Obituary: Professor Donald Davie
Wednesday 20 September 1995
Donald Davie was the defining poet-critic of his generation.
His writing, poetry and prose, possesses a wonderful clarity of argument and formal purpose, exemplary even in its polemical forms. Davie was a dissenter and polemicist: engagement with literature and language is the crucial engagement with culture, and he found himself out of sympathy with cultural and political reaction quite as much as he did with those who thought the arts of writing were a doddle. He was impatient with overselling as with selling short, and his endeavour as a teacher was to bring the reader close to the text, the writer close in language to the core experience of the poem he or she was writing.
Born in Barnsley in 1922, he remained true to the landscapes and the accents of his formative years. In his autobiography These the Companions (1982), he recalls his Baptist boyhood, his modest chapel family, and those ingredients which went to the making of his distinctive Englishness, remote from the southern rural and patrician as from the Lawrentian, yet rich in new possibilities. He concluded his life a devout Anglican.
From Barnsley he earned a scholarship to St Catharine's College, Cambridge, but passed through the Navy first and saw service in Arctic Russia, teaching himself the language and preparing for his notable translations of Pasternak and his writings on Russian and Polish literature collected in Slavic Excursions (1990). In the last year of the Second World War he married Doreen John, who struck all who knew and know her as his staunchest friend, his severest and most generous critic. To her he wrote his best-known poem, "Time Passing, Beloved", a tender, rhapsodic celebration of fidelity and commitment. They were to have three children.
Donald Davie read English at Cambridge, going on to lecture at Trinity College Dublin for seven years. There his important early critical books, Purity of Diction in English Verse (1952) and Articulate Energy (1955), were written, and his first collection of poems, Brides of Reason (1955), appeared.
This was an almost unnaturally orderly beginning, defining for himself and for his generation a stance against the excesses of the 1940s: "There is no necessary connection between the poetic vocations on the one hand, and on the other exhibitionism, egoism, and licence." His was the clearest and most insistent voice of the early Movement and, with Philip Larkin's, it will prove the most durable.
But Davie was not content with what came to seem a Romantic adherence to Augustan precepts. He had read Pasternak and he was discovering Ezra Pound. In 1958 he returned to Cambridge, and in 1964 helped to bring into being Essex University with its radical approach to literary studies. His time there ended painfully in the debacles of 1968. He became Professor of English at Stanford, California, following Yvor Winters, whose work he introduced to English readers. Later he went to Vanderbilt, Tennessee. He never lost sight of Britain, addressing his essays and his poems to English readers. In 1988 he returned gratefully to Silverton, in Devon, to a fully engaged retirement.
After his first two collections of poems he became restless. The work of Pound, of the Black Mountain Poets and others, stirred his formal imagination, and with A Sequence for Francis Parkman (1961) he broke new ground, employing the cento form and drawing history in vividly present form.
Essex Poems (1969), written out of the intense intellectual and political turbulence of the period, is his first major collection, and it was followed by others: Six Epistles to Eva Hesse (1970), The Shires (1974, disliked by critics at the time for its English modernism), In the Stopping Train (1977, his most vulnerably candid book), Three for Water-Music (1981, an oblique homage to three landscapes, and to Pound, Eliot, Bunting and other writers of whom he was made), and his most original and challenging volume, To Scorch or Freeze (1988, in which he revisits the Psalms).
"In all but what seems inchoate," he wrote, " we quiz the past, to see it straight / Requires a form just out of reach." He thought he had exhausted his Muse, but two months ago he sent me a new poem, a meditation on the "Our Father", which may prove his crowning achievement.
In parallel with his poetry went his work as critic, advocate and anthologist. In The Late Augustans (1958) he began the task of dusting down the 18th century, and in 1961 his advocacy of Sir Walter Scott followed. For me his most important prose books are Ezra Pound: poet as sculptor (1964, still a crucial account of the author), Thomas Hardy and British Poetry (1973, a book which put the cat among the pigeons of a literary orthodoxy blind to its constraining secularism), Czeslaw Milosz and the Insufficiency of Lyric (1986, a book which radicalises our sense of the lyric and its limitations in the latter years of this century), and Under Briggflatts: a history of poetry in Great Britain 1960-1988 (1989, a classic "historical" engagement). There is much else, and the prose works exist in a Collected Edition, the final volume of which, Church, Chapel, and the Unitarian Conspiracy: essays in dissent, is due for publication in October.
Donald Davie's impact as a critic will prove central and durable; his poems will survive in their formal diversity, their intellectual richness and rigour, their emotional honesty. His legacy to my generation includes his presence, now withdrawn. It is those astonishing letters, those meetings with the "benign curmudgeon" I will most miss, the squaring up, the concessions, the larger battles, the sense of a vocation worth the candle, worth the fight.
It was possible to visit - at Stanford, in London, Cambridge, Silverton or Manchester - and talk for six or seven hours with, at the end of it, a sense of time suspended. It was always dialogue, never pontification; and it was always a moving out, and out. Always addition, always growth.
As he wrote in a poem many years ago, "Needing to know is always how to learn, / Needing to see brings sightings."
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