Trying to Explain 
by Donald Davie.
Carcanet, 213 pp., £6.95, April 1980, 0 85635 343 4
Show More
Show More

‘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. Eliot in England in 1918, honouring the American who had likewise profited and who had then become – as Eliot would – an Englishman: Henry James. ‘The fact of being everywhere a foreigner was probably an assistance to his native wit.’

And Donald Davie, who everywhere has his native wits about him, has he profited much from living abroad? In half-praise of George Steiner, Davie floats ‘a tradition of high-flying speculation about literature, which we costive islanders cannot afford not to profit by’. ‘Speculation’, ‘afford’ and ‘profit’ put a poet’s pressure on ‘costive’. Yet should Davie simply say ‘we costive islanders’? It is odd that he doesn’t openly count the costiveness and the profit of his being stationed abroad.

‘Here are some periodical pieces, mostly rather recent, which concern themselves with poetry both American and British, from the point of view of a British poet who has, however, resided for the past ten years in the United States.’ One word in Davie’s preface is uncharacteristically demure. ‘Resided’? An Englishman such as he, with his convictions and his angers, would not be likely to profit much, except financially, from residing abroad. The book’s blurb is right to strip away this residual pudeur, and to speak of ‘the point of view of a British poet who has lived for the last decade in America’. But then the casualness of Davie’s opening – ‘Here are some ...’ – might mislead. The critic who waited for twenty years before agreeing to a collection of his essays, and who then permitted another to compile it, would not be the man to bring out, only two or three years later, a rag-bag.

Trying to Explain collects its strength, urged on by an exacerbated feeling for the differences between England and America; by a painful reluctance to abandon its hope that each might adopt something of the other’s wisdom; and by a confidence that we must newly see the truth of the old sense of things – namely, that the Englishman is the victim-beneficiary of a belief in the artist as amateur, and the American of a belief in the artist as professional.

This wise saw is filled out with modern instances. Davie has lost none of his ability to swoop upon a single fact of singular importance. On Allen Tate’s retreat from the factuality of his poems, such that ‘Shadow and Shade’ is seriously flawed by ‘the impossibility of knowing where the two actors in the poem are standing (indoors, that is, or out-of-doors)’; on Ed Dorn’s magical misspellings, which are sometimes ‘exhuberant’ and more often ‘queezy’, but which can pack a portmanteau which is worth the carriage, as in ‘The creatures of ice feignt and advance’ (or the truest poetry is the most feigning); on Robert Lowell’s achieving what is rare in him, a telling sequence, in his Selected Poems, ‘Nineteen Thirties’, 25 poems formerly scattered and now finding the arc they were meant for – on all these and on much else (Yeats’s fascism, and Pound’s), Davie can strike sparks and can kindle fervour.

Yet there is much that is strange about the book’s movements of mind. There are no fits and starts, but there are leaps and bounds. Take the preoccupation to which very many of the essays recur, which is seen as epitomising the contrast between the English amateur and the American professional: the belief in an atelier or studio. The idea of thresholds is crucial to Davie here, and he argues persuasively that below a certain threshold of skilled competence a dedication to the artist as amateur may issue only in the slovenly and amateurish, and above such a threshold a dedication to the artist as professional may issue only in the facile and professionalised. But why does it follow that ateliers are the answer, or even an answer? ‘Both Pound and Wyndham Lewis were American or Americanised enough to have on the contrary a professional attitude to their respective arts, in the quite precise sense that they saw the continuity of art traditions ensured by the atelier, the master instructing his prentices. The renegade or maverick Englishmen with whom they allied themselves – Ford, and at another level A.R. Orage – shared this un-English conviction and habit.’ Yet it does not seem from this book that any of these writers did convert this conviction into a habit. Where did the studios flourish, who were the masters and who the prentices? Davie quotes Canto 80: ‘For “prodigies” (“Mr Binyon’s young prodigies”) surely we ought to read “protégés”.’ But we shouldn’t delete ‘prodigies’: to lose the pun would be to lose the lugubrious implication that, in this day and age and art, a protégé would be a prodigy. Davie is obliged to protect, not prentices, but his own conviction; to protect it against what he himself then elicits from this Canto: the question about Binyon and Sturge Moore, ‘whether the two senior writers could not have established themselves – at least for some purposes – as masters of ateliers in which the two young hopefuls might have enrolled as apprentices’. For the answer to the question ‘could they not?’ is more no than yes, and the answer to the question ‘did they?’ is flatly no. That Pound hungered for such a relationship, that at the age of 48 (in 1934) he would still have liked ‘to enroll in Binyon’s seminar if Binyon would only call it into being’: this is delightfully established by Davie. But the sweet fatuity and credulity of the wish (Pound and Wyndham Lewis, prenzies to Binyon and Sturge Moore?) ought to make against Davie’s urging us to share it.

