it. Davie gets the year of Pound's death wrong (1972, not 1973), the year of first publication of the Urcantos wrong (1917, not 1919), and still manages to produce the most trust-worthy and acute introduction to Pound's mind and art that we yet possess. If we cannot always rely on this book for facts concerning dates, we can rely fully upon Davie's ear to pick up sounds and rhythms that we were previously unaware of, and to demonstrate their function in the poem as a whole. Moreover, Davie provides us as well with original interpretations of the reasons behind Pound's methods which square with the poem as it is experienced. (p. 485)
What makes this book so valuable is that Davie's comments are both new and controversial; one feels positively impelled to disagree in some measure with almost everything he says, while his overall sense of Pound's work is both just and convincing. (p. 486)
The heart of Pound lies in chapter four ("Ideas in the Cantos"), where Davie offers a splendid enunciation of Pound's use of ideas. "As we start to read the Cantos," he says, "we float out upon a sea where we must be on the look-out for waterspouts. These, when they occur, are ideas, the only sort that this poem is going to give us." In magnificent and brilliant analyses of sections from canto 91 ("that the body of light come forth from the body of fire") and canto 74 ("Le Paradis n'est pas artificiel / but spezzato apparently"), Davie records the moments when "strength turns inside out." Using Upward's metaphor of the waterspout, Davie demonstrates how just as in nature "not only does the water swirl upward through the cloud-whirl, but the cloud swirls downward through the sea-whirl," so in these cantos the disembodied imagination swirls downward into the sea-whirl of language, while the sea-whirl of language swirls upward into the cloud-whirl of the imagination…. But ideas as Pound uses them are not merely free-floating Utopian aspirations either, for they spring from solid perceptions into the sensualized imagination. Like the waterspout, energy flows in two directions. Davie's inimitable sensitivity to language and his magnificent explication of this notion at work in cantos 91 and 74 make this chapter a joy to read.
Davie's sixth chapter ("Towards a Conclusion") is similarly brilliant. He points out that Pound's poetry is meant to be heard—felt in the ear—rather than read, to be directly and sensually experienced. He shows how Pound follows Dante in focussing on the ability of language to corporealize the abstract idea, to transform "the notional into something apprehensible, or as if apprehensible, through the senses."… And of course this is what we need reminding of, that the kind of knowledge Pound's poetry imparts is sensuous knowledge. Davie's implication is clear; Ezra Pound is the first poet since Dante…. (pp. 487-88)
There are numerous … points of controversy in Davie's book … which the reader will wish to encounter for himself. And how few books rouse any thought at all? Pound succeeds where others have failed, largely because Davie does believe that "the intellectual love of a thing consists in the understanding of its perfections;" his book embodies this love, this sensitivity. And also, it embodies that hilaritas, that joy, which some find the most rewarding element in Pound's work…. (p. 488)
Thomas McKeown, in a review of "Ezra Pound," in Paideuma, Vol. 5, No. 3, Winter, 1976, pp. 485-89.
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Donald Davie, in his new book [Ezra Pound], takes the Cantos very seriously, and tries to dispose of the ideological difficulties by separating the "opinions" from the "ideas" of the poem. He pleads, I think, that the appalling doctrines on politics and race belong to mere opinion or prejudice, and are not central to the meaning, but that Pound's ultimate values (justice, beauty, love, order)—not stated but embodied in processes of rapt vision arising from immediate experience—constitute the ideas or real meaning.
I put the analysis in my own words because Davie's account is troubled and obscure; he may well disagree with the paraphrase. But rather than study his terms and quarrel with his logic, I will make a single, literary comment: that if Pound built his poem as Davie indicates, it is a devastating mark of his failure that the poet's ear should have been so deaf to the impact his "opinions" would make on an audience.
Davie is excellently equipped to write an authoritative introduction to Pound's work. He is an accomplished poet and critic, familiar not only with Pound's writings of every sort but also with the scholarship on them. Though deeply responsive to Pound's verse, Davie is acutely aware of his limitations as a poet. He holds a sane, balanced view of Pound's importance in literary history but does not compromise with his evil banalities.
In an earlier book [Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor] Davie tried to survey the whole of Pound's output, with very uneven results. The new book is as learned as its predecessor but better defined. Davie fixes on the right topics, concentrating upon the poetry itself and not Pound's criticism. (p. 11)
Yet with all his talents Davie has not served us well. Though short, the book is neither orderly, lucid, nor concise. Davie writes carelessly and fills out his text with lengths of unnecessary quotation, he digresses into peripheral topics, like the relation between birth control and the arts. His inaccuracies undermine his learning—e.g., he will give innocent readers the impression that Pound himself translated the hundreds of lines of Dante in the Spirit of Romance! Readers who already know a good deal about Pound will find a number of fresh insights in Davie's book. Others will be disappointed. (p. 12)
Irvin Ehrenpreis, "Love, Hate, and Ezra Pound," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXIII, No. 9, May 27, 1976, pp. 6, 8-12.
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In the stopping train is just as full of jolts as it sounds, largely because Davie so often leaps out of his reverie to hang desperately on the communication-cord. There are some items in his book, to be sure, which appear to proceed according to plan…. But other poems here are invaded and overcome by apprehensive clamminess….
'To Thom Gunn in Los Altos, California' sets out with a mock-and matey-heroic 'Conquistador! Live dangerously, my Byron', but quickly becomes a long shudder at the Californian coastline, the far edge of the world, looking out over the be-numbing indifference of the Pacific. 'What am I doing, I who am scared of edges?', Davie ends by asking. The answer is often: looking scared, and in the same sweaty, domestic way as the late Robert Lowell. It's not just the nearness to the surface here of Davie's family, friends and personal habits, or even the occasional red splash of schizophrenia …, but the auto-diagnostic impulse, the febrile, pulse-taking fear of self. More sinister, though—because one senses the strain Davie is experiencing in keeping his disgust bottled in images—is 'St Paul's Revisited', a 'sermon' on Depravity…. [Suddenly] Davie the moralist becomes Davie the unhonoured prophet, and looks not at all at home in this world. It is in the glowering light of [poems] … like this that simpler pieces, say 'A Wistful poem called "Readers"' …, take on the glint of paranoia. It all leaves one wondering whether Davie's indignation is now an ingrowing thing, destined to torture him into a last, loud phase as the Angry Old Man. (p. 489)
Russell Davies, "Ah Well," in New Statesman, Vol. 94, No. 2428, September 30, 1977, pp. 448-49.∗
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Donald Davie's excellent Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor was published in 1964. He has now written a new introduction to Pound [entitled Ezra Pound] … which duplicates little of his earlier work; it is tightly compressed, thoroughly eccentric, and equally indispensable. Davie surveys Pound's important work, probes much of the major work on Pound, and offers suggestions as to where scholarship had better look next. Despite this scope the book is nothing in the way of a reader's guide, but it includes important contributions to the discovery of Allen Upward's relation to Pound and the Cantos, and a brilliant treatment of the Pound sound in a chapter on "Rhythms in the Cantos."…
Donald Davie goes a long way toward showing where and why Ezra Pound is better than everyone else. Davie shows too, humanely but clearly, where and why, despite revisions and because of them, Pound is worse. (p. 670)
William Clarkson, "Ezra Pound Ltd.," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXXV, No. 4, Fall, 1977, pp. 667-70.
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Donald Davie's new collection [In the Stopping Train] is as nicely fashioned as ever before. His title poem is more subfusc than usual, a sombre but firm performance. It's characteristic of Davie's styles that his poems move neatly to their clinching lines without assuming too much that they should do so. Indeed, his manner is more properly relaxed in In the Stopping Train than it was in The Shires, where it was relaxed into a state of suave chat. There are five more poems to add to the Shires series, one of them, "Bedfordshire", being perhaps the best of the lot. (pp. 82-3)
[Davie's] points of reference are self-consciously cultural and social. He conducts arguments. A number of his poems in his new book proceed first by asking a question, then answering it, then moving forward until the next question is reached, followed by its answer, followed by moving forward again. The method mimics a state of mind suspicious of bold manoeuvres, of anything unreasonable, intemperate or seemingly immoderate. If he was to imagine something, or speculate, he would tell us first. He wouldn't want to think he was going off his own rails. There is of course an assumption of plain honesty in that manner. But there are times, too, when it looks like a greater degree of circumspection than poetry encourages. His poems strike me as conditioned by criticism of poetry, a phenomenon of the mid-20th century. If there is an academic poetry, this is it.
That is, in style; for I doubt if all that Davie cares to mean is entirely reasonable. In "In the Stopping Train", there are lines close to an admission of his own cosmopolitan deracination. There is doubt; and there is the self-blasphemy of "bad thoughts", bad will and the decency of being wrong. He can own up to the quirks of psychology, self-deception. But in "Townend, 1976" his unreasonableness is of a different kind.
In one guise, the poem is a spirited meditation on the idea of a town, taking its cue from Mr Davie's memories of his native Barnsley. The verse is unyielding and quick, argumentative, searching, and highly assured in style; it is brisk, no-nonsense, and perhaps a shade pompous, the ruminations of a discredited civic dignitary. It may be the poem the blurb-writer had in mind when he wrote of Davie's "civic conscience." But "Townend, 1976" is a highly contentious political piece. Change appals Mr Davie at the same time as he notes its benefits….
Mr Davie is attacking none other than the welfare state, the institutions of mass democratic society…. He admits to a preference for yesteryear when all was in its place and the Barnsleys of the world revelled in their humility and hardship and were approved for doing so. Mr. Davie laments an upset to hierarchy, to the existence of mass democracy. The continued fading of one, the continued development of the other, make Mr. Davie guilty. He has very little goodwill. He believes the past before he recognises the present, which is neither healthy or wise. (p. 83)
Douglas Dunn, "For the Love of Lumb," in Encounter, Vol. L, No. 1, January, 1978, pp. 78-83.∗
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Donald Davie's criticism conveys the sense that the making and criticizing of poems continue to matter. Such critics as Harold Rosenberg have noticed the absence of a genuine avant-garde in the arts today and have even questioned the usefulness of the notion avant-garde. If the notion is dead, and that is perhaps just as well, one misses the sense of historic enterprise which the idea of the avant-garde carried and which is noticeable everywhere in the criticism of such modernists as Pound and Eliot. The modernists, however much they differed on fundamental matters, all hoped to go beyond the failures of nineteenth-century art. Yet scholars of modernism have encouraged us to see twentieth-century poetry as a footnote, an impressive footnote, to nineteenth-century culture.
