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...
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