For one thing, Davie is markedly short of accounts of such literary ateliers and their success. For another, he doesn’t ask any questions about the differences between the visual arts and the art of literature, and how these might render more difficult and even perhaps inapplicable the concept of an atelier. He assimilates it to the ‘creative writing’ schools or classes in America (respected there, and complacently despised by the British, it seems), as if the two were not radically different in where they located a very substantial part of their authority. He notices, but does not stay with, the fact that the word atelier is foreign not just to British but to American ears. Of his ‘consultancy sessions’ at Stanford in the writing of poetry: ‘Here it seems to me that the relationship is that of a master to an apprentice. I like to think of it being like Ghirlandaio in his workshop. And as we all know, in that workshop (for which for some reason we always use the French word atelier), were young apprentices learning at the master’s feet.’ For some reason? The French word will not be assimilated, and the recalcitrance may have something to do with the thing itself. But then these days ‘workshop’ won’t really do either, even if you don’t go as far as Jake of Jake’s Thing: ‘If there’s one word that sums up everything that’s gone wrong since the War, it’s Workshop.’

‘The strictly poetical inspiration of our poetry,’ said Hopkins, a poet-critic of whom Davie has disapproved but with whom he might here concur, ‘seems to me to be of the very finest, finer perhaps than the Greek; but its rhetoric is inadequate – seldom first-rate, mostly only just sufficient, sometimes even below par. By rhetoric I mean all the common and teachable element in literature, what grammar is to speech, what thoroughbass is to music, what theatrical experience gives to playwrights.’ But it does not follow that dedication to an appropriate professionalism would have to – or would be likely to – take the form of enrolling in an atelier. The teachable element in literature might, after all, be best taught even to poets by an attention not to their own poems or to their master’s, but to poets not alive or not in the room. Or it might be taught by the private solicitudes of friendship (Hopkins and Bridges) or by the public educings and adducings of a periodical.

This matters to Davie’s book, not just because Trying to Explain does not really try to explain how it is guided to this outcome, but because there is entailed a slight to ‘the two massive figures of Henry James and T.S. Eliot’. Neither lacked the highest respect for the teachable element in literature; but neither devoted much energy to any atelier. ‘It was this unrelenting professionalism in Pound that set, and continues to set. Englishmen’s teeth on edge.’ But before setting our teeth off edge, we should at least ask whether Pound didn’t have a less than fully intelligent and imaginative notion of what the truly professional consisted in; should ask whether there is anywhere in sight an even better dedication. It is not clear whether Davie believes Eliot to have been guilty of unrelenting amateurism or of relenting professionalism, but either way Eliot is never to be acknowledged here as any kind of principled differer from Pound. Pound did what Auden says you mustn’t do in the company of the English, he talked shop – ‘(Once again Eliot knew, or soon learned, better).’ And this was merely worse? Eliot is introduced as ‘that one of [Pound’s] erstwhile protégés who had become, surprisingly, a pillar of the English establishment – Eliot, editor of the Criterion’. Prodigy, certainly; protégé ...? It would not suit Davie’s argument to acknowledge Pound’s letter in 1914 about Eliot: ‘He is the only American I know of who has made what I can call adequate preparation for writing. He has actually trained himself and modernised himself on his own.’ Anyway, why should it be automatically assumed that the mutual respect of Eliot and the English Establishment is something for which they must be disrespected? Is the implication that Eliot abandoned his proper professionalism? Or that he never had it? (Evidence?) In any case, what matters is that the artist should be professional, not that he should bristlingly announce his unrelenting professionalism. Davie rightly insists that Pound could not have stayed in an England which was so obtusely hostile to him. But he goes on: ‘If Pound had been different ...? He would have had to be as different as T.S. Eliot; and there’s an end of that speculation!’ But it isn’t the end of speculation about this shriek-mark. For what exactly did Eliot achieve in his difference from Pound in this matter? It Eliot did not merely renege, what did he create as an alternative to Pound’s sense of professional dedication?

