Davie, Donald 1922–
A British poet, critic, editor, and translator, Davie writes accomplished, stylized verse. His is a disciplined, technically polished poetry that is often both elegant and compressed. As a critic, he admires the structure and purity of eighteenth-century literature, and is against certain modernism, as well as the Romanticism of the forties. Often considered overly academic, Davie has shifted among various schools of poetic thought. He has recently experimented with confessional poetry and with looser verse forms. (See also CLC, Vols. 5, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Of all the first-rate poets of the age, Donald Davie is the most notably reactionary. If only with some strain, we might see him, to advantage, as mining in the great ascetic vein of contemporary art, where the classical spirit thins away—as in Rothko, Bresson, Sarraute, Beckett, Cage—in ever starker forms. And yet Davie stands far to the right of most of his fellow ascetics—indeed, within hailing distance of the eighteenth century. In tone, diction, and verse form, he often recalls the late Augustan poets, of whom he has written well and whom he has also anthologised. Above all he has tried, like the Augustans, to be urbane: to voice (in words he quotes from Matthew Arnold) "the tone and spirit of the center." This is reactionary indeed. For of course there is no longer any center. Or the center is but a maelstrom, a contention. (p. 66)
[It] is just the poet's voice, and only this, that we hear speaking in Davie's poetry. It could not be otherwise. "To make poetry out of moral commonplace," Davie notes, "a poet has to make it clear that he speaks not in his own voice (that would be impertinent) but as the spokesman of a social tradition."… [To] "make poetry out of moral commonplace," as Davie tries to do, when the commonplace itself seems damaged, indeed marooned—indeed, forlorn—does require something like impertinence; and rapping on roving knuckles with yardsticks borrowed from old classrooms, impertinently using the word "impertinence" with its haughty assumption of determinate absolutes, what Davie himself exemplifies, we may feel, is not "the tone and spirit" of any center, but something more courageous and significant, not to say lonely: the individual man working out the necessities of his conscience. Moreover, what really fires this conscience, we may feel, is not at all being at the center, whatever that may happen to be in any age, but being right: right about the need for civilized restraint, for faith in the idea of civilization itself. We hear in Davie's poetry a voice that will speak out in spite of its knowledge of the indifference or incredulity that awaits it—a voice consciously coming, not from the center of contemporary culture, but from out on the edge, in a kind of nagging nostalgia for an austerer day, when men lived and died by Nonconformist lights, or for Reason, Loyalty, Restraint, the Right. It is the voice of a conscience that—protestingly—finds itself left behind.
Davie's conscience is … more complex than I have yet suggested—or than he himself seems quite to have grasped. Almost dramatically self-divided, it contains its own principle of self-correction. It is larger and wiser, as it were, than Davie himself, since Davie, at any one time, embodies but half of it. There is, however, some justice in emphasizing its jaundiced and vigilant side; for there can be no doubt that Davie himself is partial to it. Indeed, it often seems that Davie has taken it as his peculiar role among contemporary poets to be perversely pure and dour—to knock on the...
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ceiling shaken by the reckless goings-on of the present with the broom of the Puritan (or simply the reasonable) past. And if he has made too much of this, cramming himself into a niche that is really too small for him and from which, now and again, he has had to break out and stretch his limbs and take the air, still the niche is of his own carving—is in its measure congenial to him. And, having assumed it so often, he has indeed inclined us to regard him as the poet of "urbane" and reactionary admonitions, partial as this identity must seem in a final view. And certainly he has assumed it often enough to force us to ask what effect it has had on his art. (pp. 66-7)
[To] be an "urbane poet," if one is indeed a poet, is to be out of line with oneself, and out of line with poetry. The chief effect of Davie's attempt to be urbane—and not only in the Arnoldian sense but in the root sense of "civilized, polished, refined, witty"—has been a waste of his poetic abilities, a silencing while lesser instruments are played. In much of his work, Davie has gone through the motions of poetry, and given the result its name; but the rope he has walked has been utilitarian clothesline, its height but a little way above the ground, and the performance, accordingly, altogether lacking in that power to astonish which genuine poetry always displays….
