Any detailed report from an explorer who is sensitive to and aware of prominent features in the terrain, who is keenly intelligent and eloquent in expression, and who has had considerable experience in the field will be greeted with high expectations, especially when it is a pioneering venture, covering ground previously mostly uncharted. Yet if the explorer is apparently blind to certain prominent features in the landscape, almost repulsed by others, and of a very strong mind about the value of what he examines, the result of his explorations will be a map of an uneven character, vivid and precise in some regions, blurred in others, deceptive or inaccurate in still others. Donald Davie’s version of the history of poetry in the British Isles, claiming as its province the three decades from 1960 to the year of its publication, is just such a map, a report loaded with insight and opinion backed up by erudition and a powerful sense of poetic excellence, but also a report directed by Davie’s particular tastes. In several previous books he has made them clear enough—they include a favorable estimate of familiar forms, a commitment to the preservation of an unspoiled English countryside, a sense of approval of the self-sufficient values of the shire, and an emphasis on the importance of continuing cultural traditions.
From the perspective of these values, Davie has written “an essay in literary history” that seeks to “commemorate, or keep in memory” both well-known and slighted poets who share and express Davie’s concerns, but one that undervalues or ignores a considerable number of poets whom other commentators have seen as masters of poetic art as accomplished and as crucial to the history of British poetry as the ones Davie champions. His book recalls the publication of the Donald Hall/ Robert Pack/Louis Simpson New Poets of 1957, an influential anthology featuring poets esteemed by the “New Critics” which was followed three years later by Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry (1960), a book that offered selections from forty poets with no duplication of the contents of the first book. The retrospect of history has indicated the merits of the work of many people in each anthology, but the schism in sensibility that led to the mutual exclusion by the editors is repeated to an extent by Davie’s choices and explanations. This in no way diminishes interest in the book, and, indeed, by choosing a definite point of view, Davie’s arguments have the necessary bracing vigor of a man who knows his mind and his field and is confident of the validity of his position. As Davie provocatively puts it, “If this book seems to promote certain British authors as, however modestly, canonical, it is on the understanding that these judgments are disputable and ought to be disputed.” There is no hidden agenda here, only one that is not only disputable but also boldly assertive, and if it is a “history,” it will surely draw counterhistories and revisions that will confront all of its major assumptions and nearly every one of its conclusions. As a matter of fact, Robert Richman in The New Criterion has already published an attack on Davie from an extreme position beyond the generally conservative stance Davie has taken, an attack from what might be called the American intellectual right wing of the academy that Davie actually joins with this text.
As a matter of organization, Davie divides what he calls his historical “narrative” into “three chapters” (for the three decades under scrutiny) of “one unfolding story,” but cautions that there is no “single story-line” so that his book does not become a “polemic.” His overarching title, Under Briggflatts, is an appropriate recognition of the importance of Basil Bunting, a friend of Ezra Pound whose work was not noticed until the end of his life. While Davie respects Bunting and admires certain aspects of his poetry, however, his praise is almost always qualified (“This suggests that all Bunting’s poetry is, for good or ill, a poetry of what Dissenters have always called the inner voice’”), and many of the poets working today in the British Isles who owe the most to Bunting’s sense of language and rhythm are not among those often praised or even mentioned by Davie. The reason he has chosen Bunting as a figure of consequence, a fixture in the poetic firmament, is revealed by his comment in the third chapter that “Briggflatts is most truly seen as, on the grand scale, a monument of. . . modern classicism,” and by his observation that “Bunting did have, as every great poet must have, a politics, and a philosophy of history.”
Davie shows no reluctance here or elsewhere to express his carefully developed theories about what constitutes poetic excellence, but in the interest of avoiding the impression that he is writing a “polemic,” he has introduced his most profound criteria in a gradual fashion throughout the text. In a subtle and possibly more effective method of presentation, he introduces his fundamental precepts amid commentary, criticism, and informative observation, so that he has not fully accounted for his emphasis on a particular poet until the book is concluded, the principles behind the choices becoming clear essentially after the choices have been made. In addition to admiration of Bunting’s “modern classicism,” his political commitment, and his “philosophy of history,” crucial elements in Davie’s formulation include a fondness for the pastoral, which leads to his approval of Austin Clarke’s only slightly sardonic lament for the disappearance of the horse as “man’s workmate”—a real loss for Davie, who believes that “the rhythms beaten out by horses’ hooves” are “so insistent that one may indeed wonder whether they are not imprinted on man’s nervous sys tem.” Tom Gunn is celebrated for using “purely formal means” in defiance of the “vulgar modernism” that has “declared illegitimate” the pentameter, and for having “dug back further than any of his contemporaries … to recover that phase of English” that could register “the sleazy and squalid,” but also, even more important, “the...
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