Donald Davie was born in Barnsley in Yorkshire, England. His father, a deacon in the Baptist Church, operated a shop in a working-class neighborhood. His mother, ambitious for her son, introduced him at an early age to the British literary canon, for which he maintained a healthy respect over his long career. He attended Cambridge University, where he became a student of F. R. Leavis, whose close reading of poetry and attention to a poem’s moral implications profoundly influenced Davie’s career as poet and critic. In the 1950’s he became identified with The Movement, a British literary movement that included Thom Gunn and Philip Larkin. The Movement, dominated by poets from Northern England, sought to recover the Britishness of British literature—its traditional forms, provincial language, and English values—which had been displaced by the internationalism and moral relativism of literary modernism. Davie supported his wife and daughter through a successful career as a college professor in both England and the United States. Though he maintained a residence in his beloved “shires” region of England, he spent the last twenty-five years of his teaching career in the United States, and a sense of displacement, both physical and spiritual, imbues much of his poetry written from the mid-1960’s to his death. Although he joined the Anglican Church, he maintained a strong interest in the dissenting voices of Christian literature—perhaps hearkening back to his own Baptist roots.
Davie was both the heir to and a rebel from modernist poetry. He admired the literary techniques of modernists such as Ezra Pound and brought attention to less heralded innovators such as George Oppen and the Objectivist group. He also identified with the modernist rejection of the self-absorption of the Romantic movement. Like T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden, Davie was a practicing Christian, comfortable as a person and an artist with Anglican Church orthodoxy. Yet while Davie’s literary style was modernist, his sensibility was closer to that of Samuel Johnson, John Wesley, or other eighteenth century poets and hymn writers who saw the primary function of poetry to be moral and didactic. In his edition of The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse (1981), Davie leans heavily on hymn writers at the expense of well-known Christian poets such as William Blake who were more unorthodox in their religious views.
Davie’s early works of criticism, Purity of Diction in English Verse (1952) and Articulate Energy: An Inquiry into the Syntax of English Poetry (1955), set the course for his later poetry and criticism. Both volumes argue that plain diction, directness of approach, and the rational avoidance of excess (key literary values of the eighteenth century) are the hallmarks of the true British literary tradition. Ezra Pound had argued that the degeneration of the language led to the inevitable degeneration of culture. Davie gives Pound’s argument a religious twist: A degenerate language is no longer an effective vehicle for the Christian Logos or word. The lack of “proper words in proper order” (to paraphrase Jonathan Swift) leads to the decay not only of art and culture but also of organized religion and the soul.
To Scorch or Freeze is more personal than Davie’s earlier work and freer in its diction and syntax. Though hardly confessional, the poems provide a glimpse of a poet struggling for a sense of relevance in the late twentieth century and to create a foundation for his own religious beliefs. The opening poem, the modernist “The Thirty-Ninth Psalm, Adapted,” finds its speaker bewailing a writer’s block that is both literal and spiritual. The certainty of the literary polemicist has evaporated as the speaker recognizes the insignificance of his earlier poetry as “a tabloid column for crazies.” He beseeches the Lord to “consider my calling” as a poet and provide the inspiration to write work of more value than poems that are mere “squawking/ and running off at the mouth.”
In the poem “Ordinary God,” Davie wrestles with the idea of God’s intervention in human affairs. The speaker declares that while God has the power to intervene in history, he typically abjures such interference. The poem closes with an Audenesque image of God as an “ultimately faithful/ but meanwhile preoccupied landlord.” Davie seeks to reconcile the notion of a rational deistic force driving the universe with that of the personal God of Christian orthodoxy. The depiction of the Supreme Being as an absentee landlord, however, seems to undermine Davie’s faith in his ordinary God.
The figure of King David stands in opposition to Davie’s speakers throughout To Scorch or Freeze. King David, although a sinner, remains God’s chosen, and his verse reflects the simplicity and joy of that union with the Divine Presence. Davie’s speakers are born too late, out of time, and out of touch with that presence. The poem “Sing Unto The Lord a New Song” closes with a couplet that demarcates the world of King David from that of Davie: “Praise the Lord upon the harp/ sing to him on the damnable steel guitar!” The “damnable steel guitar” becomes a symbol of the brash shallowness of the modern culture. It is not an accident that the “him” in the second line is not capitalized because, for Davie, the modern world has alienated itself from God’s majesty.
Sources for Further Study
Bedient, Calvin. Eight Contemporary Poets: Charles Tomlinson, Donald Davie, R. S. Thomas, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, Thomas Kinsella, Stevie Smith, W. S. Graham. London: Oxford University Press, 1974. Bedient offers a good book-length study of the Movement poets and articulates Davie’s position as the central critical theorist and polemicist within this loosely affiliated group.
Davie, Donald, ed. The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1981. Davie’s introduction provides a typically orthodox definition of what constitutes Christian verse; his selection of works shows his favor for plain style and moral didacticism over literary preening and mystical fuzziness.
Dekker, George, ed. Donald Davie and the Responsibilities of Literature. Manchester: Carcenet New Press in Association with The National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine, Orono, 1983. A selection of essays, although written prior to the publication of To Scorch or Freeze, provides ample insight into Davie’s didactic purpose as a writer and the evolution of his view of modern poetry as a means of articulating religious belief.
Jarman, Mark. Body and Soul: Essays on Poetry. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002. Jarman, Davie’s friend and colleague at Vanderbilt University, provides an intimate and reverential view of Davie’s often cantankerous beliefs, both religious and poetic. While Jarman’s work considers poets outside Davie’s personal canon of religious poets (for example, Robinson Jeffers and William Carlos Williams), Davie’s influence on the work is profound.
Vendler, Helen. Soul Says. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995. This work is a collection of reviews by a premier critic of modern poetry. Her review of Davie’s Collected Poems pays homage to Davie as poet and critic and places him at the forefront of the second wave of modernist writing following the initial wave of Pound, Eliot, and Yeats.
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