[In] one way Davie has indeed achieved, within poetry, a notable urbanity: an urbanity, not of voice or position, but of language. Linguistic urbanity lies (in a phrase Davie quotes from T. S. Eliot) in "the perfection of a common language." Here as elsewhere, the urbane principle is, of course, that of enlightened modesty: the intelligence, the sheer sociality deposited in a language seems so large, the poet's own inventions, his own ego, so small. The urbane mind scorns the folly and fears the vice of all private perspective; it trusts in the justice of the general. Accordingly, the ideal style, to it, is a style without style, as clear, unmarked, and compliant as water—and like water, wholesome, easy to assimilate, and used by everyone…. (p. 67)
What confronts us in [the examples of Davie's finest "urbane poetry"] is language rather than style—the common language filtered and purified. Impossible to parody: it would be easier to take hold of the air. Fleeing from a "distinctive" voice as from the very principle of evil, Davie, it is true, in a sense achieves one: in the midst of voices with a signature, his stands out by virtue of its choice impersonality. But clearly its intention is otherwise: Davie's is a language, as it were, surprised and found, not forged and made. If his words distinguish themselves, it is not by their manner, but by their "good manners," their social finality, their intention to communicate…. [It is from] the heart of the perfected common language, that Davie writes his poetry. And if he fails to make it seem the necessary place for poetry, still he proves it to be one of the positions of excellence.
And yet, to repeat, there has also been unhappy waste in this insistence on urbanity—unnecessary limitation and futility. The temptation to slight the real, unpredictable, and slovenly body of experience, to keep it at a polite and useful distance, to talk and civilize and "purify" the language rather than to write poems, has been more than Davie has been able to withstand…. And he has been, in consequence, a poet only when he has escaped from his theories—when he has opened the door, quietly so as not to waken the urbane guards, and stepped out into the surprising world. (pp. 68-9)
Toward the primal energy of poetry, which is evolving feeling—imagination intently migrating, arriving, arrived—Davie is in the position of the man who would rather not acknowledge a disreputable family connection. And yet there is, after all, no poetry without it; there is only prose. (p. 69)
Davie's ambition lies in "a poetry of urbane and momentous statement." Yet what Davie actually writes in such a piece as "Portrait of the Artist" is not poetry at all, but versified prose discourse—in brief, verse. Verse is poetry that we name as such only by grace of its turning rhythm and lines: it is the form of poetry without the substance, and so we call it, justly, by its vehicle alone. (p. 71)
What is troublesome [about verse] is the way it trifles with, and lowers, a form potentially great and beautiful…. [The] matters we find in Davie's verse are matters which prose does as well. Witness "Hypochondriac Logic," of which I give the final stanza:
So poets may astonish you With what is not, but should be, true, And shackle on a moral shape You only thought you could escape; So if their scenery is queer, Its prototype may not be here, Unless inside a frightened mind, Which may be dazzled, but not blind.
Nothing here is so delicately conceived or organized, so dependent on feeling for its force, that it needs to be set off from the loquacities of prose. Indeed, Davie's lines cry out for prose—for freedom from their uncomfortable corset, their distracting jungle and bounce. (pp. 71-2)
[There] is reason to deplore Davie's conviction—strong at first, then slack, and now renewed—that he is obliged to write verse. In view of what Davie is able to do, he has not done enough, or he has done too much of what is little in itself. When he could have been mining gold, he has been mining coal or, at most, a little silver. Whereas most versifiers strain to become poets but fail to make it, Davie is a poet who chooses, much of the time, to write verse…. [It] would seem that it has all been done at the behest of fallacious theories.
Davie's ruling passion is not for the aesthetic but for the moral—or, more accurately, for the two in one, for a moral style: Davie is a man in love with noble restraint. And so long as he has been able to work the "common language" into something chaste and chastening, it has been almost a matter of indifference to him whether the anvil, much less the result, were poetry or verse. Nevertheless, his nature—deep, responsive, strong—veers toward poetry; and, left to itself, it might well have worked all its moral passion into poems. But it has not been left to itself. (p. 74)
Just south of conscience-stricken urbane verse there lies a temperate region that, following Bagehot, we might agree to call "pure art." Here we find art that employs the fewest strokes necessary for its purpose—a nobly restrained art, of jealous economy of means….
