These the Companions Critical Essays

Donald Davie


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

These the Companions displays an ambivalent attitude toward the past it is trying to recapture. Davie declares in the preface, with the protective self-deprecation that he uses throughout, that he is “presumptuous not for myself but on behalf of . . . the imagination.” His problem, however, is “to recollect in the imagination a past that all the same shall not be imaginary.” Davie repeatedly questions the accuracy or validity of his own memory. It is tempting to remember the slag heaps of his northern England home as ugly and blighting, but he doubts they ever appeared to him that way in his boyhood. Elsewhere he warns himself against rigging evidence in retrospect to support a present bias. On another occasion, he concedes that memory simply can lie.

Davie’s response to the problem, like that of many modern writers, is, in part, to embrace it. Memory cannot be separated from imagination. Eliot affirmed that not only does the past shape the present, but the present shapes our understanding of the past as well. So Davie concedes the power of the imagination to create a past which one can never fully verify. It is perhaps no accident that he begins the book by recounting not his boyhood directly, but a dream he had as an adult of a return to his boyhood home. In dream the imagination rules absolutely; in memory perhaps only somewhat less so.

A richly imaginative exercise of memory is one of the qualities Davie prizes most highly—and sees most in decline in contemporary society. He laments the almost complete lack of “the faculty of pious memory” in his philistine southwest England in-laws, and he wonders at what point England will have so little left of its cultural heritage that there will be no point in trying to rekindle it.

Davie laments the decline of this kind of imagination, which he also describes as a kind of “cherishing,” not only in England but indeed in modern...

(The entire section is 792 words.)