The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 646 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 616 words.)