The Poet in the Imaginary Museum: Essays of Two Decades … publishes a selection of Davie's essays dating—despite the title—from 1950 to 1978. It reveals that Davie's mind has from the beginning pushed forward with the same preoccupations although he has modified particular views, as he acknowledges in new postscripts to some of the essays.
Like the early modernists whom he admires, Davie wishes the poet to keep his head in a confusing world by embracing the old role of the artist as artificer or maker, rather than secular prophet, thinker, or creator of alternative worlds…. Davie thinks of the poet as working somehow like other artists, and he resorts readily to analogies between poetry and other arts, especially music, sculpture, and architecture. When he talks about liking poems which have been so carefully made that they "can be seen all round" it is obvious that his metaphor is drawn from the art of sculpture.
Davie holds to his staunch aestheticism, unafraid of the shades of Pater or Wilde, because he argues not confusion between religion and art but a genuine art for art's sake. Religion is something else. In a hard-hitting review of the poems of Galway Kinnell, he indicts American poets of the last twenty years for dissipating "the artistic and intellectual riches accumulated by the great decades of American poetry earlier in this century." They have taken "American poetry back out of the twentieth century into the nineteenth, from the astringent and sophisticated world of Allen Tate and Yvor Winters back into the world of Emerson and Whitman." And he goes on to compare the unbelief and anxiety of much contemporary poetry to the "tediously familiar dilemma of those late-Victorians who vociferously 'lost their faith.'"
Davie resists the conception of the poem as primarily the expression or communication of the private anxiety of the poet. While he is sympathetic to the confessional poems of Robert Lowell and to the historical circumstances which made these poems all but necessary, he finally wonders what desperate game Lowell plays with his readers in his last poems and whether Lowell can tell what to chisel away and what to leave in the stone. As an artist, does Lowell know what he is doing?
Davie is not asking for an impersonal poetry characterized chiefly by the New Critical virtues of irony and detachment. Instead he seems to be arguing for the "radiant paradox" embodied for him in Pushkin: "the union of impregnable impersonality and reserve as an artist with eager and vulnerable frankness as a person."
One corollary of Davie's view of the poet as maker is his attempt to see the poet as a member of an international artistic community, a community which clearly exists among sculptors, painters, architects, and musicians but which seems to be less of a reality among poets. This collection of essays reveals that Davie has taken up more than once André Malraux's metaphor of the twentieth-century imaginary museum which makes contemporary the art of all times and places. But in "Poetry and the Other Modern Arts" he finally seems to conclude that the poet can never be so international as the painter although he must somehow escape the danger of becoming provincial in a sense which implies philistinism. The poet is an occasional visitor to the imaginary museum; he doesn't live there because "the art of poetry has not been, is not now, and can never be, an international vocabulary. All the other arts nowadays release us from the prisons we were born in; but poetry forces us back inside the iron cage of being of a certain race speaking a certain language." (pp. 577-79)
For Davie, then, the poet is a maker, but a maker using a particular language which places him in relation to a particular culture and possibly a particular place or particular places. Not literary nationalism is at issue here, but principally the exigencies of poetic craft. It cannot be an accident that Davie himself recently published a book of poems entitled The Shires, an abbreviated and personal Poly-Olbion. (p. 579)
From the beginning of his career Davie's attempt to go beyond the romantic tradition toward a conception of the poet as maker has carried him back to the eighteenth-century poets. Purity of Diction in English Verse (1953) is the engaged criticism of a contemporary poet who is trying to write poems which go beyond symbolism and post-symbolism. Davie's A Gathered Church: The Literature of the English Dissenting Interest, 1700–1930 is a eulogy of the taste and cultivation of eighteenth-century dissenters who were his own forebears, although he writes not as a dissenter but as a son of Dissent. The reader may suspect that Davie is working a thin vein here, and Davie acknowledges his reader's suspicions in what was first delivered as the Clark Lectures at Cambridge in 1976.
The key to what Davie is doing can be found in his earlier book Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor (1964). There, writing about the relation of genre to subject in Pound's The Classic Anthology Defined by Confucius, he states that the central clue to "the entire labyrinth" of Pound's work is that "a question of poetic genre, and of the marrying of genres, is necessarily a question of entertaining certain ranges of perceptions rather than others, and of combining some perceptions with others in unprecedented ways." For all of his aetheticism, or perhaps because of it, Davie's essays move freely to social and cultural questions and increasingly to religion. For example he argues elsewhere that much contemporary American poetry is technically retrogressive because it is filled with religious yearnings which refuse religion's discipline.
The history of dissenting literature since 1700 is for Davie one of decline corresponding to a decline in the intellectual, social, and spiritual awareness of Dissent. Davie locates the characteristic artistic achievements of Dissent not in the century of Milton and Bunyan but in the century of Watts. What the eighteenth-century dissenters achieved in the poetry of their hymns and the architecture of their chapels was "simplicity, sobriety, and measure," which Davie argues are the qualities Calvinist aesthetics demands of the art-object. Calvinist art at its best does not deny sensual pleasure but deploys it "with an unusually frugal, and therefore exquisite, fastidiousness." Using phrases reminiscent of The Purity of Diction in English Verse, Davie defends Calvinist aesthetics because "the aesthetic and the moral perceptions have, built into them and near to the heart of them, the perception of licence, of abandonment, of superfluity, foreseen, even invited, and yet in the end, fended off." This is almost to see Calvinist art through Confucian spectacles. (pp. 579-80)
Davie has written a persuasive defense of one strand or one moment in dissenting tradition. He has been wise to include in his book photographs of eighteenth-century chapels which reveal the aesthetic discrimination possible among the Old Dissenters. This book, however, is not an exercise in eighteenth-century historical scholarship any more than was The Purity of Diction in English Verse. Instead it is a contemporary English poet's investigation into what English art has been and what it might become. It is characteristic of Davie always to ask the artist to fend off provincialism at the same time that he locates himself in particular landscapes; and so it is central to his argument that the dissenting tradition at its best "does not offer an insular alternative to European culture, a way of 'keeping out', but rather a way of 'going in' on special, and specially rewarding, terms."
A Gathered Church may seem to be a work of filial piety by a man once a Baptist. But by locating and defending the aesthetic excellence in dissenting tradition. Davie has written an important chapter in the aesthetic history of England, contributed to the debate about the nature of English culture and its future, and enlarged our understanding of the way religious conviction affects the way an artist makes an art-object. (p. 581)
D. E. Richardson, "Donald Davie and the Escape from the Nineteenth Century," in the Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXXVI, No. 4, Fall, 1978, pp. 577-81.
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[A Gathered Church: The Literature of the English Dissenting Interest, 1700–1930] is a work of committed criticism. (p. 164)
But the points [of Davie's Clark Lectures collected here] are argued by indirection, allusion, and selection, and we are conducted in no recognizable discipline. Some part of each lecture is given over to rhetorical strategies designed to show that Professor Davie's judgements are endowed with a peculiar privilege denied to other critics. Historians, literary and especially social, are disqualified at the outset, as having no criteria relevant to aesthetic judgement. But much of this book is, quite simply, a rewriting of history, without an appropriate discipline to do so. Aesthetic judgements may be faulted if they conflict with doctrinal considerations, and vice versa. By another strategy ('I was there') Professor Davie assumes the privilege of personal association with the tradition…. A certain privilege we may allow. I do allow it: Professor Davie has a deep, but narrow, arc of sympathy which may derive from his familial inheritance. But we cannot allow it too far, or we make nonsense of the work of critics and historians, who must, in a sense, always be 'there'. Are we to suppose that only female royalists are privileged to write the history of Queens?
By yet another strategy, political and social interests disqualify the writers Professor Davie dislikes but commend those whom he approves. But none of these strategies is employed consistently; one can watch Professor Davie pause and consider which arrow to select from his quiver. The extension of literary or intellectual traditions to a wide general public is seen as an 'ominous' dilution in one case (the 'veneration' with which Blake is regarded is 'a test case … of what happens when a body of difficult but momentous truths is taken "to the people"') and as endorsement of approved values in another (the poetry of Watts is vindicated as forming 'the common anonymous stock of our linguistic inheritance'). There is a kind of engaging snobbery of a high minority tradition about Professor Davie's judgements; a 'linguistic inheritance' remains distinguished, but 'the people' remain always as the vulgar. Yet the aesthetic judgements upon which Professor Davie's ultimate authority rests are seldom demonstrated by attention to the text. They lie, often, somewhere just outside the rim of the lectures, gestured to, as self-evident, through the lecture-theatre window. (pp. 165-66)
This is a very odd book. What is one to make of a study of the 'literature of the dissenting interest' which mentions neither Joseph Johnson, the publisher at the centre of that literature for three vigorous decades, nor (almost) any of the books he published? This is a committed and idiosyncratic tract. Behind all the strategies of doctrinal or aesthetic rigour, there will often be found ulterior political and social judgements as crude as anything to be found on the 'Left'. One is irritated only when Professor Davie rises in the pulpit, in a spotless surplice of critical objectivity, and accuses others of his own sins: 'In the course of my studies I encountered assumptions and contentions of a socio-political kind which I cannot but regard as tendentious to the point of being deliberately misleading.'…
Professor Davie is wholly entitled to his commitment. However interested his stance, his work is more interesting to read than many 'disinterested' accounts. But the general reader will gain from it a most abbreviated notion of Dissent, in its literary influence: Watts, Rutherford. Large repairs to the defaced fabric of understanding will have to be made in the seminar and tutorial. The biggest repair of all must be in the very definition of Dissent. For Professor Davie at no point lingers to discuss the critical defining questions. (p. 167)
Of course Professor Davie wishes to provoke argument; he will be disappointed if he does not. And I am glad that we have this book. But it is doing three things; and we must be careful to distinguish between them. First, it is a kind of public polemical meditation, in which the author ponders a particular, and narrow, cultural genealogy which he affirms as his own. I find this procedure valid and often enlightening. Professor Davie is in search of a descent from a genteel and mercantile Dissent of the early eighteenth century, politically accommodating, and endowed with values of sobriety, simplicity, and measure, values exemplified in Watts's verse and in the chaste neo-classical lines of the eighteenth-century meeting-houses shown in his Plates. In tracing this descent, he becomes fiercely involved in long-forgotten sectarian controversies, and shows a party zeal in the arguments of nineteenth-century non-conformist historiography. I cannot regret this zeal, which illumines much that had become obscure.
