Form and Content
Donald Davie is a well-traveled and well-respected poet, literary critic, and academic. His life has centered on words, the makers of words, and those places where works of the imagination are valued. In this autobiography he remembers some of those words, those makers, and those places. Davie realizes that many people do not share his love of words and the imagination, and that others will not think his life particularly enlightening on these things. Yet his sense of responsibility to record a perhaps disappearing notion of literary culture triumphed over the paralyzing “Who cares?”—and the result is an engaging series of scenes from a literary life.
These the Companions: Recollections is an autobiography which is only indirectly concerned with its author. Much like Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast (1964), Davie reveals himself primarily by writing about those around him. He takes his title from a phrase in Ezra Pound’s The Pisan Cantos (1948), a work written at a similar time in Pound’s life in a similar spirit of gazing back over a life and assessing its accomplishments and failures. Like Pound, Davie finds much of the value of his life to have derived from the people and places he came to know, and from an attitude toward culture to which he has tried to contribute.
Along with his title, Davie seems to derive part of the book’s methodology from Pound. Pound’s infamous “ideogrammic method” for writing poetry called for placing side by side “luminous details,” those apparently insignificant details from life that are in fact carefully chosen to illuminate surrounding circumstances, the significance of which is left to the reader to ascertain or construct. Davie uses a similar strategy in These the Companions. Rather than offer an exhaustive recounting of his life, he focuses on a handful of times and locales, capturing in relatively few strokes the tone and temper of the time, the people, and himself. The relationship between one episode and the next—say between his war years in the Soviet Union and his postwar years at Cambridge—is left largely unstated, but the cumulative effect is to create an increasingly rounded picture of a man of letters and of a fading idea of culture.
Another insight into the style of These the Companions is found in the chapter titled “Americans,” in which he notes the American love of “feeling their way” along in their approach to life. Something of that sort describes the strategy and tone of these recollections as well. Davie repeatedly makes a proclamation or sketches a memory or offers an evaluation only to qualify or cancel it with a phrase to suggest that he has not got it right, or that he is putting on airs, or that he is wearied of his own attempts at self-justification. This self-deprecation is in part a conscious strategy with specific intended effects, one of which is to lend a relaxed, intimate, and appealingly nondogmatic quality to the work.
Yet Davie the autobiographer is also still Davie the poet. His ability to evoke place, and the aesthetic implications of place, is crucial to the success of these recollections. For example, he muses on poetry in his beloved Cambridge:But now as when Leavis began, the poems that come out of Cambridge are just what they always were: at best sensitive, intelligent, well-mannered, but never conclusively and passionately clinched. I am prepared to believe, now, that this is inevitable. It is a matter of light, and the climate. As the fog swirls into Trinity Street in the early afternoon, or hangs there until nearly midday, as the warm lights high in the walls wink on and glow through the haze, I recognize the irremediably Gothic Cambridge that I best know and love. And how can the art that comes of such weather be anything but crepuscular, approximate, a composition of fugitive or hulking shadows?
As with most effective autobiography, Davie’s gift with words and his guiding sensibility make compelling what would otherwise...
(The entire section is 2,366 words.)