It is to art of this chaste and temperate kind that almost all Davie's best poetry belongs. (p. 75)
"Creon's Mouse" is … poetry and not verse because it burns with a finite reality. And yet its status as poetry may leave us somewhat uneasy. How close it is, throughout, to the dry bones of verse! How set it is on recoiling from the crush of life to wisdom! The poem seems to begrudge having to glance at a particular reality at all. Giving us only just barely, with not a stroke to spare, the amount and kind of detail necessary to become a unique and absorbing experience, it leaves itself no aesthetic margin whatever, refuses to rest in itself, distrusts and nips its own fierce beauty. Yes, the author of this poem (we might find ourselves reflecting) is certainly a poet; but, a rock skipping over tense water, how little he seems to trust the poetic element! (p. 77)
[The] more one reads Davie, the more the unexpected element rises like a mist and discloses a serene and stable geography, as of an old and well-ordered country: it is just that the country is equally divided between a Northern and a Southern state, and that Davie now tours one, now the other. The fact is that, though almost always one as a poet, namely a pure artist, Davie is of two minds as regards the value of life. Righteously at arms, in some poems, with the way existence falls out, in others he embraces it—and not at all because he is slumming, but because he finds it right to embrace it. There are, then, two consciences within Davie, antipodean; and each has its own poise, its own authority.
One of these consciences, cold, dour, Northern, we have already seen in full force. For obvious reasons, the verse is its opportunity, its pet. But, as "Creon's Mouse" exemplifies, its weather blows, it finds its place, in the poetry as well…. And with perverse pride, this conscience believes in morality. What else, it might ask, is there to believe in? It rests on itself as the single substance between the void "God" and the void nihilism. Yet it is not at all metaphysically minded, or even self-reflecting. It simply asks of life, as of style, that it be clean, lifted free from the mess of existence: it is, in truth, a sensibility as much as it is a code. Candor and restraint, austerity, courage, fidelity and conviction—for the most part, it flies these flags without attempting to say why, and without caring to…. Davie's belief in morality scarcely waits for a pretext; it exceeds all occasions, amounting to a faith. (p. 78)
This Dissenting conscience, so queerly and attractively laced by the cosmopolitan, also turns, of course, to people, to human character—turns on them, as in "Creon's Mouse." It even turns on Dissent itself, because it is a church "based on sentiment"—as, too, on the Evangelist with his
Solicitations of a swirling gown, The sudden vox humana, and the pause, The expert orchestration of a frown …
It is, as this suggests, a conscience hard to get around—in fact, so very skeptical that, leaving itself nothing to hang on to, its only resource is to be clasped upon itself. Known chiefly by what it does not permit, its purpose is to bind human nature. Hence, when it oppresses Davie himself, as now and then it does, his sense of it is understandably rueful, informed by bleak familiarity and by longing to get out…. (p. 80)
The other conscience in Davie, distinctively modern, is vital, instinctual—it asks, not "How can I organize or rectify existence?" but "How can I protect life, enhance it?"… It is a conscience that rests on what has been given, judging that it truly is a gift. Almost wholly reverential, it is made up of wondering acceptance, of submission to life's lilt. Even at lowest ebb it finds existence absorbing. It reacts with pain, with horror, to the waste of life. And just for that reason, it has reserves of reaction, and will quarrel with energy even when it finds an ideality in it. (pp. 81-2)
Such … are the two consciences of Davie's art, each possessing its own territory, indeed its own trophies, among the poems—the one nobly surrendering to life, the other taking life nobly to task. Their disjunctive arrangement is efficiently neat, like an agreed upon division of labor. Though it is natural to suspect it of convenient simplification, the poems … do not read like simplifications—they say fully and fairly what they have to say, shooting straight from the angle at which they find themselves, and at which, for the moment, they find it right to be. (p. 85)
In "Woodpigeons at Rahenny," there is, by distinction, a succession from one point of view to the other, oneness with the world giving way to gaunt divorcement from it. The poem begins in almost mesmerized immersion in a scene.
One simple and effective rhyme Over and over in the April light; And a touch of the old time In the serving-man stooping, aproned tight, At the end of the dappled avenue To the easy phrase, "tereu-tereue," Mulled over by the sleepy dove— This was the poem I had to write. White wall where the creepers climb Year after year on the sunny side; And a touch of the old time In the sandalled Capuchin's silent stride Over the shadows and through the clear Cushion-soft wooing of the ear From two meadows away, by the dove— This was the poem that was denied….
