Donald Davie

Donald Davie, who died in 1995, was a poet and critic who taught at many universities, including Trinity College Dublin, Cambridge, Essex, Stanford (where he succeeded Yvor Winters) and Vanderbilt. He was closely associated with the Movement, although his critical work ranged widely. His books include The Purity of Diction in English Verse, Under Briggflatts: A History of Poetry in Great Britain, 1960-88 and Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor. His Collected Poems was published by Carcanet in 1990 and a memoir, These the Companions, was reviewed in the LRB by Christopher Ricks.

Lawful Charm

Donald Davie, 6 July 1995

Barnes’s poems prompt no new questions about poetry, and no new convictions about it. The hoariest truths about poetry will always be new and questionable to some people, especially those (they are many) who think that poetry is a certainty-free zone from which, because ‘the wind bloweth where it listeth,’ all categorical assertions are debarred as dogmatic, as ‘prescriptive’. The most modest reassertion of principles, however time-honoured and well-attested, will fall under this ban, and so it’s to be expected that even poetry so far from challenging as Barnes’s will be found, by some, to ‘raise far-reaching questions’. Moreover, it’s widely thought that poetry by its nature has to be challenging; and so to call Barnes unchallenging will be thought to set him down as inauthentic or at best third-rate. Of course he is neither:

Second Chances

Donald Davie, 22 July 1993

Patricia Beer tells how not long ago she was giving a reading at which, presumably in a question-and-answer period, one after another in her small audience savaged a poem she’d written 25 years earlier, and hadn’t included in her programme. When after a while she asked if they wouldn’t switch to one of the two hundred poems she’d written since, it turned out that the early poem was the only one any of them had read, and this because it was the one that their tutor, who was present, had photocopied from an anthology and distributed among them. Such things happen on the reading-circuit, as I can attest. And one marvels at what authors will put up with for the sake of a little transient and pitifully restricted fame; how, to get that little, they let themselves be bullied by their agents and publishers, by educationalists and cultural organisers; and one reflects how much cleaner and more decent it is to write for readers than for auditors.


Donald Davie, 27 May 1993

The Seventh Psalm is required in the Book of Common Prayer to be sung or said, in Miles Coverdale’s version, on the evening of Day One of the Church’s calendar:

Boeotian Masters

Donald Davie, 5 November 1992

I don’t know when I was so baffled by a book, or by my response to a book. Up to past the half-way mark I was delighted, finding in Murray’s prose repeatedly the dash and decisiveness that have won me over in many of his poems; after that, I was more and more turned off, left with a bad taste in my mouth, until in the end I was finding him unreadable. Partly this must have to do with the movement through the book from newspaper reviews in the Seventies to what Murray himself describes as ‘the commissioned article, the lecture and the speculative essay’. As he became famous, he got above himself, became portentous. But although this may be true, the crucial change is simply in the quality of the writing. Murray the reviewer had dash and decisiveness, and also generosity. He wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1975 a review of Auden’s Thank you, Fog which is also an obituary. After quoting stanzas in which Auden salutes Horace and Goethe, Murray wrote:

Scots wha hae gone to England

Donald Davie, 9 July 1992

In books that go on about how the English have imposed their language and their manners on other English-speaking nations (Australian, Canadian, Scottish and Welsh and Irish, others), what is striking is how that Anglocentrism, allegedly located in London and Oxbridge mostly, is supposed to be deeply satisfying to the English themselves. Robert Crawford, who pursues the argument on behalf of the Scots, avoids this mistake, detecting in a provincial Englishman like Tony Harrison a fury and resentment not surpassed by any Scot. But this is hardly a novel perception, for Harrison has achieved fame on the strength of it. In fact, it’s hard to find any English writer who isn’t provincial in origin; I’m as much a West Riding product as Tony Harrison, though I haven’t traded on it much. The outcome is obvious and ridiculous: if I have as much right to wear a chip on my shoulder as any Australian or Aberdonian, then who is left to man the supposedly overbearing metropolis, unless it is Kingsley Amis and John Betjeman? The ramparts so frailly manned should have given way long ago to the armies massed against them. What Crawford doesn’t realise is that this indeed has happened; he is sounding the bugle for an assault on a fortress that surrendered years ago.

Enlarging Insularity: Donald Davie

Patrick McGuinness, 20 January 2000

In a recent poem, ‘Languedoc Variorum: A Defence of Heresy and Heretics’, the American poet Ed Dorn honours Donald Davie’s penultimate collection of poems, To Scorch or Freeze...

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In Love

Michael Wood, 25 January 1996

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...

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In praise of manly piety

Margaret Anne Doody, 9 June 1994

Donald Davie is already known for – among many other things – his striking comments on the hymns of Watts and Wesley in A Gathered Church: The Literature of the English Dissenting...

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Christ’s Teeth

C.K. Stead, 10 October 1991

‘Dates, dates are of the essence; and it will be found that I date quite exactly the breakdown of the imaginative exploit of the Cantos: between the completion of the late sequence called...

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C.H. Sisson, 27 September 1990

What sort of a poet is Donald Davie? The factual answer, as with all poets, is to be found only in a volume such as the Collected Poems which he now lays before the public, but Davie himself...

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Davie’s Rap

Neil Corcoran, 25 January 1990

One of the finest things in Donald Davie’s Under Briggflatts is a sustained, learned and densely implicative comparison of two poems about horses: Edwin Muir’s well-known,...

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Lyrics and Ironies

Christopher Ricks, 4 December 1986

Faintly repelled by elaborate theories of irony and by taxonomies of it, D.J. Enright has set himself to muster instances, observations, localities and anecdotes. There is no continuing argument,...

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Ten Poets

Denis Donoghue, 7 November 1985

One of Donald Davie’s early poems, and one of his strongest, is ‘Pushkin: A Didactic Poem’, from Brides of Reason (1955). As in Davie’s ‘Dream Forest’, Pushkin...

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Clean Poetry

John Bayley, 18 August 1983

The Acmeist poet Zenkevich declared in 1911 that when he first met Anna Akhmatova he was struck by her saying that poetry was ‘something organic’, and that she was amused at the idea...

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Christopher Ricks, 16 September 1982

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...

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Poetry and Christianity

Barbara Everett, 4 February 1982

‘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...

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Donald Davie and the English

Christopher Ricks, 22 May 1980

‘Since Byron and Landor, no Englishman appears to have profited much from living abroad.’ So said an American who rightly believed himself to be profiting from living abroad, T.S....

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