Poetry and Christianity

Barbara Everett

  • Three for Water-Music by Donald Davie
    Carcanet, 69 pp, £2.95, July 1981, ISBN 0 85635 363 9
  • The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse edited by Donald Davie
    Oxford, 319 pp, £7.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 19 213426 4

‘Water-Music’ makes in itself a fine concept, through the delicate difference of its components, water being transparent though sometimes audible, music being always audible and always transparent; together they would make a good Symbolist image for religious art, if only Symbolism had believed in religion. But the thing the concept is based on is not now experienced much in reality. Or, if it is experienced, it hardly lives up to the concept: madrigals I heard once on the river at Oxford by night involved merely damp, and mosquitoes, and an occasion all innocent pretentiousness. And yet a good many people feel, and are surely right to go on feeling, that they know all about water-music, simply because of Handel. It is surprising how much of ordinary life turns out to be purely conceptual like this – in modern society, at any rate; and modernity probably started with the making of the Lascaux cave-paintings, themselves a kind of visual water-music. We think we know things, when what we really know is the inside of the head, and live by theories untested for generations and even for centuries. The realists tend to be, not the extroverts and pragmatists, who are merely good at converting other people to their fantasies, but a few experts in consciousness who have got to know the hard way where the limits of their theories lie.

Donald Davie’s new sequence of poems, ‘Three for Water-Music’ (which fills the first third of his Carcanet paperback), refers not only to pleasant 18th-century entertainments by water, but to something like Yeats’s ‘words for music, perhaps’: or like Eliot’s Four Quartets, to which the sequence declares some relationship. For Davie’s three poems lie somewhere between late Symbolist poetry and a more quietly literal tradition of English topography; they are a species of modern half-abstract landscape poem, which locate in the real certain transparencies of thought. They show concept both created and creating, as a fountain might be heard to rise and fall again. And indeed of the poet’s three locations which have given rise to epiphanies, the first and last are, in fact, Sicilian ‘fountains’ or pools, each named after an Ovidian legend of loss of love; the second is a brown pool in a torrential stream between steep English hillsides. The sequence, recording ‘Epiphanies all around us Always perhaps’, in a sense finds no answer to its opening question: ‘And what’s to be made of that?’ Any sense of answer or reconciliation is confined to the expressive forms of the poems themselves, which always – like music – imply the silence behind them:

 Demeter launches
One fish in a silver are
To signalise her daughter’s
Re-entry to the dark.

Donald Davie is on occasion a superlative poet, and this volume is one of the occasions. Reticence and a love of the theoretical often combine to make his communications a triumph of style. Even the unegoistic Eliot allows ghosts and Furies to move through his Quartets, possessing and obsessing them and directing an imperious control over the reader: there are no such ghosts in ‘Three for Water-Music’, which in fact insists on the absence of any such presences:

And it was nothing, nothing at all
‘Happened’ ...

This absence of the explainable beyond the renewal of the self-containedness of the image

    (One could go round and round
This single and Sicilian less
    Than happening)

gives the sequence its beautiful and tough purity, as of those ‘clear-glassed windows/The clear day looking in’ which the poet remembers from early Dissenting chapels. But it produces an art always close enough to the tacit to make a reader grateful for the relative ‘impurities’ (what Davie has called elsewhere, in connection with Wordsworth, ‘the smell of the human’) in the latter part of this book, which consists of ‘The Shires’.

‘The Shires’, a reprint of the 1974 volume of that name, which is now out of print, is a sequence of 40 short or shortish poems lacking the manifest philosophical concerns of the poems that precede it. It offers itself as an easy, even casual topographical record of England, county by county in alphabetical sequence, almost like an ‘Oxford Book’. But this is in fact an extremely original gazetteer, whose aesthetic nature places it rightly in the same volume as ‘Three for Water-Music’. The very word ‘shires’ reminds us by its archaism of what we know already – that England like other known places is always slipping into the past, always changing its nature from the remembered. Moreover the ‘sense of place’ is a feeling often keenest in absence or exile (which is why landscape poems are so often elegiac); like other senses of loss, it occasions self-questioning. In the first of these poems, ‘Bedfordshire’, the poet-tourist, thinking of Bunyan, stares at a ‘nineteenth-century ... brick chapel’ and asks ‘What to do with this that I am heir to’ – and the ‘this’ includes, not only a family past involved with Dissenting Christianity, but England itself (called in the previous sequence a ‘long-deflowered dissenting chapel’, and the whole world beyond it that demands to be made sense of:

                                  It’s a chosen
North of the mind I take my bearings by,
A stripped style and a wintry.

Davie builds up in the end an extraordinarily clear, sharp and pungent sense of England. But he does so by first clearing the ground of illusion (almost every poem begins with a harsh disclaimer, as ‘Berkshire’, ‘Don’t care for it ... ’, ‘Derbyshire’, ‘We never made it ...’). The fragments of memory come to carry truth because the real human topographies, so the poems seem to say, depend on certain stripped and wintry conditions in life itself. Thus Rutland, the ‘Joke county, smallest in England’, is real because it once held

    my old
Friend, Bill Partridge. Dead now. Had you noticed?

How heavy that weighs, how wide the narrowest shire!

Because all space forms itself round the loved, who become more and more, as time passes, the loved dead, all counties really are alike ‘the smallest’; just as all these poems begin in their sharp wit of detachment as ‘joke’ poems – but jokes that nonetheless hold in their bluntness, their fragmentariness, their ridiculously wooden personal allusions, a whole unjokey monumental statement about human limits and human value. Thus ‘Leicestershire’ ends impassively:

At Loughborough, I remember,
A man too little regarded
(Dead since), V.C. Clinton –
Baddeley afforded
Several views of Yeats.

There is a fine art, given this essentially English context, even in the balanced placing of the hyphen. Everything in ‘The Shires’ has a decorous ‘English’ smallness in this sense, a perfect art of self-containment and throw-away grace and wit, all the effects as tacit as they are taciturn. Indeed, the ironies, silences and negations in Davie’s art are clearly conditions of their opposite, as a love of country may dictate a refusal to be mindlessly ‘patriotic’. In ‘Middlesex’ Davie tells the story of an English girl met serving beers in a Greek bar:

The longer loop their Odysseys, the more
Warmly exact the Ithakas they remember:
Thus, home she said was Middlesex, though Wembley
I should have named, indifferently, as ‘London’.

The poet himself uses a whole technique of exile from easy effect to call into being a real life, a real place all the more ‘warmly exact’ for its scrupulous turning-away.

The second of the ‘Three for Water-Music’, named ‘Wild Boar Clough’, ends with an image of the way a land is ‘colonised’ by what is acted and suffered on it:

                           slaughtered saints
Cut down of a Sunday morning by dragoons
    Grounded the English Covenant
In ling and peat-moss. Sound of singing drifts
    Tossed up like spume, persistently
Pulsing through history and out of it.

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