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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.

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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 be the mundane details of a seemingly unexceptional life.

Another part of the attraction of this book is the names and reputations to which Davie’s remembrances give flesh: F.R. Leavis, Yvor Winters, Hugh Kenner, C.S. Lewis, and numerous less known figures. To some he offers homage; with others he settles scores, unable to resist the writer’s ultimate last weapon—having the last word. (Davie is usually more generous to others, however, than he is to himself.) In the process, he lightly seasons his recollections with the kind of insider literary anecdotes that delight the bibliophile. He recounts Kenner’s story of Pound’s response to a critical comment about T.S. Eliot: “Never under-estimate the Possum [Eliot]; he has a lot of low vitality—like a crocodile.”

These the Companions

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1517

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 decline in the contemporary world. He laments the almost complete lack of “the faculty of pious memory” of his philistine in-laws from southwest England and wonders at what point England will have so little left of its cultural heritage that there will be no point in trying to preserve it.

There is a poignancy in Davie’s question because it underscores his own sense of isolation. He is a citizen of a passing world, and one where the word is sovereign, where aesthetic and moral values intertwine, where great works of literature define the landscape. His mother had memorized most, if not all, of The Golden Treasury of Songs and Lyrics (1861), “If I am so literary myself that I sometimes despair of breaking through a cocoon of words to a reality outside them, that is above all my mother’s doing. And I am grateful, mostly. . . .” His memories of Russia during the war are woven through with the books with which he filled his young mind. While many distinguish between books and “the real world,” Davie asserts that “reality is measured and underwritten . . . by the records of the imagination!”

Davie labels himself an anachronistic survivor of a literary civilization whose very idea is now widely ridiculed. Ironically, among its greatest enemies are current writers and critics. Davie is an unrepentant cultural conservative in an avant-garde, pluralistic age. Despite his advocacy for modernist giants such as Pound and Eliot, Davie’s own poetry and instincts have a more neoclassical tenor (although he includes in the book a long, uncharacteristically Pound-like poem not previously published). The latter part of These the Companions particularly rebukes the contemporary deification of literary criticism coupled with a slackening of poetic standards, the vulgarization of sex in literature, the loss of moral vision, and, particularly in Britain, the general antipathy to excellence in the name of egalitarianism.

Davie finds refuge from such foolishness in, among others, the great Russian writers of the past and present. He contrasts their affirmation of life despite its attendant suffering with the sterile negativism of so many of his contemporaries. Davie’s own moral earnestness (and tendency to didacticism) draws him to the Russian expectation that writers should also be teachers. Alexander Pushkin, he observes, “was a conscience as well as a consciousness,” a combination that squares well with Davie’s boyhood Baptist understanding of “witness.” These are unfashionable ideas in a literary scene dominated by theories of self-destructing texts, and where ethical criteria are banned.

Davie limits his discussion of these questions primarily to those figures he himself has known, learned from, and battled with over the years. Part of the attraction of the book is the names and reputations to which his remembrances give flesh: F. R. Leavis, Yvor Winters, Hugh Kenner, C. S. Lewis, and others. (This literary civilization he recalls does seem to have been almost exclusively a male one.) To some, he offers homage; with others, he settles scores, unable to resist at times the writer’s ultimate weapon—having the last word. In the process, Davie lightly seasons his recollections with the inside literary anecdotes that delight the bibliophile. He tells of W. B. Yeats’s widow unnerving a Yeats scholar with an antipathy to Pound by declaring that “Ezra was always right about W. B.—always!” followed by, “People say Ezra’s Cantos are difficult. I don’t find them difficult, do you?”

These the Companions is an idiosyncratic autobiography, written in an idiosyncratic style. In his chapter entitled “Americans,” he notes Americans’ love of “feeling their way” along in their approach to life. Something of that sort describes the tone of these recollections as well. Davie repeatedly lays down an assertion or sketches out a memory only to qualify or cancel it with a phrase to suggest that he hasn’t expressed it accurately, or that he is putting on airs, or that he has wearied of his own attempts at self-justification. This is, in part, a conscious strategy with specific intended effects, one of which is to lend a relaxed and appealing intimacy to the work.

Davie the autobiographer is also still Davie the poet. His ability to evoke place, and the aesthetic implications of place, are crucial to the considerable success of these recollections: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?

Who will enjoy and profit from the reading of These the Companions? Not everyone, to be sure. Readers who will appreciate the book are those who love words and the life which a love of words dictates, those who care about and worry over the present state of “culture”—in the public sense—and, perhaps most simply, those who place value on the articulate recollections of an artist.

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 50

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.

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