Davie here conveys, through an enchanting circularity of sound, a lulling timelessness. In keeping with the touch of the old time in the present, the poem closes on itself in a gentle volley of echoes. A scene luxurious with repetitions has awakened in the poet a desire for that most consummate of repetitions, the reduplication of the world by art—the harmony of the setting seeming to invite, to seek augmentation in, the profounder harmony of poetry. But abruptly this further harmony is denied. The ascetic figure of the Capuchin—a reminder of mortality—breaks the illusion of a circular time, shows time to be but death-boned and linear. Estranged alike from time and eternity (a monk without God, a natural creature without a trust in nature), the speaker is overcome by that modern malaise, the experience of dislocation:
For whether it was the friar's crime, His lean-ness suddenly out of tune; Or a touch of the old time In the given phrase, with its unsought boon Of a lax autumnal atmosphere, Seemed quaint and out of keeping here, I do not know. I know the dove Outsang me down the afternoon.
Accordingly, the very music of the poem diminishes, wasting into boniness of syntax, and thudding upon "I do not know." If the earlier stanzas out-sing the last, it is, then, because they are innocent. Recapitulating English poetry from the age of Keats or the April side of Tennyson to its present day of lean music and still leaner faith, "Woodpigeons at Rahenny" gives us, marvelously, both the poet Davie might have been and the poet he feels he has to be.
As we have seen, Davie was not always to feel—what in the course of this early and perfect poem he comes to feel—a sort of Capuchin out of tune with the natural world. But whether enmeshed with or at odds with life, he was always to sing as one who finds it fitting that a contemporary song be lean. This leanness, this commitment to the pure style and to pure art, may prompt us to feel that, when Davie does come to praise life, his song is stinted, the "given phrase" too thin and pale. And yet there is an integrity in Davie's leanness that, the more one reads him, the more one admires. If his work cannot overwhelm us through a powerful excess, neither can it spoil. And how remarkable it is that, for all his leanness, Davie, like a long-distance runner, has covered so much of life, paused at the equator as well as at the Pole. The combination of his lean style and his rich, elastic nature has produced a body of work rare in character: pure art with a broad range. (pp. 86-8)
Calvin Bedient, "On Donald Davie," in The Iowa Review (copyright © 1971, by The University of Iowa), Vol. 2, No. 2 (Spring, 1971), pp. 66-88.
[Davie's Collected Poems, 1950–1970] shows that Davie soon moved on from the quasi-Augustan formality he had cultivated in the fifties, and since then has written in many styles and been open to a wide range of poetic influences, mostly American and Continental European. (p. 345)
[That Davie is an interesting writer] arises less from the character of Davie's poems, taken separately, than from the total impression one gets from all his writing of a powerful literary personality struggling with obsessions and endeavoring, with unexpected success, to balance or combine attitudes usually thought of as contradictory. Thus, Davie is emphatically a moralist, imbued with the rigorous spirit of the Cambridge English school of the forties and fifties. His first critical book, Purity of Diction in English Verse (1952), found admirable moral qualities in the lexical restraint and controlled syntax of eighteenth-century poetry and was offered as a lesson in the neoclassical virtues to Davie's contemporaries. In his own poetry Davie embodied this lesson in the sharp, cool, ironic observations of Brides of Reason. Yet he is also an aesthete, who believes with Henry James that "it is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance." He was unable to remain satisfied for long with exclusively moral and social criteria for poetry; its significance, in the end, was ontological:
The metaphysicality Of poetry, how I need it! And yet it was for years What I refused to credit….
Davie's ideal in these matters is that pure realm where art and morality become indistinguishable. Few of us, however, can inhabit it for long.
In one allegiance Davie is, unashamedly, a provincial Englishman, strongly attached to his Yorkshire roots and the nonconformist religious tradition in which he was brought up, even if he is no longer a believer. This allegiance is personally exemplified in his affectionate memory of his father, to whom he has devoted several poems. In poetic terms it shows itself in Davie's admiration not just for minor eighteenth-century poets in general, but for hymn-writers such as Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, in particular. Against this aspect of Davie—English, provincial, traditionalist—one must set quite different allegiances, which are cosmopolitan, global, and modernist. It is this, above all, which soon marked Davie off from the unambitious poetics of the Movement. He admires and imitates Pound and Pasternak, and is drawn to the heroic style, in life and art, of the early masters of modernism. However much his imagination is rooted in Pennine landscape, it constantly turns to the large unpeopled spaces of America and Russia…. Pasternak's short lines, regular but not stiff stanzaic forms, and frequent exclamations are a noticeable feature of Events and Wisdoms.