Second, and in the course of doing the first, Professor Davie is striking out at a number of lazy notions and received opinions as to Dissent. In particular, he is contesting the notion that the major dissenting tradition can be seen as an easy evolution towards liberal, humanist, or even rationalist conclusions; or, indeed, the notion (for which he holds Christopher Hill and myself responsible) that Dissent can be claimed, wholesale, as part of the pre-history of the Left. Such notions, as he properly shows, can be profoundly condescending, if they pass by or disallow the authenticity of the Dissenters' spiritual and doctrinal concerns. Moreover, the Socinian 'enlightenment' cannot be taken as representative of Dissent as a whole; there were Tory Dissenters as well as Jacobins, and the former may have remained within their gathered churches more loyally than the latter. These points are often well made; and they should be taken.
Third, and intermingled with the first and second, Professor Davie is claiming his 'genealogy' as the true Dissent, and disallowing all other parts of the tradition. As I have argued, this is preposterous, limiting, and often enforced by dubious rhetorical strategies. In his notes Professor Davie appears as a more candid advocate of party. The Unitarians should be regarded, not 'as merely the Left and liberal wing of English Dissent' but (as 'orthodox' Dissenters saw them) as 'pernicious and alarming heretics'. And he plainly asserts that 'the Arianism of Priestley did far more damage to Dissent than either the hostility of the Establishment or the ambiguous fervour of Methodism'. In somewhat similar terms one has heard a certain kind of Marxist sectarian avow that 'the revisionism of Bernstein did far more damage to Marxism than either the hostility of the State or the ambiguous fervour of Christian Socialists'. I find this kind of prejudgement, which appeals to an original and stationary purity of doctrine, open to the same objection in both cases. For what appears valid from within the doctrine's premises appears as bigotry without.
But doctrines matter. I think they do, and I applaud Professor Davie for thinking likewise. Everything cannot be passed down the academic production-line until it comes out at the end as a highly-wrought and objective 'no answer'. Then how are we to conduct a discourse together, those of us within and those without a given doctrine's premises? I do not see that we must always try; there are times when we should simply make plain our beliefs. But the Clark Lectures are surely a time for an attempt at communication? And it is here that these lectures finally fail to satisfy, for one would suppose that these were offered to auditors on a common ground, and that this ground was aesthetic judgement. But Professor Davie never succeeds in sorting out aesthetic and doctrinal criteria. In the end we are left with an assertion entailed in a doctrinal premise: Robert Hall must be seen as culturally enlightened because he restated the doctrine of the Eucharist.
There is a most interesting passage in the third lecture where Professor Davie discusses paradox. He notes, in Watts and Wesley, the aesthetic force derived from 'the central paradox of a god 'who is also man'. Such paradoxes (he notes) are at the heart of 'any writing in the centrally Christian tradition'; and he goes on to contrast this with the dialectical way of thought in Blake. I wish he had written more, much more, to such effect, in the area where aesthetic and doctrinal influence intersect. (pp. 168-69)
E. P. Thompson, in a review of "A Gathered Church: The Literature of the English Dissenting Interest, 1700–1930," in The Modern Language Review, Vol. 75, Part I, January, 1980, pp. 164-70.
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The best of Donald Davie's essays [in Trying to Explain] are subtle, reasonable and serious discussions of the detail of [Ezra Pound's] work; they range widely, they explain, and they give great pleasure. But they take Pound too seriously as a moral being. He was a poet of great genius, and we read him constantly, but to put it mildly, 'he could not make it all cohere'. Donald Davie is not necessarily right to put the blame for Pound's alienation from England on the amateurism and hopelessness of the British literary culture from 1900 to 1920. The distinction that involves between professional and amateur poets is obscure and doubtful.
Donald Davie is torn between British and American standards. That is part of his interest as an essayist, and what a splendidly trenchant and clear writer, what an impressively rational explainer he is. I failed to find one uninteresting paragraph in this book. Its lucidity makes it easy to disagree with, but even the miscalculation of some of its attacks on the wilder fringe of writers is honourable and endearing. Donald Davie's photograph on the jacket is that of some rare, mid-Atlantic seabird, literary and intellectual and in full spate of explanation. But his phobia against socialism, which he allows to weaken even his case against the fascism of Yeats and Pound, is less sympathetic, and his rage against Dylan Thomas is exaggerated….
But all Davie's prejudices are honest and he stands for rational decency…. Donald Davie is within the modern movement a neo-classic writer and critic—a successor to Yvor Winters. That is certainly better than romantic gush or the technical jargon and reworking of earlier writers which is often a mask for chauvinism. But it risks leaving out of account something of the genius and the inwardness, the forceful truth of important writers. Donald Davie is a generous intellectual. Most of what he attacks needs attacking, and he picks his way as carefully and easily as a cat. What fills one with gloom is the juggernaut of the American academic-poetic establishment, the writing schools in which nearly every poet teaches, and the 'on-going act of criticism' which feeds back into poetry. Donald Davie has lived and worked effectively with all that….
Maybe if Ezra Pound had found the teachers and examples that he looked for in vain in England, his greatness really might have been less fragmented. That is a point that Donald Davie makes….
The Pisan Cantos are still a greater work of genius and a more moving human document than almost anything else written in English in this century. It may be that Pound's mysterious case says more about the art and origins of poetry than any easier example. Once again, this is something that Donald Davie has understood.
There is a lower level of the quarrel between Pound and the British which is one almost of buffoonery. Davie takes it far too seriously. He minds Max Beerbohm at Rapallo thinking Pound an undesirable acquaintance…. Davie minds Maurice Bowra calling Pound 'a bore, and an American bore'. That did not prevent Bowra from knowing and loving the Pisan Cantos. It is also, in its way, perfectly true. And if Pound had called someone 'a bore, and a British bore', would we not think it funny? When he beats up the barbarous British in How to Read, he still is funny. Donald Davie's reacton is not laughter, but meticulous fairness. On this level of knock-about humour fairness is somehow inappropriate.
Peter Levi, "Impresario of the Waves," in New Statesman, Vol. 99, No. 2568, June 6, 1980, p. 854.∗
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Donald Davie's new book [Trying to Explain], a collection of reprinted pieces, is a jumpy one, as is indicated by its fretful title and the expression (faintly exasperated) on his face on the dust-jacket, as well as by a lecture on 'Art and Anger', and 'Second Thoughts' on the same subject, in which he defends anger (with its corollary, contempt) as a salutary emotion and one suitable to great art. Anger, as opposed to hatred, rancour and even indignation, is purgative and goes with clear thought—reasons, he says, why it is unwelcome in democracies where 'contempt is unforgivable, as ultimately hatred isn't'.
You could state all the themes of his book in terms of a question which he has plainly often asked himself: why, being English and predominantly concerned about English, or British, matters, does he live and work in America? Or rather, some answers to that are clear: it is because in England 'the nonacademic makers and moulders of literary opinion are judging poetry by standards which are 60 years out of date', and because of the 'arrogant rationalism and authoritarianism of British socialism'.
The question he is really troubled by is, what are the perils for him of his self-exile? This puts him in a good position, involved yet detached, to meditate the case of Ezra Pound, who, though an American, never before and never after felt so much at home as in England …, yet eventually quitted the place, in an impatience like Davie's own if more violent, and fared badly ever afterwards.
Davie's thoughts fasten continually upon Pound. He is always wonderfully instructive on the subject, which somehow brings his own ideas on literature, cultural history and politics into focus and into relation; and the six pieces on Pound are the solidest part of the present volume. One of the valuable points he makes in these Pound essays is that the pre-1914 cultured society that Pound met in England, complacent and insular though it was, had a lot to be said for it…. Despite this, though, Davie shows convincingly why Pound, in the long run, was probably bound to quarrel with this 'establishment' and feel he must cut loose from it. It was because it was a society 'ineradicably vowed to the idea of the artist as amateur'.
Another and related aspect of Pound's career that Davie discusses, and also identifies himself with, is the role of aesthete. It has been one of the strongest parts of Davie's achievement to vindicate aestheticism, to show it as potentially vigorous, heroic and life-giving—as undoubtedly it is in the great 'modernist' masterpieces—and rescue it from the automatic English belittlement (as 'arid', 'trivial' etc.). Nevertheless, it is in this matter of Pound and aestheticism that worries attack Davie and (I think) confuse him. Is aestheticism, with all the good you can say of it, ultimately anti-human? Is it what led Pound into fascism?
This is a serious enough question in all conscience, and it makes Davie lose his cool and his poise. He is, rightly, desperately anxious to face the ugly facts of Pound's fascism, and he offers us, as a model attitude to this matter, the behaviour of the poet Charles Olson towards Pound at the time of Pound's débâcle. And indeed Olson seems to have acted very finely, 'saving Pound's life' as Pound himself said, while refusing altogether to palliate Pound's politics or to allow weak excuses for him, such as would distinguish the man from the poet or would pretend that a poet's views don't matter. But Olson's central judgement upon Pound directly arraigns his aestheticism. (p. 214)
It is honourable in Davie to face this challenge, but his response is defensive-aggressive. Olson insists on separating Pound's fascism from his anti-Semitism, and Davie turns this into an attack upon lefties, who, he says, find it easier and more enjoyable to castigate Pound's anti-Semitism, about which all they have to be is 'indignant', than his fascism, which would require them to define their own political 'positive'. Fair sport perhaps; but meanwhile, rather unnaturally in his case, Davie is recommending Olson's verse for its 'audacity and grandeur of the conception' despite 'solecisms' and 'gaucheries' and 'arbitrary coarseness in diction' on every page, and praising Olson's 'ill-written but splendidly honest verse diatribes against MUSAK'.
