Donald Alfred Davie was born July 17, 1922, into a lower-middle-class Baptist family, the son of a shopkeeper and the grandson of domestic servants. He grew up amid the slag heaps of industrial West Riding. His mother frequently recited poetry, and, according to Davie, “Robin Hood . . . surely did more than any other single text to make me a compulsive reader for ever after.” His father, a lively and emotionally expressive man, encouraged the young boy to take piano lessons. Even as a child, however, Davie rankled at the pretensions and philistinism of his more well-to-do neighbors.
In 1940, Davie began his studies of seventeenth century religious oratory and architecture at St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge. He joined the Royal Navy in 1941 and between 1942 and 1943 was stationed in northern Russia, where he studied the poetry of Boris Pasternak, who was to become an important and lasting influence. He married Doreen John, from Plymouth, in 1945; they had three children. Davie returned to Cambridge in 1946 and studied under F. R. Leavis; he earned his B.A. in 1946, his M.A. in 1949, and his Ph.D. in 1951. Between 1950 and 1957, he taught at Trinity College, Dublin, where he met the writers and poets Joseph Hone, Austin Clarke, and Padraic Fallon. He spent 1957-1958 as visiting professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he was introduced to Yvor Winters, Thom Gunn, and Hugh Kenner (whose teaching post he actually filled for the year); it was during this period that he joined the Reactionary Generation of poets.
In 1958, he returned to Cambridge as a lecturer in English at Gonville and Caius Colleges, worried about how the “sentimental Left occupied all the same positions.” Commenting further on his isolation during this time, he said: “The politics of envy . . . [and] self-pity had sapped independence, self-help, and self-respect.” In 1964, he cofounded and became professor at the University of Essex (he later became pro-vice-chancellor there). Then, only four years later, feeling utter disillusionment with a declining British society and the philistinism of even his fellow poets, and also feeling totally alienated from his university colleagues, he moved to the United States and joined the faculty of Stanford University, where he remained until 1978. In 1978, he became Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities at Vanderbilt University. He retired from Vanderbilt in 1988 and returned full-time to the Devonshire village where for many years he had spent his summers. “I take retirement seriously, in a way that puzzles others, including my wife. I mean that I seldom find reasons for leaving this village.” His writing slowed during this period and he died in Exeter, Devon, on September 18, 1995.
The English poet, critic, editor, and translator Donald Alfred Davie was born the son of George Clarke Davie, a sergeant in a Scottish regiment, and Alice (Sugden) Davie, a schoolmistress who cultivated Davie’s predisposition for literary criticism by encouraging him to record the substance of every book he read. Donald Davie attended Cambridge University and joined the Royal Navy upon graduation. Assigned to Arctic Russia in World War II, he combated loneliness by reading the works of Robert Burns, Lord Byron, and Russian authors in translation. He later documented this period in These the Companions. In January, 1945, before going to India for the last months of the war, he married Doreen John.
After demobilization, Davie returned to Cambridge, where he began to learn the craft of poetry and corresponded with the American critic Yvor Winters, from whom he learned much about poetic rhythms. His review of an anthology by Winters in Poetry London is often viewed as the beginning of the Movement in English poetry. The Movement, a group of university-trained poets whose preference was for metrical verse, challenged the elitism of British culture.
Davie was an established critic before his first book of poems...
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