Pound's influence on Davie is more pervasive…. Davie reveres Pound for taking the art of poetry with true seriousness, as opposed to English amateurism. He finds, too, in Pound's imagist poetics a regard for the integrity of nature, seen and respected as something nonhuman, and accepted in its quiddity. He finds forerunners of this attitude in Ruskin and Hopkins and Hardy, and prefers it to the symbolist procedures of Eliot, in which the world of things is swallowed up in the all-embracing consciousness of the poet.
Pound's influence is explicitly and happily evident in two extended sequences adapted from existing literary sources: The Forests of Lithuania (1959) and A Sequence for Francis Parkman (1961)…. [The] plains and forests of Eastern Europe and Russia form an integral part of Davie's mental and emotional world, fed partly from experience, partly from his reading of Polish and Russian literature. As he writes in "Behind the North Wind," recalling his service in northern Russia in 1942:
More than ever I need Places where nothing happened, Where history is silent, No Tartar ponies checked, and Endurance earns repose…. (pp. 346-48)
Davie reveals a similar feeling about North America in A Sequence for Francis Parkman, which, as he acknowledges, draws heavily in a Poundian way on Parkman's France and England in North America…. The last poem is not adapted from Parkman but is wholly original; it points to a fascination with the alienness of North America that has remained a major preoccupation with Davie:
But I only guess, I guess at it out of my Englishness And envy you out of England. Man with man Is all our history; American, You met with spirits. Neither white nor red The melancholy, disinherited Spirit of mid-America, but this, The manifested copiousness, the bounties….
This is a key passage for understanding Davie's development and his later obsessions, both as poet and critic. The Sequence is a very successful result of the fusion of separate elements of experience: Pound's demonstration of the possibility of making one's own poetry out of other people's prose; the reading of Parkman; and a first visit to America. (pp. 348-49)
From the early sixties Davie became increasingly concerned with America as a poetic subject. Like his Russia, Davie's North America was something of a landscape of the mind: empty, vast, silent, uncluttered with humanity—the pristine vision of the first explorers rather than the contemporary USA. He envied the American poets their freedom of imagination, reversing the traditional American envy of Europe for its cultural achievements and possibilities…. In some recent poems Davie's concern with England is less ideal or metaphysical, and more overtly political…. His distaste for contemporary England has a heroic-modernist basis and is directed at many things: the drab complacency of postimperial Britain; an industrialized and polluted landscape; social egalitarianism; civic philistinism; and the fatuities of the "Swinging London" cult of the sixties. (pp. 349-50)
Poetry is an imperfect, even misleading guide to a man's actual opinions, and Davie's poems of the sixties tend to dramatize attitudes rather than develop arguments. (p. 350)
[Davie] is much concerned with English culture and its fate, but from the vantage point of chosen expatriation and exile…. [He] moves on, reads many literatures—though returning constantly to Pound, the master voyager of modernism—and longs for the heroic and the imaginatively possible, as well as what is actually and inescapably there.
Davie likes and cultivates the "open-ended" poem that does not return neatly and predictably to its starting point but moves onward and outwards like an arrow-shower or a river flowing into the sea. (pp. 359-60)
Bernard Bergonzi, in Contemporary Literature (© 1977 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 18, No. 3, Summer, 1977.
Rationalism, scepticism, fastidiousness, fair-mindedness: the qualities which Donald Davie has claimed for himself over the years are not the qualities we have been taught to expect of a poet. Part of Davie's task has been to persuade us, and himself, that we have been wrongly taught—that our conception of the poet as a daring and passionate outsider is historically foreshortened, and that a broader, pre-Romantic conception of the poet could be profitably restored. From the earliest poems Davie has presented himself as an opposite, or anti-type, of the Romantic poet: as a "bride of reason", a "winter talent", "an even tenor", a "good fellow" but "pertinacious to a fault". Occasionally stung by suggestions that he is too cerebral and academic in his poetry, he has been troubled by self-doubt: in 1957 he accused himself in a note of failing to be "a natural poet", and as recently as 1975 admitted to being one of the "steely trimmers" whose suspicion of pretension in art is not always distinguishable from mean-mindedness. But on the whole Davie has felt confident enough to assert that the characteristics prized in academic circles can also be the characteristics of the poet….
