The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 646

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Donald Davie’s “With the Grain” is a meditative lyric of sixty-three lines divided into three sections, each with three seven-line unrhymed stanzas. The poem ponders the applicability of certain aspects of carpentry and painting to fundamental elements of romantic love and literature. The general, alternating contrast between long and short lines in each stanza as well as the lack of uniform line pattern within or between stanzas (line length varies from five to fourteen syllables) echoes the contrast between regularity, or order, and irregularity, or “cross-graining,” in the poem’s extended metaphor of the effects of the grain in wood on carpentry and other forms of expression.

In stanza 1 of section 1, the speaker moves from particular to general, or concrete to abstract, in a series of third-person questions about the metaphoric applicability of specifics in carpentry (graining) and gardening (tilling) to those endeavors as a whole and, more broadly, to all mental activity or thought. From musing about the application of the idea of the wood’s grain in carpentry to human behavior, inherent in proverbial expressions such as “with the grain” or “ingrained,” the speaker compares, in stanza 2, the carpenter and his work to romantic lovers by personifying the woodworking: “the irritable block/ Screams underneath the blade/ Of love’s demand.” In stanza 3 of section 1, the speaker introduces first-person references and addresses the issue of attempting to communicate through the use of various media: carpenters through wood, painters through color, and romantic lovers and poets through language. This stanza thus commences the correlation developed in the poem between lovers and literary authors, who both use language to communicate.

Section 2 moves from a comparison between communication in romantic love and communication in the “decorative arts” (especially carpentry) to a comparison between communication in romantic love and communication in the visual art of painting. Just as wood resists carpenters’ blades and hue and light may affect or impede painters’ perceptions and renderings of the color of their subjects, so too may the primary medium of communication between lovers (language) resist precise expression. As the painter should find an “equable light” that would not distort hue or color, so, the speaker says to his romantic partner, “we should say, my dear,/ Not what we mean, but what/ The words would mean.” That is, the speaker goes on, “We should speak,/ As carpenters work,/ With the grain of our words.” Nearly all people have had the experience of having something to say but not being able to find the words to precisely express it, sometimes because the words have meanings that pull in different directions from people’s original intentions. The concept of undistorted color in painting (found, according to the poet, in the light of the town of Saint Ives, England) leads the speaker to the idea of a fixed color in love (mauve) that, like the white robes of the Druids in Cornwall or the blue robes of the bards in Wales, would signify devoted, undeflected constancy and commitment.

The association of lovers with bards and Druids in section 2 leads the speaker, in section 3, to call lovers a kind of “fourth estate” that is “hieratic.” The imagery of carpentry and the imagery of painting are combined in section 3 in the speaker’s references to lovers with true communion of emotion and language who are able to “chamfer away/ A knot in the grain of streaming light” and to the poet as the “carpenter of light” who may “work with the grain henceforward.” The repetition of the first three lines of the poem in the first three lines of the last stanza gives the poem a circular or spiral structure, helping to round off the idea that the “colorful trades” of artisan, painter, lover, and poet all aspire, like Icarus, to triumph over elements of the real world that are unruly and a hindrance to their endeavors.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 616

In addition to the striking extended metaphors drawn from carpentry and painting that are used to explore interconnections among artisan, painter, lover, and poet in how they deal with the surrounding world, Davie makes repeated use of allusion, pun, and inverted syntax. Stanza 2 of section 1 contains a humorous allusion to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1603) in the speaker’s recognition that the expression “ingrained habit” is metaphoric or “fanciful”: “And there’s the rub/ Bristling, where the irritable block/ Screams underneath the blade/ Of love’s demand.” Counterposed to the moody, doubtful, and philosophically contemplative Hamlet, who worries about what really may follow death (“To die, to sleep;/ To sleep: perchance to dream: Aye, there’s the rub”), Davie’s speaker is wittily inquisitive and philosophically contemplative about love and art. In stanza 1 of section 3, Davie alludes to a famous passage in French historian Jean Froissart’s Chronicles (1373-1410) that vividly and poetically describes a jousting tournament during which two knights strike each other’s helmets so forcefully that sparks fly from their lances. Davie’s point is that lovers and poets, preferring the “equable light” of Saint Ives to alluring but misleading and sparkling words, would not succumb, like Froissart, to special effects. Indeed, the range of allusion in “With the Grain,” including the history of modern painting (the Saint Ives movement), ancient Celtic lore (Druids, bards, Tristram and Iseult), medieval French literature (Jean Froissart), and classical mythology (Icarus), helps add to the philosophical breadth and scope of the poem.

The multiple puns and inverted syntax in the poem not only add to its meaning but also help convey its theme of the waywardness of words. Repeated color references in section 2 suggest a pun on “philtre” as not only the vial that might change perception but also the “filter” that might change the color of one’s outlook. In stanza 2 of section 3, the “refractory crystal” that the poet attempts to ignore is “reluctant” to allow its allure to be disregarded. In stanza 3 of section 3, the “colourful trades” are “distinctive” and literally “full of color” as depicted in the poem; the “High lights” into which the colorful trades climb are simultaneously lights that are high up, brilliantly lighted areas in a painting, and distinctive features; the reference to how the ideal sun reached by the colorful trades “Dyes only more intensely” has an overtone of death through a lurking pun on “dies” since the trades have risen like Icarus, who not only rose toward the sun with Daedalus’s wings but also plunged to his death because of them and his aspiration.

Following the grain of language is suggested immediately in the poem by the syntax of its first four lines, echoed in the first four lines of the final stanza. This repetition is slightly less exact in the 1990 version of the poem through Davie’s change of “elevate” in line 1 in the 1959 and 1961 versions to “deviate” in the 1990 version. However, in all versions the syntax is inverted, suggesting that language, like the grain in wood, cannot always be planed into simple straightforwardness; not all sentences or thoughts begin with a subject only to be followed by a verb and then a direct object. Rather, as in the openings of the first and last stanzas of the poem, the idea has to be found by following the grain of the sentence to discover that the subject is delayed, preceded by the verb: The activities deviate into their own ideas, and the colorful trades elevate into the light of ideas. This inverted syntax is also required by the linguistic requirements of forming a question sentence that begins with the word “why,” which emphasizes the poem’s contemplative quality.