From one who makes such claims for literary values, this won't quite do; and what is distorting his judgment becomes clear. It is the problem of 'mass society'. Olson's accusation against Pound is that he and his admirers rejected or ignored 'the single most important human fact between Newton and the Atomic Bomb—the sudden multiple increase of the earth's population, the coming into existence of the MASSES'. Davie's response to this is disturbed and distraught…. Davie writes, of Olson's charge against Pound: 'Pound's admirers will protest at this, but they will be wrong. If they ask proof, let them look into their own hearts. Do they not find there (I know I do) just that suffocation Olson speaks of? Just that panicky fear, always on the verge of turning into hatred until we shamefacedly choke it back? The Masses! How can we not fear them, and fearing them, how not hate them?… For we cannot feel what we know we ought to feel—that "the masses" are "just folks". (It isn't true anyway.) The fear and the incipient hatred are something that we impenitent élitists must learn to live with, not anything we can deny.' (pp. 214-15)
By worrying about fascism in this self-reflecting way, Davie has worried himself into a misreading of Yeats's poem of 1928, 'Blood and the Moon', which he stigmatises as an ugly piece of fascism, lauding the 'innocence' of ruthless, bloodthirsty men-of-action as against the envy and impotence of intellectuals. Davie's error links with the question of 'literary amateurism' referred to earlier. He believes that Yeats would, unlike Pound, have preferred a graceful, aristocratic amateurism for himself, in the manner of Robert Gregory, and blamed a democratic age for making him perforce a professional.
This is surely wrong, and Yeats was always a most committed professional…. Davie is ignoring a leading theme of The Tower and The Winding Stair, which is that the poet may hope, by a life of solitude and dispossession and of back-breaking professional toil and burning of midnight oil, ultimately to achieve, by this totally different route, the same joyous unification of being as is the ancestral birthright of the leisured and endowed. Thus, in 'Blood and the Moon', his mental tower, with its treadmill stair, is a 'powerful' alternative emblem to the brick-and-stone tower of past Anglo-Norman conquerors, and to a great degree a satire on it…. Yeats's tone is, in fact, wry but genial and not at all fascist. As so often, he has by some prodigious leap of mind resolved a stark opposition into a being-in-the-same-boat. And Davie has found in the poem what he feared to find, and not what is there. (pp. 215-16)
P. N. Furbank, "'What Are the Perils for Him of His Self-Exile?'" in The Listener, Vol. 104, No. 2674, August 14, 1980, pp. 214-16.
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Donald Davie's In the Stopping Train indicates that [a] tendency toward reduced style [exists in] contemporary English poetry …, though for Davie's book … one can see the tendency as part of a larger desire to test the language's ability to treat emotions that are often ignored by unitary visions. For Davie, who praises his French teacher for giving him the language of Ronsard, conventional themes provide occasions to see "the whole / Diction kit begin to fall apart," and the interest in his collection lies in the self-consciousness of his efforts to shun the "unlikely … enormous, louring resonant spaces / carved out by a Virgil" and gauge his style to "small clearances, small poems." At times, as in "Father, The Cavalier," the efforts add up to nothing more than rhetorical adroitness—the withholding or the correct placing of a word. The work's final "mostly," sentimentalizing the photo, qualifies "unnoticed" but also echoes the assertion / qualification of the poem's second stanza—"A surrogate / Virility, perhaps." "The Harrow" creates its tension syntactically by withholding the verb "stir." These techniques work well in the opening half of "Depravity: Two Sermons" and in "Bedfordshire" to bring irony to the conventions of occasional poems. Although in poems like "Morning," "To a Teacher of French," "Widowers," and "A Spring Song," Davie emerges with a live voice, readers may wonder whether there is not as much artifice in this voice as in one that strives for elegance, and if the reason for Davie's efforts is political rather than artistic. American readers especially may concur with the imagined reader of "A Spring Song" that "the sort of acrobatics that this poet / Is good at, we can do without." (p. 465)
[A] self-conscious style, conventional themes, and political intent [are what] one finds in Davie's volume…. (p. 466)
Jerome Mazzaro, "At the Start of the Eighties," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXXIII, No. 3, Autumn, 1980, pp. 455-68.∗
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This short but vivid and provocative book [A Gathered Church] consists of the Clark Lectures given at Cambridge in 1976, with an additional thirty-odd pages of 'Notes' which amplify some of the arguments. Davie is concerned with the Dissenting tradition's contribution to English literature and culture since the late seventeenth century—a contribution which he argues is important if in some ways very limited. His aim is frankly polemical: as he puts it, "clearing the dissenting tradition of various libels that circulate about it."
He ranges widely, looking at writers as diverse as Bunyan, Mathew Green, Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, William Blake, George Eliot, 'Mark Rutherford,' and D. H. Lawrence. One of his central propositions is that there is an aesthetic specifically linked to religious Dissent. Its characteristic virtues were "simplicity, sobriety, and measure." Important examples are the hymns of Isaac Watts, the prose of 'Mark Rutherford.' This severely restrained poetic echoes more recent poetics such as that of the "Objectivists" in the United States….
But Davie's concern is not narrowly literary. It is the broader cultural role of Dissent and its literature which is the central concern of the lectures: "since what we are concerned with is English culture, our history cannot be a history of ideas, nor a history of events, nor yet a narrowly literary history, but a history of people and the styles in which they have lived." Thus he looks carefully at such Nonconformist intellectuals as Philip Doddridge, Robert Hall, and Charles Spurgeon. (p. 93)
Davie's engagement with his subject is refreshing. His own concern with Dissenting culture, he tells us, stems from a dual allegiance: his Baptist upbringing and his enthusiasm for literature. This book tells us a good deal about Davie's notions of his own work. But if this personal involvement gives the lectures their vigor and movement, it has its price. At times the scope narrows and there is emotional assertion instead of reasoned argument. On the whole problem of the meaning of the word "culture," for instance, he evades the full thrust of Dissenting influence on English historical development by narrowing his flanks: he restricts culture to the literary and spiritual. The relationships between these aspects of culture and the broader social and political dimensions of culture, according to Davie, "are still, as they have always been, too subtle and intricate for our historical scholarship to draw them out with any confidence." This is an evasion….
At the end of his final lecture, Davie threatens that some day he may publish a larger study which will "challenge received notions about the social and political history of English Dissent over the past three centuries." I hope he does. The result will be contentious and important. But a much wider conceptual framework and an attention to the social and political role of nineteenth-century Dissent … will be necessary if his revisions are going to be of more than personal significance.
As far as it goes, A Gathered Church is a challenge which initiates debate on a whole range of issues in English culture and literature—a challenge also contained in some other recent pieces by Davie. It is a challenge which is already beginning to be taken up. (p. 94)
John Seed, in a review of "A Gathered Church: The Literature of the English Dissenting Interest, 1700–1930," in The South Carolina Review, Vol. 13, No. 1, Fall, 1980, pp. 93-4.
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[Any account of Davie's] work since 1970 must be at least partly concerned with the tension (at best a creative tension) between Davie and his English audience or, more bluntly, between Davie and England. (p. 39)
The restless, ruminative sense of a mind moving among half-understood echoes and associations informs the poems in The Shires —a far richer book than it at first appears—as well as many of the pieces at the end of the Collected Poems  and in Davie's most recent collection, In the Stopping Train (1977). The circumstances surrounding Davie's emigration to California in 1968, and the poems written at that time, are outside the chronological scope of this volume; but the perplexed and unresolved tensions with England continue to reverberate….
The responses to England contained in The Shires are far from comfortable but they are glancingly, and therefore the more sharply, affectionate: if 'love' has not 'drained away', it has become infinitely complicated. (p. 40)
Behind The Shires, inevitably, is 'Essex', at whose university Davie was Professor of English and which
Better than I can give it
Who have unfinished business
There, with my own failures.
The paradox (not, after all, such an unusual one) is that Davie's 'failures' at Essex produced some strikingly successful poems: the pared-down lucidity of his Essex Poems (1969), a poetic flavour which has been called American but which might equally be described as East Anglian, continues to influence his work. Alongside this, however, is a more disturbing development which becomes clear from a comparison of the excellent Essex Poems with the section of the Collected Poems called 'More Essex Poems': a slackening of control and, at times, a descent into almost hysterical rancour. The Shires is almost (and perhaps surprisingly) free of this, but it disfigures the less successful pieces in In the Stopping Train and among Davie's uncollected poems.
The basic problem concerns Davie's relationship with his audience: and this means Davie's relationship with England for, as Michael Schmidt has pointed out, 'Davie's work, all of it, is beamed towards England. He is writing to us and of us. We are his principal concern' … [see CLC, Vol. 8]. Many of Davie's poems of the late sixties and early seventies chart a loss of confidence in the English audience, exacerbated by the Essex experience and the prevalence of modish, superficial subcultures. One might expect Davie's fury to have abated, given the widening geographical and temporal distance, but if it has (and a poem like 'St. Paul's Revisited' suggests that it hasn't) there remains as a residue an irritating stylistic mannerism. Davie has always tended to be an exclamatory writer: since Essex Poems, though, much of his work has been peppered with obscure and frequently incomplete exclamations: 'They see his face!' ('The Departed'); 'Rancour! Rancour! / Oh patriotic and indignant bird!' ('St. Paul's Revisited'); 'This West! this ocean!' ('Seeing her leave'); 'Now this! / Earthquake!' ('Gemona-del-Friuli, 1961–1976'). Such fragments (shored against his ruins, perhaps) seem intended to shut the reader out; and I think that this defensive exclusion, as it seems to be, of the reader is in fact at least as damaging to the poems as the widely-noticed bitterness which goes along with it. Yet, in an obvious sense, this objection of mine is a naive one: I have just, after all, alluded to The Waste Land and in the same breath complained, like early critics of Eliot, that Davie's work has become obscure and fragmented. My unease stems from the suspicion that Davie is inclined to give his readers a bumpy ride because he feels that they deserve it and that it will be somehow salutary for them: but the effect of this may be to isolate from the poet just that consensus of intelligent readers which he actually seeks to address. There is, as if acknowledging this difficulty, 'A Wistful Poem called "Readers"' in In the Stopping Train which, far from being wistful, is a laboured joke: Davie admits as much in his laboured title.
