Writers born a hundred years ago: No 3: Donald Davie

Jot 101 Donald Davie portNever likely to become a ‘ national treasure ‘, like his fellow centenarian Philip Larkin, Donald Davie has become, in stark contrast, a rather forgotten figure. An academic, like Kingsley Amis and D. J. Enright, but from a very different background ( Yorkshire Baptist )  he was a fellow ‘ Movement’ poet, but not being a novelist like Amis, he became better known as a critic, rather than a poet, though his poetry perhaps deserves to be better known by the ‘ man in the street ‘.

His earliest poetry, such A Winter Talent 1955 was a direct response to the Apocalyptic school that flourished during the Second World War and spilled over into the late forties. The collections that followed, notably Events and Wisdoms(1964) showed a residue  of the influences of the Imagism of Ezra Pound, twentieth century Russian, Chinese poetry of all eras, and American poetry. By the sixties he had become a significant figure in English letters as a critic, and it is as such that he wrote for the New Statesman. Two of his reviews here appear among the archive of the academic Patrick O’Donoghue.

In the first, a review of Eliot’s Collected Poems, 1909 – 1962 (11 October 1963), Davie’s perceptive appraisal is a sort of fan letter to the American. As a poet he is seen as a master of self-control, unlike so many poets, preserving only those poems that he feels deserve to live.

‘This is a fantastic achievement, …not of poetry…,but of judgement, taste, self-knowledge, self-control. We are not prepared for this rigour of self criticism in poets…’

Davie also notes the fact that the poems and critical essays are ‘sealed off from each other…Now that many of the essays, having served their vast polemical purpose, seem dated or out-dated, the poems soar on completely undamaged. The criticism never fitted the poems anyhow…the body of poetic theory which illuminates and explains it is not in Mr Eliot’s essays, nor anywhere else in English, but in French…’

Davie notes that for his professed admiration for Donne and Dryden, Eliot had a ‘ late Romantic sensibility and the poems are late- Romantic poems ‘ that, as Valery remarked on late Romantic poems generally , aspired to be music.

In the review of  John H. Johnston’ English Poetry of the First World War ( 28th August 1964) Davie concurs with some of the criticism levelled at Wilfred Owen by Yeats  ( that he wrote badly) and felt that like  Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Rosenberg were basically amateurs in many ways. However, he argues that all three poets were admired by the British public for their honesty and compassion, whereas the more polished Brooke, for all his ‘ poetic ‘ language, was rejected as being too suave and remote. He also remarks that American critics like Johnston don’t appreciate the particularly British culture that prevailed in trench warfare, as they had nothing similar themselves.

Incidentally, in his Thomas Hardy and British Poetry, Davie himself reveals his own ignorance of the natural world, according to the acclaimed critic and poet Geoffrey Grigson, who reserved some of his most brutal contumely in his review of the book, which was ‘spiked ‘ by the TLS editor. After a swipe at the ‘ academic ‘ language used by Davie, Grigson challenged the critic’s claim that  Hardy was so aware of the technological advances that were developing in the Victorian age that he used an image of a mechanical lathe in a poem. Grigson pointed out that Hardy was referring to the flight of a bird. Again, in this instance, it is hard to defend Davie against the charge of ignorance and even stupidity. Grigson’s complaint, which he had made many times before, was   that critics in the Humanities too often betrayed their narrow education by getting it wrong when it came to the natural world. In another  review he had shown up the popular art historian Roy Strong as a total ignoramus when he used the ludicrous expression ‘ seminal roots ‘in a book on Victorian painting. Perhaps the copy-editor was equally at fault for failing to spot this solecism. Doubtless he or she was another graduate in the Humanities. [R.M.Healey ]

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