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...

(The entire section is 799 words.)

These the Companions

Donald Davie is a well-traveled poet, critic, and academic of some stature. As such, his life has been filled with words, the masters of words, and the places where works of the imagination make a significant difference. Now in his sixties, he remembers some of those words, those writers, and those places. The sense of responsibility to record wins over the paralyzing “Who cares?” and the result is an engaging series of scenes from a literary life.

These the Companions is an autobiography which is only indirectly concerned with its author. Much like Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast (1964), Davie writes mostly about those around him rather than about himself. He takes his title from a passage in Ezra Pound’s The Pisan Cantos (1948), a work written at a similar time in Pound’s life with a similar spirit of gazing back over a life and assessing its accomplishments and failures. Like Pound, Davie finds that much of the value of his life has been derived from the people and places he came to know and from an attitude toward a culture to which he has tried to contribute.

Davie gets more than his title from Pound, a writer he has studied and written about for many years. The methodology of this autobiography recalls Pound’s “ideogrammic method.” Pound’s poetry contained what he called “luminous details,” apparently insignificant particulars which in fact offer great insight into surrounding circumstances. By putting many such details side by side in a poem, without explicitly linking them, the writer involves the reader in the act of making as well as understanding the poem. Davie follows a similar strategy in These the Companions. Rather than attempt an exhaustive recounting of his life, he focuses on a handful of representative 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—for example, between his war years in Russia 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 a clear image of a fading culture.

Davie’s interest in Pound and T. S. Eliot may also have influenced his ambivalent attitude toward the past he is trying to recapture. He declares in the preface, with the protective self-deprecation that he uses throughout (an Eliot-like mask?), that he is “presumptuous” not for himself, but for the imagination. His problem, however, is “to recollect in the imagination a past that all the same shall not be imaginary.” Repeatedly, he 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 that they ever appeared to him that way in his boyhood. Elsewhere he warns himself against rigging evidence in retrospect to support a present bias. At another time, he concedes that memory simply may lie.

Davie’s response to this problem is, in part, to embrace it. Memory cannot be separated from imagination. Eliot affirmed that not only does the past shape the present, but also the present shapes one’s understanding of the past. Accordingly, Davie concedes the power of the imagination to create a past which can never be fully verified. 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 a 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...

(The entire section is 1517 words.)

Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Bedient, Calvin. “Donald Davie,” in Eight Contemporary Poets, 1974.

Dekker, George, ed. Donald Davie and the Responsibilities of Literature, 1984.

Powell, Neil. Carpenters of Light: Some Contemporary English Poets, 1980.

Rawson, Claude. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII (November 21, 1982), p. 9.

Simpson, Louis. “Review” in The Times Literary Supplement. October 8, 1982, p. 1097.