A solution to this problem of audience is to talk to oneself. That is partly what seems to be happening in the title sequence of In the Stopping Train, where the tension is between the 'I' of the poem and the 'he', 'the man going mad inside me'. (pp. 41-2)
But the relationship between the 'I' and the 'he' is continually shifting, like the equally ambiguous relationship between the 'I' and the 'you' in 'Prufrock'. Perhaps with this model in mind, Davie, like Eliot, astonishes the reader with an abrupt change of perspective at the end of the sequence…. The suggestion is perhaps that there is a kind of external social madness which is quite distinct from the internal personal madness. (p. 43)
'In the Stopping Train' may well by now appear to be baffling, so I had better insist that this is not the case. Its sparseness of syntax and imagery, its angularity of thought do in fact produce a frightening lucidity. The sequence frightens in its cannibalistic ability to devour its potential subject-matter as it goes along: it becomes an extraordinarily and designedly impoverished piece of writing about lacks, gaps, needs. It is undeniably impressive—and properly the focal point of the book which is built around it—but it is not the kind of thing one would wish Davie to attempt too often.
In the Stopping Train, the collection, is a worried and worrying book, reaching out in its skeletal fashion to various antecedents: to Christopher Smart, for instance, in one of the most vivid and successful poems, 'Morning'; or, once again, to Pasternak; or to Davie's own earlier work, as when 'A Spring Song' reshapes the mode of 'Time Passing, Beloved' only to be reshaped—or 'read'—itself in the adjacent 'A Wistful Poem Called "Readers"'. In the final poem, 'Townend, 1976', Davie is at his best—at once topographically accurate and thoughtful, relating the inner and outer worlds so mercilessly wrenched apart in the title sequence. Here, at last, the tension between Davie and his English subject-matter does become creative…. [The opening stanzas of the poem] clearly demonstrate how concrete detail and introspection can work profitably with rather than against each other; they show, too, how successfully Davie's ironic, questioning tone can build upon a clearly visualized starting-point.
Despite this, and despite other distinguished recent poems, Davie's most notable and memorable poetic achievements so far seem to belong to the fifties and the sixties rather than to the seventies. No doubt this is partly a matter of distancing: poetry needs to settle into familiarity before it can be properly judged. But it is also, I think, a matter of Davie's recent preoccupations finding their appropriate expression in his stylish and energetic prose: ideas which can be worked out in prose may prove too intractable to work into poems. This is not to suggest that poems shouldn't contain ideas—far from it—but to wonder whether the rough edges and fragmented syntax of some poems in In the Stopping Train really do justice to the ideas they try to embody. Where the ideas are linked to a clear external subject—as in much of The Shires or in 'Townend, 1976'—the resulting poetry is coherent and moving. The poet should indeed stand, as Forster said of Cavafy, 'at a slight angle to the universe'; but with Davie the angle sometimes seems to grow uncomfortably wide. (pp. 44-5)
Neil Powell, "Donald Davie, Dissentient Voice," in British Poetry Since 1970: A Critical Survey, edited by Peter Jones and Michael Schmidt, Persea Books, Inc., 1980, pp. 39-45.
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A poem, writes Donald Davie in "Ars Poetica," is "a space / Cleared to walk around in." The definition, better than many, seems to apply particularly to the twenty-eight short poems that make up In the Stopping Train…. As we read through the poems here, we encounter, as Davie puts it, "small clearances," each of which, with its distinct boundaries, excludes "the turbulence it was cleared from." Each poem, to use Frost's words, seems "a momentary stay against confusion": it takes us, quietly and skillfully, through twenty or forty or fifty lines to a firm conclusion. While we find no "enormous … spaces" here (even the six-page poem "In the Stopping Train" is really a sequence of short ones), these scanty plots of ground are generally satisfying confines to walk around in.
The poems here have the qualities we expect of Donald Davie: they are quiet, restrained, erudite, carefully wrought—a poetry of statement rather than of image. They are generally public and, in some cases, occasional rather than private or intensely personal. Particular people and places, as they often do with Davie, figure prominently in the collection….
[Davie is] a particularly allusive poet, and as a result, his poems can be, for me at least, difficult to understand without research and rereading. And yet, while some of the poems take time, others are almost immediately accessible and effective. "To a Teacher of French," for example, while certainly not the most ambitious poem in the collection, is a deft, engaging and generous tribute to the "'Fiery' Evans," who gave the speaker the language of Ronsard. In the Stopping Train, it seems to me, is a welcome collection, for the poems it includes, while narrowly focused, often grow richer and more resonant as one comes to know them better.
Michael J. Collins, in a review of "In the Stopping Train and Other Poems," in World Literature Today, Vol. 55, No. 2, Spring, 1981, p. 318.
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Davie as a critic has sometimes seemed to the dazed bystander to be in perpetual motion, perpetual transition from one phase of opinion to another. But many of the same issues recur, newly formulated and presented, but the same; the truth may be that he is perpetually oscillating between sets of opposite opinions. It does not matter which. His criticism always vibrates with the immediate and pressing interest that poetry in its technical, moral, social, and spiritual realities has for him; it tingles with an air of urgency that vitalizes literary discussion; not infrequently it gives off a brimstone stench of literary warfare. Sometimes I wish he would retire from the fight long enough to settle the internal conflict of ideas. In the fifties the most intelligent and ardent polemicist for the Movement, Davie was also the quickest to see its shortcomings. The pieces in Trying to Explain, mainly about poetry, his own and others', were all published in the seventies; they cover a variety of topics, but in this context what is most striking is the persistence, alongside new interests and some changes of outlook, of Movement attitudes and habits of mind. The moral recoil from the cult of the lyric poet as "one who is absolved from all civic responsibilities and all moral restraints" is as sharp as it ever was. His scorn for "the sublime," in ancient or modern dress, has not relaxed. "Disaffection, resentment, acedia, malaise, 'alienation'—all those fashionable conditions, precisely because in all of them the sufferer 'doesn't know what is wrong with him,' produce in art 'the sublime.'" This comes from an essay in praise of the "clarity" of anger. Is there no room, then, for a lucid uncertainty?… One of the most interesting essays is about Allen Tate's poetry; as so often with Davie at his best, it discloses a deep division of feeling, a fruitful indecision. He speaks of Tate as a great poet and at the same time deplores his "impatient neglect of the literal meaning of his poems in favour of their symbolical or (his own word) anagogical meanings." This is sound radical criticism and is in line with the Movement attack upon the sanctification of metaphor. His way of expressing dissatisfaction with "this besetting fault of Tate's writing" elsewhere in the essay, on the other hand, betrays the weaker side of Movement aesthetics—a concern for getting on good terms with the reader. "One could not fail to remark in [his poems] the lack of that seductive suavity which won us over to Ransom…. Ransom, Hart Crane, even in his austere way Winters, were winning writers in a way that Tate has seldom deigned to be." One may rate social and civic virtues highly and still judge "suavity" and "winning," words from a vocabulary of social charm to which Davie sometimes resorts, to be too lightweight for the purpose; if they are intended to be faintly self-deprecating or provocative (an English tone that doesn't travel well), then their arch modesty undersells a valuable case. (pp. 475-76)
Michael Kirkham, "English Poetry Since 1950," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXXIX, No. 3, Summer, 1981, pp. 474-79.∗
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Talk of Donald Davie's 'new' collection would not be strictly accurate. Even parts of the title sequence, Three for Water Music, are borrowed from his last volume, In the Stopping Train, and the bulk of the book is simply a reprint of his earlier work, The Shires. 'Three Poems of Sicily' are shared between the two Mediterranean pieces, 'The Fountain of Cyanë' and 'The Fountain of Arethusa' which sandwich the very English ('deuce, Fred Perry serving …') 'Wild Boar Clough'. Myth and personal memories (of childhood, 'Infidel youth' and shrine-seeking maturity) mingle with musings on familiar Davie themes in series of separate poems employing a wide range of imitative styles. Here Davie borrows the metre of Shelley's 'Arethusa' to celebrate not only the original poem, but his own precociousness—and to pay homage to his mother whose love of literature made it possible:
In a parlour game,
Required to name
Mountains beginning with A,
Proudly, aged ten,
I pronounced it then:
The Akrokeraunian Mountain!
The egotistical impulse gains momentum through the rest of the volume, The Shires resembling nothing so much as an album of snapshots in which the peripatetic professor features prominently, while the 40-odd counties assume the role of Hall's-Distemper boards. (p. 19)
Simon Rae, "Light on the Water," in New Statesman, Vol. 102, No. 2633, September 4, 1981, pp. 19-20.∗
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Donald Davie's new sequence of poems, 'Three for Water-Music' [in the volume of the same title] …, refers not only to pleasant 18th-century entertainments by water, but to something like Yeats's 'words for music, perhaps': or like Eliot's Four Quartets, to which the sequence declares some relationship. For Davie's three poems lie somewhere between late Symbolist poetry and a more quietly literal tradition of English topography; they are a species of modern half-abstract landscape poem, which locate in the real certain transparencies of thought. They show concept both created and creating, as a fountain might be heard to rise and fall again. And indeed of the poet's three locations which have given rise to epiphanies, the first and last are, in fact, Sicilian 'fountains' or pools, each named after an Ovidian legend of loss of love; the second is a brown pool in a torrential stream between steep English hillsides. The sequence, recording 'Epiphanies all around us / Always perhaps', in a sense finds no answer to its opening question: 'And what's to be made of that?' Any sense of answer or reconciliation is confined to the expressive forms of the poems themselves, which always—like music—imply the silence behind them….
