Armadillo

Christopher Ricks

  • Dissentient Voice: Enlightenment and Christian Dissent by Donald Davie
    University of Notre Dame Press, 154 pp, £11.85, June 1982, ISBN 0 268 00852 3
  • These the Companions by Donald Davie
    Cambridge, 220 pp, £12.50, August 1982, ISBN 0 521 24511 7

Donald Davie’s critical arguments are often happily reminiscential, and his reminiscences are often happily argumentative, so the difference in kind between these two admirable books doesn’t make for any great difference of temper. The critical essays which make up Dissentient Voice: Enlightenment and Christian Dissent are an act of making good; they fulfil the promise and they repair the deficiencies of Davie’s earlier book on Dissent and culture, A Gathered Church. The recollections gathered as These the Companions are an act of making permanent, with such permanence as time has; they fulfil a promise often made and often kept in Davie’s poems but which these days asks, too, for the expatiating element of prose: the exercise of ‘the faculty of pious memory’.

There is no reason to question the sincerity of the foreword’s concluding insistence: ‘For certainly I’m not writing to vindicate myself, if only because in this book I am not the principal character. You must bear with the first person singular only so as to have me introduce you to persons and places and ambiences that have a singularity and a value such as I won’t claim for myself.’ The trouble is that this is an insistence. The swell and throb of the title, These the Companions (as against, say, Charles Tomlinson’s recent recollections, Some Americans), are evidence, not just that Davie will over-forgive Ezra Pound almost anything (‘Lordly men are to earth o’ergiven/these the companions’), but also that he needed to underline the self-abnegation. Sincerity, like patriotism (which Davie has too), is not enough. Moving as these recollections often are, in their evocation of places (the West Riding, the Arctic Circle, Cambridge or California) and of people (Douglas Brown, Yvor Winters, an early love, fellow-sailors), his touch in this prose is less secure than in either the kind of prose which he has most practised or the poems which figure within the book as at once asides and nubs. You may say, and believe, that you ‘are not the principal character’, but you can’t help sounding like it when you use such a locution as ‘when I and Sean White took him to Dublin Castle’. After you ... Likewise the author of Purity of Diction in English Verse is perhaps not abnegatingly absent when he attributes to F. R. Leavis a book called New Bearings in English Verse.

Still, Davie’s not being entirely in possession of his means, in a kind of writing relatively new to him, does little to lessen the worth of his living gratitude. Since he is what used to be called a good hater and a bonny fighter (‘I am happy in my glittering envelope, and will fight those who would puncture it,’ ‘I am not prepared to give up my inheritance without a fight’), it is notable that he vindicates such praises in the only way they can be vindicated: by manifesting that he is, too, a man of love. This is not, to put it mildly, a claim usually made for the man. But his love of literature and of literary studies (in descending but not demeaning order); his love of landscape, of rocks and roots (human nature is fine, but scenery is in some respects finer); his love of those who taught him and of those whom he has taught: these are crowned by a feat of the book, its establishing the continuing presence of the people most important to Davie – those so near and dear as not to be companions exactly, his wife and children. They are seldom mentioned, they are indeed, as he says, ‘taken for granted’ – but not unthinkingly or perfunctorily. Davie’s beliefs about privacy, in life and in literature, made it essential that he in no way parade his family, his marriage, his domesticities. He has managed to convey that his family is not at all an element in his book because it is something more important, the element of the book. He has managed to convey, not only that he loves his wife, but that she – who does not get a word in edgeways – loves him, edges and all.

The intimate relation of such covert love to Davie’s overt hatreds is akin to his great strength as a critic, his mounting of polemic from which he can then take off, since it is entirely continous with his more highly imaginative criticism. The last paragraphs of these recollections, even as they thank Davie’s wife, have the courage to incorporate a hot anger coolly turned, there in the deft doffed list at the centre:

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