The publication of The Poet in the Imaginary Museum, a selection of Davie's critical writings between November 1950 and October 1977, is the best opportunity we have had so far to observe the relationship between the concerns of the critic and the achievement of the poet…. With the exception of a discussion of Beckett's fiction, all the essays are concerned with poetry. They are arranged in chronological order, allowing Davie's development to be clearly discerned, and they have been preserved in their original form—there is no tampering with the historical record….
The first thing to note is that Davie is far more than, and sometimes far less than, the rigorous rationalist which his self-caricatures might imply. There is in his criticism a use of rhetoric, a readiness to take speculative risks, and an appropriation of other writers which makes it clear that there is as much a poet in the critic as there is a critic in the poet. This is not to say that Davie's criticism altogether lacks the qualities of "steely trimming"; far from it. The bluff commonsense tone which was the mark of several critics in the 1950s, John Wain in particular, is evident in "Remembering the Movement" (1959)…. The desire to steer a sensible middle course (trimming of another kind) can be seen in "The Translatability of Poetry" (1967)…. And a distrust of irrationalism underlies his essay on the criticism of R. P. Blackmur, "Poetry, or Poems?" (1955)….
These essays are consistent with the image of Davie as a pragmatist with a high regard for close textual analysis and careful weighing of evidence. Some of his favourite phrases—"On this showing …", "It begins to look as if …", "If this is true, then …"—create the same impression of a man moving tentatively from analysis to conclusion.
In fact, such phrases are nearly always a sign that from meticulously gathered evidence, Davie is about to move to some highly speculative and quite undemonstrable theory. A famous example is his connection between Pound's fascism and his handling of syntax: "one could almost say, on this showing, that to dislocate syntax is to threaten the rule of law in the community". This is a challenging but surely untenable equation of poetic and political behaviour: it suggests how interested Davie is in the political implications of poetic form, but would be difficult to uphold. Similarly questionable is his suggestion that the unreliability of Yeats, Eliot and Pound as historians has forced subsequent poets to turn their attention to topography: "it begins to seem as if a focus upon scenery, upon landscape and the areal, relations in space, are a necessary check and control upon the poet's manipulation of the historical record". This, like many of Davie's critical theories, originates in his own poetic development; and it confirms that Davie likes to situate his own work by reference to earlier poets….
Davie admits that his readings of other poets are often readings of himself: "I am my own favourite author and often when I seem to be studying another writer, it's myself I'm studying really."…
The Poet in the Imaginary Museum provides important clues about Davie's poetic development. In the earliest essay, "The Spoken Word" (1950), he recommends to "the young English poet resentful of the tyranny of the 'image'" the poetry of Yvor Winters and his followers, and makes large claims for a "renewed poetry of statement"; the essay reads like an early manifesto for the Movement poets with whom Davie was to be associated, and whose main target was the "tyranny of the image" imposed by Dylan Thomas. "The Poetic Diction of John M. Synge" (1952) … and "Professor Heller and the Boots" (1954) … are further important texts for this period.
"Common Mannerism" (1957) is a turning point: Davie rejects the "ugly" and "philistine" Movement tone, and in the title essay of the same year develops Malraux's idea that what distinguishes the modern artist from his predecessors is a freedom (created by technological advance) to wander through an imaginary museum containing art from all ages and cultures. For Davie this means that poetry must become more pluralistic: "the modern style in poetry is the arrangement in new patterns of the styles of the past". At the time, Davie's thesis that the poet simply "picks and chooses" from all manner of styles aroused considerable controversy…. But perhaps the chief importance of the essay is its indication that Davie was broadening his scope: in the late 1950s and early 1960s there is a greater concern with translation, an exploration of the relationship between poetry and other arts, and a new respect for poetry which concentrates on the non-human world "bodied over" against us.