Donald Davie is on occasion a superlative poet, and [Three for Water-Music] is one of the occasions. Reticence and a love of the theoretical often combine to make his communications a triumph of style. Even the unegoistic Eliot allows ghosts and Furies to move through his Quartets, possessing and obsessing them and directing an imperious control over the reader: there are no such ghosts in 'Three for Water-Music', which in fact insists on the absence of any such presences…. This absence of the explainable beyond the renewal of the self-containedness of the image … gives the sequence its beautiful and tough purity, as of those 'clear-glassed windows / The clear day looking in' which the poet remembers from early Dissenting chapels. But it produces an art always close enough to the tacit to make a reader grateful for the relative 'impurities' (what Davie has called elsewhere, in connection with Wordsworth, 'the smell of the human') in the latter part of this book, which consists of 'The Shires'.
'The Shires' … is a sequence of 40 short or shortish poems lacking the manifest philosophical concerns of the poems that precede it. It offers itself as an easy, even casual topographical record of England, county by county in alphabetical sequence…. [This is] an extremely original gazetteer, whose aesthetic nature places it rightly in the same volume as 'Three for Water-Music'. The very word 'shires' reminds us by its archaism of what we know already—that England like other known places is always slipping into the past, always changing its nature from the remembered. Moreover the 'sense of place' is a feeling often keenest in absence or exile …; like other senses of loss, it occasions self-questioning….
Davie builds up in the end an extraordinarily clear, sharp and pungent sense of England. But he does so by first clearing the ground of illusion (almost every poem begins with a harsh disclaimer, as 'Berkshire', 'Don't care for it …', 'Derbyshire', 'We never made it …'). The fragments of memory come to carry truth because the real human topographies, so the poems seem to say, depend on certain stripped and wintry conditions in life itself. Thus Rutland, the 'Joke county, smallest in England', is real because it once held
Friend, Bill Partridge. Dead now. Had you
How heavy that weighs, how wide the narrowest
Because all space forms itself round the loved, who become more and more, as time passes, the loved dead, all counties really are alike 'the smallest'; just as all these poems begin in their sharp wit of detachment as 'joke' poems—but jokes that nonetheless hold in their bluntness, their fragmentariness, their ridiculously wooden personal allusions, a whole unjokey monumental statement about human limits and human value. Thus 'Leicestershire' ends impassively:
At Loughborough, I remember,
A man too little regarded
(Dead since), V. C. Clinton-
Several views of Yeats.
There is a fine art, given this essentially English context, even in the balanced placing of the hyphen. Everything in 'The Shires' has a decorous 'English' smallness in this sense, a perfect art of self-containment and throw-away grace and wit, all the effects as tacit as they are taciturn. Indeed, the ironies, silences and negations in Davie's art are clearly conditions of their opposite, as a love of country may dictate a refusal to be mindlessly 'patriotic'….
Davie's work has integrity in the simple sense: it holds together, and preoccupations recur in different forms and throw light on each other alike in verse and in several kinds of critical prose. In both verse and prose his reflections centre on a quality of Christian civilisation that may be seen as 'Pulsing through history and out of it': a tradition of life and belief that seeks a true and classic human standard while setting itself against such aspects of the merely comfortably established as are spurious or vicious. He pursues a definition of existence lived out (in favourite phrases) 'with the grain' but 'against the current'. (p. 5)
Barbara Everett, "Poetry and Christianity," in London Review of Books, February 4 to February 18, 1982, pp. 5-7.
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Donald Davie speaks up for Old Dissent—for its religious life and the literature it generated—with what might be thought of as an aptly persistent dissentience. He naturally believes he must dissent from the bulk of Dissent's usual enemies. Even more, though, he feels led to dissent from some of the most insistent of Dissent's friends. Crustily, he stands between, on the one hand, the scornful majority who borrow the terminologies of Matthew Arnold for their dismissals of all Dissent as barbarously uncultured philistinism, and, on the other, that colonising minority who want to specialise Dissent into the ranks of the progressive and leftist.
It's an awkward, contentious corner to hold out in. Davie knowingly boxed himself into it in his Clark Lectures, A Gathered Church (1976), and these more recent lectures and articles [collected in Dissentient Voice: Enlightenment and Christian Dissent] show him still contentedly there, still jabbing foxily away with intent to outrage his chosen opponents. His beloved 18th-century Dissenters, so his argument goes, didn't just happen to hit off a clutch of memorable hymns. Watts and Charles Wesley, Newton and Doddridge wrote their great poems because their religion sited them comfortably within the Age of Reason. Nobody was more intellectually serious and reasonable than Watts and Co., with their abstractions and their theological paradoxes. The Enlightenment was—and enlightenment still is—as much Christian as it is anything. The members of an 18th-century Baptist or Congregationalist church were shaped by a toughly reasoning faith expressed in a strong-minded, plain-speaking poetry. They enjoyed Christ and culture. Which is, or so Davie intends, one in the eye for their snobbish, 'cultured' despisers….
Davie's case for Dissent harnesses his powerful hostility towards verbal muddling. Getting us straight about the difference between unorthodox Unitarians and orthodox Dissenters—a distinction Davie shows the tricksy, trimming Unitarians uncandidly and successfully fudging over in the later 18th century—will teach us to care for semantic clarity and precision, to 'take seriously what words say, each word, severally and together'—which is just what 'a good poem' does. Furthermore, if we read a Flavel or a Watts attentively, we may be saved from what in a hectic moment Davie sneers at as the soggily warm 'steam' of socialism's assumptions and language.
Davie knows that his egregiously huge conceptual leaps and links are likely to give us pause. They're designed to. Giving, and being given, pause are favourite Davie activities. 'Here we need to pause,' he will say, stopping us from rattling heedlessly on through some difficult stretch of Dissenting history or religious poetry that we'd rather avoid being discomfited by. He loves the unblinkable, the disconcerting, the rebarbatively exact bit of Christian doctrine that one of his favourite hymn-writers hasn't shunned. 'His dying crimson like a robe / Spreads o'er his body on the Tree'; the squeamish Christians who rarely sing these words could do with more of Watts's bleakly uncompromising and orthodox challenges. Flinching softness of doctrine, tolerance, liberalism: they've let the wily Unitarians, and all the other traducers of truth and true Dissent, get away with their language-ruining hypocrisies, prevarications and distortions. Hard sayings, these. But then Davie thinks Anglicans are exhorted in Advent to 'meditate on "the four last things"—Death, Sin, Hell, and Judgment'. No Heaven, you see; only Sin. No wonder Davie has little time for 19th-century Nonconformists—who added to orthodoxy a fifth last thing, the idea of the welcomable rescue of the saints from earth's end-time distresses. They called it the Rapture.
Davie's unwarm, unenraptured kind of Christianity, and the presumptuous critical and social assumptions into whose service it's pressed, are by no means new. T. S. Eliot also made play with the need for orthodoxy in faith and literature, for tradition and monarchism against all liberal practitioners ('knee-jerk liberals', Davie calls them) and democratisers (Davie approves a right-wing Dissenter deploring 'the tyranny of a depraved multitude'). And just as Eliot was cagey about his debt to Arnold and slippery about monarchists like Lancelot Andrewes and the Commonwealth poets Milton and Marvell, so Davie is cagey about his own debt to Eliot—after all, he was an ex-Unitarian turned Anglican—and slippery in lots of his own readings of poems and histories…. Davie's sacrifice of 19th-century Nonconformity, and Browning in particular, to the Arnoldians' 'smug grocer' scenario is appallingly sweeping. His put-down of the Rev. Thomas Binney's hymn 'Eternal Light! Eternal Light!' looks wilfully programmatic. His enthusiasm for the 20th-century Calvinist poet Jack Clemo is carefully silent about the grislier aspects of what is essentially second-hand Jack Powys eroticism, about the awful tosh his 'Royal Wedding' poem … really is, and about his hot-gospelling admiration for such anti-culture Christians as Oral Roberts and C. T. Studd. On such occasions, one could do with rather more of that candour Davie rightly blames those Unitarians for lacking.
Valentine Cunningham, "Dissenting Davie," in The Listener, Vol. 108, No. 2775, August 26, 1982, p. 21.
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Donald Davie's critical arguments are often happily reminis-cential, and his reminiscences are often happily argumentative, so the difference in kind between these two admirable books doesn't make for any great difference of temper. The critical essays which make up Dissentient Voice: Enlightenment and Christian Dissent are an act of making good; they fulfil the promise and they repair the deficiencies of Davie's earlier book on Dissent and culture, A Gathered Church. The recollections gathered as These the Companions are an act of making permanent, with such permanence as time has; they fulfil a promise often made and often kept in Davie's poems but which these days asks, too, for the expatiating element of prose: the exercise of 'the faculty of pious memory'.
There is no reason to question the sincerity of the foreword's concluding insistence: 'For certainly I'm not writing to vindicate myself, if only because in this book I am not the principal character. You must bear with the first person singular only so as to have me introduce you to persons and places and ambiences that have a singularity and a value such as I won't claim for myself.' The trouble is that this is an insistence. The swell and throb of the title, These the Companions (as against, say, Charles Tomlinson's recent recollections, Some Americans), are evidence, not just that Davie will over-forgive Ezra Pound almost anything ('Lordly men are to earth o'ergiven / these the companions'), but also that he needed to underline the self-abnegation. Sincerity, like patriotism (which Davie has too), is not enough. Moving as these recollections often are, in their evocation of places (the West Riding, the Arctic Circle, Cambridge or California) and of people (Douglas Brown, Yvor Winters, an early love, fellow-sailors), his touch in this prose is less secure than in either the kind of prose which he has most practised or the poems which figure within the book as at once asides and nubs. You may say, and believe, that you 'are not the principal character', but you can't help sounding like it when you use such a locution as 'when I and Sean White took him to Dublin Castle'….
