With the Grain Themes
by Donald Davie

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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Davie’s interests in literary criticism and aesthetics are reflected in many of his poems, including “With the Grain.” The poem reminds readers that language, literature, crafts, art, and romantic love or interpersonal relationships may be, and have been, interconnected. Because of the world’s complexity, principles from any one of these areas may cross over into principles of the others; thus, a correlation is revealed in the development of proverbial metaphoric expressions, the shaping of a carpenter’s block, the filling of a painter’s canvas, the evolution of a romantic couple’s relationship through dialogue or argument, and the unfolding of a poem’s—including this poem’s—form and meanings.

A crucial premise of the poem, in accord with Davie’s early reputation as a modern neoclassicist, is that principles of order do indeed underlie the apparent meandering diversity of people, activities, and material objects in the world. These principles allow the poet’s recognition of reflections and connections among the disparate data of experience, ranging from modernity to antiquity. The modern romantic partner addressed by the speaker in section 2 is assumed to have the wit and intelligence of the addressees of love poems in the bygone neoclassical and Metaphysical periods of English literature, who could understand and appreciate the artistry and thought of Alexander Pope, John Dryden, and John Donne. These poets, like Davie, could contemplate and find the surprising resemblances between romantic love and planing a block of wood.