- Essays in Dissent: Church, Chapel and the Unitarian Conspiracy by Donald Davie
Carcanet, 264 pp, £25.00, October 1995, ISBN 1 85754 123 5
He suffered fools grimly, because he thought there were so many of them, but he was himself far from grim. His laugh was a cross between a splutter and a chuckle, as if the joke had been cooking inside him for some time, and now was too good to be retained any longer. No mistaking the deep amusement in this laugh; not a trace of rancour or disappointment. It’s true that he placed ‘sourness and spite ... among the legitimate pleasures of pedantry’, and said he had made ‘a comfortable career’ out of the jeremiad; but then these formulations suggest a complicated performance rather than straightforward sourness or lamentation, and his professed worry that a series of his lectures seems ‘ingratiating’ in print strikes me as some sort of puritan mischief, rather as if Samson might have thought he was being too polite when he pulled the temple down. I often felt daunted by him, but I never met him without feeling better for the meeting – I am extending the notion of meeting to include casual encounters outside St David’s Station, Exeter and a wry postcard, long ago, from Stanford, as well as more substantial talks. He was Donald Davie, who was born in Barnsley in 1922 and died in Devon last autumn, a precise and passionate poet and critic, the Empson or the Eliot of his generation. Or rather, he would have been the Empson or Eliot of his generation, if his generation had not largely failed to need him, as it largely failed to need either poetry or criticism in anything other than easy doses.
Davie was English as perhaps only Yorkshire people can imagine they are, but he was also an internationalist, deeply hostile to the Little Englandism of many of his peers, notably Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis. He wrote a book about Czeslaw Milosz, translated many poems from Polish and Russian. In his memoir, These the Companions, he describes what he improbably calls F.R. Leavis’s charm, but the hero of the book is the Californian critic Yvor Winters, a man whose demands on poetry make Leavis look like a pushover. Davie himself made similar demands – nothing was too good for poetry – but he understood, as a subtle puritan would need to, that permanent disappointment is also a mode of self-indulgence, and he never suggested that no poetry was good enough. What he said about R.P. Blackmur says, by reflection, a great deal about himself. Blackmur was interested, Davie thought, in ‘poetry, not poems: poetry, that is, considered not as the body of poems that have been or may be achieved, but as a quality or a condition of language never exemplified without some adulteration in even the greatest poems, seen there only by glimpses, by fits and starts, a fortunate visitation on some one line or snatch of lines’. Davie is beginning to be carried away by his anti-Platonic fervour at the end of that sentence, but it is true that Blackmur loved the marvellous failure more than he loved anything else. Davie was interested in the rare success in poems; and in poetry only as what the best poems added up to. Winters is described as giving ‘the impression, when one met him, of lifting a heavy boot with immense difficulty out of a tangle of the earthiest particulars’. Davie is airy by comparison, but we see how he longs for those earthy particulars.
Davie studied at Cambridge, and later taught there. He also taught at Trinity College, Dublin, the then new University of Essex, Stanford, Vanderbilt. Those are real places, but they are imaginary places too, as places always were for Davie, lodgings of history and possibility, signs and stories waiting on the world map – since ‘reality is measured and underwritten ... by the records of the imagination.’ Davie had been, he said, a writer, a poet, a critic and a teacher, and had ‘tried not to be amateurish about any of them, but it’s impossible to single out any one of them and declare that one to be my profession, or my vocation. “Writer” is the one I like best, because it’s the most capacious.’ Even then he thought he was not a writer ‘in the single-minded and consuming sense’ in which Woolf and Hemingway were writers.