Still, Davie's not being entirely in possession of his means, in a kind of writing relatively new to him, does little to lessen the worth of his living gratitude. Since he is what used to be called a good hater and a bonny fighter ('I am happy in my glittering envelope, and will fight those who would puncture it,' 'I am not prepared to give up my inheritance without a fight'), it is notable that he vindicates such praises in the only way they can be vindicated: by manifesting that he is, too, a man of love. This is not, to put it mildly, a claim usually made for the man. But his love of literature and of literary studies (in descending but not demeaning order); his love of landscape, of rocks and roots (human nature is fine, but scenery is in some respects finer); his love of those who taught him and of those whom he has taught: these are crowned by a feat of the book, its establishing the continuing presence of the people most important to Davie—those so near and dear as not to be companions exactly, his wife and children. They are seldom mentioned, they are indeed, as he says, 'taken for granted'—but not unthinkingly or perfunctorily. Davie's beliefs about privacy, in life and in literature, made it essential that he in no way parade his family, his marriage, his domesticities. He has managed to convey that his family is not at all an element in his book because it is something more important, the element of the book. He has managed to convey, not only that he loves his wife, but that she—who does not get a word in edgeways—loves him, edges and all.
The intimate relation of such covert love to Davie's overt hatreds is akin to his great strength as a critic, his mounting of polemic from which he can then take off, since it is entirely continuous with his more highly imaginative criticism. (p. 5)
It is one of the many paradoxes of Davie's achievement and character that this apostle of temperance, moderation, coolness and privacy should so often sound (my emphasis) as if he were in thrall to their opposites. He will say that 'the Cantabrigian ethos … leaves no margin for caprice', where the weight put upon 'caprice' takes from it all possibility of the free-floating provisional levity which it ostensibly values. He will speak of 'a specifically Cambridge way of putting privileged emphasis on the verbal arts', in the act of using italics to do that which he is deploring. Those who believe Davie to be a bundle of contradictions will—as he does—call up the old Essex days, and will recall that he was then publicly described as touched with the wing of madness. Those of us who—through all the trials which he inflicts (most of them putting us justly on trial, others a bit trying)—still hold to the confidence that he is the best, the most fertile, critic of the generations after Eliot, Leavis and Empson will see the most important of these contradictions as paradoxes; will judge that the paradoxes are fecund and revelatory when they are in touch with the Christian paradoxes to which Davie is dedicated; and will believe that, at 60, he is unique in offering so principled a resistance to Yeats's famous slice of neatness: for sometimes we can make out of the quarrel with ourselves nothing but rhetoric, and sometimes we can make out of the quarrel with others poetry.
Davie has so many positive capabilities that it is hard to know just what to make of his so seeming to lack the Keatsian negative one. It is not so much that he reaches irritably after fact and reason, and will not admit an aperçu unless it can be theorised. But he is, by temperament and by conviction, hostile to openmindedness, which he sees as liberalism's dogma. When, in a related thought, Keats said 'that Dilke was a Man who cannot feel he has a personal identity unless he has made up his Mind about every thing,' he prophesied Davie—or rather Davie the critic. Certain things are occluded from such a man. But Davie can reply that ours is not an age in which people are too much or too candidly making up their minds about things, but one in which doubt is the one thing undoubted. Literature is praised as all questions and no answers; interpretation as determinedly indeterminate; and pyrrhonism as the one thing not to be sceptical of.
Granted, tentativeness has access to certain truths, and they are mostly truths by which Davie does not set enough store: but the tentative does not have a monopoly of the truth, and there is such a thing as the falsely tentative, much in evidence. Davie is against slides and glides. Dissentient Voice is out to rescue Dissent from its kidnappers. Dissent was not and is not 'a stage on the way to enlightened unbelief', or endemically of the Left; it has often been loyalist and royalist, and the takeover by E. P. Thompson is exposed as the irreligious left-winger's imperialism. Davie is not only stringent, he is cogent…. [He] pays Thompson the supreme compliment of taking his statements more seriously than he had taken them himself. Davie is unusual among the most influential critics of our day in both proffering and inviting the compliment of rational opposition.
Where then should he be opposed? Wherever he allows his own polemical powers a license such as he rightly refuses to Thompson's. 'Indeed it is surely obvious that in any age it is the conservatives, wary of departing from precedents embodying the wisdom of the forefathers, who are least complacent about the advances achieved by themselves and their contemporaries.' This has too much rhetorical backing: it is as if he had moved from 'in any age it is the conservatives', to 'it is obvious that in any age …', to 'it is surely obvious …', to 'Indeed it is surely obvious….' The man who is sceptical about social protest doth protest too much. In any case, there is no reason why those who are 'wary of departing from precedents embodying the wisdom of the forefathers' should not be handsomely complacent as to 'the advances achieved by themselves and their contemporaries', any more than those conservative artists who are—in Eliot's words—original with the minimum of alteration need be any less complacent about their achievement than their maximising rivals. At such moments, Davie is less dissentient than insentient, as he is when he limits his vigilance to 'Leftist politicos', as if there were no such things as Rightist ones…. It is not that Davie lacks magnanimity: rather that he wrongly thinks it prudent to ration it.
So when he half-admires Thompson's 'furious impatience', we are alerted to the need on occasion to recall Davie to his own highest standards. Davie deplores 'a tone that is brutal, overemphatic, overconfident': 'It is, above all, impatient and therefore irreverent. And it is certainly to be heard at times in Browning, as in Charles Kingsley, where Gerard Manley Hopkins heard it and characterised it unforgivingly but vividly when he envisaged a man starting up from the breakfast table, his mouth full of bacon and eggs, declaring that he will stand no damn'd nonsense.' Does it matter, except to patient pedantry, that this wasn't exactly what Hopkins said about Browning? (pp. 5-6)
The instance is trivial but the principle is not. For the impatience has become Davie's.
Sometimes, then, like a man who says he will stand no non-sense, he utters some of the kind which goes with saying such a thing. His impatience with England moves him to rhetorical questioning: 'Where else but in England, I ask myself, does a clear-cut disagreement about a professional matter, for instance about the proper diction for poetry, get itself so immediately cross-hatched with shadows thrown from irrelevancies like egalitarian humanism or wounded amour-propre?' But this violates Davie's own deepest sense of the issues, for he elsewhere rightly refuses to accept that there is such a thing as 'a professional matter' when it comes to language and its properties and responsibilities. Purity of Diction in English Verse took seriously, in themselves, the concepts of purity and chastity; it did not countenance the dehumanised professionalism which would segregate the proper diction for poetry as a purely professional matter. Again, when Davie, as a Christian, dissents from the 'spiritual twilight' which he says he used to share with Leavis and Yvor Winters, he seems to me then to falsify his own clarity when he goes on at once to say: 'I think it has to be the case that such crepuscular uncertainty about First and Last Things disperses itself, like a miasma, through the crevices of thought about apparently quite other things, accustoming us to approximations merely, and twilight zones in our thinking, about such entirely secular matters as the proper language for poetry.' For he cannot with entire honesty—cannot without some self-suppression of the wrong sort—invoke the proper language of poetry as an entirely secular matter. He is defecting from an apophthegm of his own, one that should be as respected by an atheist like me as by a Christian like Davie: 'If he [God] exists, there is no equation that he can be left out of.'
It matters when Davie travesties his opponents, not least because he then wrongs himself too. 'My Voltairean friends … surely misjudge when they suppose that dangerous irrationality is peculiar to religious life.' I simply don't believe that anybody as stupid as that has ever been granted the friendship of Donald Davie. Ian Watt and Matthew Hodgart, who are the friends who had just been mentioned in the vicinity of Voltaire, have been able to write as well as they have done about Conrad and about Johnson just because their respect for the Enlightenment has never been so fatuous as to 'suppose that dangerous irrationality is peculiar to religious life.'… In so disrespecting those who honourably, even if it were misguidedly, oppose 'dangerous irrationality' in religious life, this ceases to respect itself. Davie has yielded to the one thing which his principles and tone least allow him to indulge: disingenuousness.
'I am, and have always been—let's face it—a prude.' As manipulation, this is a brilliant way into an account of Davie's rejection of erotic vulgarity and sensationalism in art and in life: but as part of a responsible deploring of those vices as a manipulation, it is lamentable. For of course Davie is not saying that he is and has always been a prude: he is saying, without taking the righteous rap for it, that he is and has always been a man of honourable and uncorrupted pudeur, of truly sensitive propriety. Naturally this puts him in an awkward position as an autobiographer, for it is a proud claim. But that is what it should be offered as, not with the glissade of a man who, not wishing to sound like a prig, affects to believe that he is a prude.
It is because a great part of Davie's enterprise is the recalling of people to their own professed principles that he himself must not be granted exemption. For otherwise it would be impudence and not audacity in him to have rebuked T. S. Eliot for, of all things, an excessive liberalism…. Much of these two books is an engagement with Eliot. Eliot's shade might murmur the words which Kingsley Amis recently used of Philip Larkin: 'Sometimes he seems reactionary even to me.' (p. 6)
Christopher Ricks, "Armadillo," in London Review of Books, September 16 to October 6, 1982, pp. 5-6.
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The imagination, Donald Davie says, is concerned with "one particular person, in one place, at one time, in one sort of weather." Therefore [in "These the Companions"] he is recreating the individuals, some of them obscure, and the places, some well off the beaten path, that contributed to his growth as a writer. He is speaking of "companions," individuals who have meant something to him personally, rather than those he has met in his career as poet, teacher and critic. Like the Russian novelists he admires, he aims to render things as they were. He is not drawing morals, for, he says, he does not have "the heart for it," but is making a truthful record so that the people, places and times he is describing may invite "different reflections from those of the narrator." In this I think he has succeeded, for as I read about his adventures and considered his reflections, my reflections were frequently very different from his….
[Mr. Davie's frankness] invites a certain sort of reader to feel superior. He says that he has been a "coward before life," a prig and a prude. To write so doubtfully about oneself is to put a weapon in the hands of envy and malice. Most writers only admit to failings—promiscuous sexual activity, for example—that most people do not regard as failings. In reading Mr. Davie's admissions, I had, as it were, to protect him from himself, from his zeal for explaining his limitations. He is not a prig now, if he ever was. He is not a "coward before life." He is a writer, and a writer can't immerse himself in human relationships but must stand a little way off. About prudishness, however, I think he may be right. He tells us that sex is "in the last analysis comical" and that Joyce's "Ulysses," though great, is a "smutty and sniggering book." Apparently he missed the comic passages. (p. 9)
[On] the pros and cons of having an imagination he is an expert. Is it possible, he muses, that the stability of the English—demonstrated by their resistance to the Nazis—came of their inability to imagine defeat? Other peoples with a more vivid imagination (the Poles and Irish, for example) have paid a terrible price for having it. But he asks, is survival the test of the validity of attitudes and ideas? Here, on the verge of chaos or perhaps of a revelation, Mr. Davie ceases to pursue his train of thought.