Davie has maintained these interests, but it is possible to detect a third phase in his career dating from the late 1960s. "Poetry and Other Modern Arts" (1968) qualifies the imaginary museum thesis by suggesting that poetry has remained a conservative art, unaffected by many of the technological changes which have influenced painting and music; and another essay of that year, "Landscape as Poetic Focus", shows a new sensitivity to topography in poetry and to the open forms of Charles Olson and Edward Dorn. Davie has always been interested in American poetry (the 1953 essay in which an "austere" Davie measures up to the "panache" of Wallace Stevens is another useful piece reprinted here), but in recent years he has become more conscious of the need for someone to act as a negotiator between British and American cultures.
Attention to a steady development in Davie's work can be misleading, however, if it conceals the ebb and flow of his critical judgments. Nowhere in his criticism is there a parallel to Leavis's change of heart about Dickens or to Eliot's about Milton. Rather than dramatic reversals, there is a constant pulsing between acceptance and rejection, admiration and detestation….
The postscript to his discussion of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1961) warns that "I by no means preclude the possibility that, after three attempts to give an account of it, I may some time venture on a fourth!" The failure to provide a consistent perspective may look perverse, even self-indulgent, and there are moments when honest and instructive uncertainty about a writer's worth threatens to dissolve into confusion and self-contradiction. But for the most part Davie's arguments with himself are meaningful and useful: he has the power to identify the key issues of the modern era, to put the case of both sides, and to provide temporary solutions. Here again rhetoric is a key weapon, Davie's means not only of persuading his readers but of dispelling his own doubt. Davie is a more volatile critic than he pretends, and one of the virtues of The Poet in the Imaginary Museum is that it enables us to observe his fluctuations more clearly than before….
The sharpness of Davie's insights in this collection reassures one that complaints about omissions are worth making: we do need a record of all that he has written…. He has helped radically alter our views of Hardy, has put questions about Pound which those too busy taking sides have forgotten to ask, and has struggled with most of the major figures in the modern period. Above all, he has kept his options open, responding to new developments in poetry while so many of his contemporaries remain entrenched. The price for this is occasional waywardness in critical judgment, but so long as his poetry continues to renew itself this should be a price we are willing to pay.
Blake Morrison, "A Voice of Even Tenor," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), January 6, 1978, p. 15.
What a pity that Donald Davie is less interesting as a poet than as a critic. Picking up the Collected Poems, as I not infrequently do, I find myself returning constantly to the earliest volumes, Brides of Reason (1955) and A Winter Talent (1957). Here, it seems to me—in 'The Garden Party', 'Remembering the Thirties', 'Hearing Russian Spoken' and 'Rejoinder to a Critic'—he wrote with a confidence and poise that he has never (in verse) quite managed since. The early poems are full of quotations: 'Yet irony itself is doctrinaire', 'A neutral tone is nowadays preferred', 'Abjure politic brokenness for good', 'Appear concerned only to make it scan'.
Note, however, that each and every one of these lapidary pentameters concerns the practice of poetry itself; even at this stage Davie was already the critic, or at any rate the discerning reader. The poems bristle with the names of the great…. If we didn't know that Davie was Barnsley born and bred, we might be forgiven for thinking that he was nurtured in the imaginary museum of his title [The Poet in the Imaginary Museum: Essays of Two Decades]. 'Nobody wants any more poems about philosophers or paintings or novelists or art galleries or mythology or foreign cities or other poems. At least I hope nobody wants them.' Thus, of course, Kingsley Amis, in a much quoted proscription of 1955; but Davie, despite certain 'Movement' attitudes ('Appear concerned only to make it scan'), was never really a Movement poet at all; cultural exhibits have always been part of his stock-in-trade. As Barry Alpert remarks in his foreword to this collection, the title, liberally interpreted, 'might embrace most of what Donald Davie has written during the past 25 years'….
One of the most attractive features of Davie's criticism is his generous openness to the unfamiliar and the idiosyncratic. He once accused himself of being 'one of the steely trimmers whose suspicion of pretension in art is not always distinguishable from mean-mindedness'; but this does him less than justice. True, his characteristic tone is fastidious, even pernickety—how unpleasant to meet Dr Davie!—but it is deployed in the service of a fervent devotion. While recognising and repudiating pretension in art, no less than painful modesty, he insists on the validity and importance of art's large and rightful claim.
Derek Mahon, "Exhibit A," in New Statesman (© 1978 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), February 24, 1978, p. 256.