This is where I find him dissatisfying. Sometimes I get the feeling from Mr. Davie's reflections that I have had in conversations with English men and women, that they retire behind a wall of "good taste." You think you are having a discussion and find you are at a club. "Who outside England," says Mr. Davie, "thinks any longer that the making of a point is what a poem can or should be concerned with?" I could tell him, but he does not stay for an answer….
Speaking of critics who emasculate poetry by treating it as though it were prose, Mr. Davie says, "I could name names, and they would be distinguished ones." Why doesn't he name them?
The trouble with this kind of reticence is that judgments seem to be made on the basis of personal taste rather than thought. Yet Mr. Davie's range of sympathy is impressive. He has written about Ezra Pound at one extreme and Thomas Hardy at the other…. Mr. Davie's recollections are very readable, in fact, one is likely to go through them too fast, looking for nuggets. The chapters about Russia during the war, when he was stationed at Polyarno and Archangel on the Arctic Circle, have the realism and a sense of spiritual space corresponding to the immensity of the land that one finds in Russian writing. The people are equally memorable—best of all, a statuesque Russian woman with a can of sugared beer in one hand and a raw fish in the other. Mr. Davie also captures the atmosphere of Trinity College, Dublin, and landscapes in California and Italy. (p. 22)
Louis Simpson, "Friends and Opinions and Influences," in The New York Times Book Review, November 21, 1982, pp. 9, 22.
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If poems were made solely of ideas there would be few more interesting poets than Donald Davie. For his seriousness about ideas is never in doubt: he ponders, questions, argues with himself and others, and it seems inevitable that, reading him, you want to argue back. Davie's [Collected Poems 1970–1983] is, in short, remarkable for its prose virtues, although these have more to do with articulate energy than with purity of diction. For he can be very clumsy and his ear is by no means true. This is especially the case whenever he tries to move towards the colloquial or the demotic. It is not merely that his lines lack grace, or that they quite fail to suggest an attentiveness to those rhythms that imply human depths tapped through speech utterance. It is also that although he requires us to be good listeners he is not a good listener himself. This is perhaps a consequence of his donnishness, of a literariness that seems ill at ease with the familiar. At all events there are some remarkably phoney moments in his poetry. 'The beery ram that mounted / His niece and, hissing "Belt up", had her.' How do you hiss 'Belt up'? And can you really believe in the desire of a poet to make it new who writes of 'a hulking great villain' or who carelessly repeats 'there's' 'theirs' and 'there's' in the space of three lines?
Well, yes, you can. Because set against these faults, and in spite of a lack of canorousness so great that trying to speak his lines you often feel as though you have a mouth full of pebbles, there are those undeniable merits that keep you reading. In fact, Davie is very readable, perhaps because his literary, donnish qualities compel him to take the reader seriously, so that although you often feel talked at you never feel talked down to. I do not intend this to be faint praise. There are not many poets who can communicate such passionate interest in the written word or who can match Davie's searching out of a variety of frequently surprising verse forms and prosodic techniques, all of which he puts to exhilarating use. At his best Davie is an ambassador for poetry and, whether abrasive or courteous, always candid, open, vulnerable even. Of the poems new to me in this collection I particularly admire 'Artifax in Extremis', 'Well-Found Poem' and 'Catullus on Friendship', with its inimitable, rasping, half-affectionate, half-maddened tone, its very real testimony to the exactions required by a marriage of minds.
John Lucas, "A Mouthful of Pebbles," in New Statesman, Vol. 106, No. 2733, August 5, 1983, p. 23.∗
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Donald Davie's latest book, Three for Water Music, is a composite of three reflections on water and the long poem "The Shires," Davie's idiosyncratic commentary on each of the English shires. The whole book is dense and finely balanced, another welcome product by one of the master-workers of our language.
In "The Fountain of Cyanë," Davie writes about poetry with the fluency of Dryden, but a wholly modern irreverence for mythical subjects and a reflexive irony towards poetry's ability to gloze over even the most terrible events. The occasion is his visit to the pool of Cyanë in Sicily where, on Ovid's account, Persephone was carried off by the Lord of the Underworld and her grief-stricken companion Cyanë wept herself into a pool. (p. 583)
Considering the springs of inspiration and the poet's way of drawing upon them, Davie argues that poetry requires formality, but not so that it suppresses the anarchic violence which is part of the truth of reality. Language should crack a little for grief into fault-traceries on the perfection of form. Epiphanies "like the closed-off / Precincts all right, but never / When those exult in their closures." Moreover, poetry requires a subject which, though it may not have the necessity of existence, should at least be a postulate useful for making sense of life, one of those permanent myths that explain, for instance, why we endure long winter nights and trust in the return of summer's daughter.
"Wild Boar Clough" attests to Davie's strongly ambivalent feelings about English Protestantism in all its religious, political and cultural ramifications. For a Puritan poet can only be a "Burning, redundant candle, / Invisible at noon."… "The Fountain of Arethousa" mirrors the poet again, this time with the past behind him. In "Gratitude, Need and Gladness" he acknowledges his debt towards the inhabitants of the everyday for the small glories he finds there. Thus it is not Shelley's grandiosity he praises, but rather his own mother's way of reciting Shelley, which first turned him to poetry and to which he turns again now, in memoriam. (pp. 583-84)
Emily Grosholz, "Master-Workers and Others," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXXVI, No. 3, Autumn, 1983, pp. 582-92.∗
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At a time when we are accustomed to thinking about the lives of poets more in terms of marital chaos, alcoholism, and breakdown than in terms of poetry, it is refreshing to read Donald Davie's memoir [These the Companions], which not only is an episodic account of events and personalities but also is a serious meditation on his lifelong involvement with literature. The two acquaintances whom he remembers most acutely and generously are F. R. Leavis and Yvor Winters, writers he portrays as puritans in their thinking about art. By puritan he means a person of principle, someone for whom not all moral and intellectual judgments are relative, someone who insists "that in the arts, as between the genuine and the fake, or between the achieved and the unachieved, there cannot be any halfway house."
These the Companions is not a book of unqualified praise for puritanism so much as it is a deeply felt reaction against the tendency in himself and in important friends and mentors to divide too brutally the sheep from the goats, the genuine from the fake. What animates his assessment of men like Winters and Leavis and what stands uneasily back of his assessment of his own intellectual and literary habits is a troubled awareness of how an appetite for rigorous and absolute criteria, however necessary, can constrict one's sympathies; yet at the same time he also can acknowledge how sympathy uninformed by principle can degenerate into what he calls "a lax eclecticism," a warm diffusive live-and-let-live attitude which in its impact on the practising artist can be just as harmful. Though at times his antithetical thinking seems like mere ambivalence, for the most part it is a form of generosity or evenhandedness. One might even call it a kind of Keatsian disinterestedness, for it enables Davie to enter imaginatively into positions he opposes or distrusts not to evade judgment but to ground judgment in sympathetic understanding, to judge from the inside, not to label and dismiss. (p. lxviii)
Nowhere is Davie's inclusiveness—his refusal to settle for comforting simplifications—more apparent than in his comments on poetry. The writers of his generation, he tells us, fought their way into print "in the teeth of an irrationalist theory of poetry." Though he appears to align himself here with a strictly rationalist view of poetry, in another chapter he insists that art works arise, "not exclusively but necessarily," out of "caprice … that free-running, freely associating, arbitrary and gratuitous play of mind." In his thinking, poetry integrates both classical and romantic tendencies, the spontaneous and deliberately shaped, the emotional and intellectual. Davie's unwavering commitment to this ideal justifies his bitter response to someone who says he cannot decide whether, as a poet, he wants to be like Doctor Johnson or like Rimbaud: "It is such a clever thing to say, and so shallow! I want to be a poet of feeling, as Doctor Johnson is, and Rimbaud also." His own poems … illustrate these generous ambitions. On the one hand he can write movingly in the discursive formal style of "Among Artisans' Houses"; yet on the other hand he can write with just as much success, with just as much feeling, in the experimental style of "Petit-Thouars."… (p. lxx)
What These the Companions shows us is how unnecessarily pinched and inflexible our judgments and assumptions about poetry are, turning what should be mutually implicatory possibilities into mutually exclusive ones. That Davie refuses to choose exclusively between Johnson and Rimbaud, that he desires to bring the widest range of faculties to bear upon the widest range of experience, is finally what makes his work so troubling and unpredictable to those who seek in it the refuge of simplistic categories. That inclusiveness makes Donald Davie one of the most valuable and engaging poet-critics that we have. (pp. lxx, lxxii)
Alan Shapiro, "Generous Puritan," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. XCI, No. 4, Fall, 1983, pp. lxviii, lxx, lxxii.
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There are of course many reasons to be grateful for Donald Davie's continuing presence, but after reading the most recent poems in his volume of collected poems from the years since 1970 [Collected Poems 1970–1983] … I decided that one of the reasons was that he rhymed. Rhyme, so conspicuously absent in the volumes considered here, is present in Davie's late poem "Artifex in Extremis," which begins with "Let him rehearse the gifts reserved for age / Much as the poet Eliot did" and goes on to explore the consciousness of a dying artist. This exploration is given strength and shape by its rhymes…. The new poems from The Battered Wife (1982) include, notably, the title poem, "Screech Owl," "Having No Ear," "Siloam," "Three Beyond," and "Two From Ireland," in the last of which the older poet looks back on his younger self, once a don at Trinity College, Dublin. Now, returning in 1977 to the country of the "troubles," he finds himself oddly charmed…. As always, to read this poet is to experience intelligence, control, and a quotient of obscurity; but … also a lyric of song. The title of one of these poems, "Having No Ear," is about listening to music. But Davie's ear is in his poetry. (pp. 340-42)
William H. Pritchard, "Aboard the Poetry Omnibus," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXXVII, No. 2, Summer, 1984, pp. 327-42.∗