Davie says that ‘on this issue indeed the comparison with Eliot is inescapable,’ but the issue is then escaped from, and we hear only the terms of unspecified social offence and not at all the terms of the particular social offence given by that conception of the artist as professional which so disturbs the English. ‘Eliot very early learned and bowed to the English rule that social amenity must not be disturbed – alike in his life-style and, after Poems 1920, in his poetic style also, he observed this rule punctiliously.’ But the life-style of the very young Eliot in America – whether within his family or at Harvard – was no more willing to disturb social amenity than was that of Eliot in England, and so there are reasons to be sceptical of ‘Eliot very early learned and bowed to the English rule ...’ The English rule was also the rule of the young Eliot’s America (which was not all of America, but then nor was the England which is posited all of England). The life and art of Eliot are underdescribed here by Davie, to put it mildly; concerned and informed patience is given to Pound, whereas Eliot is offered as presenting no honourable alternative to Pound’s honourable pugnacity and exile. But then such alternatives are often waved away by Davie. The same page pops this question: ‘Is it perhaps true that for many of the English, poetry has never been anything else but a superior parlor game? We might begin to think so if we reflected that in parlor games the rules never change, and then noticed that this year the most accomplished of our poets in their forties published, sixty years after Pound’s Lustra and Eliot’s Prufrock, an ambitious poem in the shape of 15 interlinked pentameter sonnets.’ (This year? The lecture was given in 1977 but published in 1978.) One desirable rule of literary criticism might be that you should not calumniate the unnamed, or incite parlour-game guesswork about poetry. (Is it Geoffrey Hill? Fifteen sonnets doesn’t fit, though there would be something boldly winsome about offering Hill as your example of the poet insufficiently dedicated to his art.) Even more important, there is the assertive naivety which does not need even to argue in any way for its belief that a sonnet sequence must today be nothing but a parlour game, a regression in the art of poetry, a sinking-back down some evolutionary scale. All of which would be extraordinary if it weren’t that the argument about Pound and Eliot is so badly manned that it needs all the reinforcements which rhetoric’s encitements can drum up.

Something else is strange about the book. For Davie is necessarily much occupied with expatriates, and yet at no point does he discuss either the general advantages and disadvantages of this vantage-point or the particular ones which might go with a particular siting. Eliot is ‘the American Virgilian expatriate’; Dorn ‘has lived in England, has been happy there’; Lowell had ‘his withdrawal to England’; Steiner ‘has removed himself from the British literary scene to Geneva, for reasons which I understand’; and the publisher of this book itself, Michael Schmidt of the Carcanet Press and of PN Review (of which Davie is an editor), is Davie’s double-goer off in the opposite direction (‘American by conditioning, but Mexican by citizenship and an English resident by preference’). Davie repeatedly speaks of ‘my English-conditioned taste’, ‘my British conditioning’, ‘my English ear’; he muses ‘as an Englishman’ about this, and as ‘a British reader’ about that. But he is not simply a British reader (whether of British or American poetry), he is a British reader who does almost all of his reading, and of his talking and writing, in another country. It is eerie that he is not moved to attend directly to what it means to be an expatriate, having home-thoughts and abroad-thoughts from abroad. The first words of his touching essay ‘A West Riding Boyhood’ are: ‘In California, one summer afternoon in 1971, soon after my 49th birthday, I slept and had a dream.’ To move from the title to those first two words is striking and strange; what is no less strange is the way the words ‘In California’ at once disappear down a concessive oubliette.

‘Ezra Pound’s long love-affair with England’ is Davie’s too, except that Pound had shaken the dust of England onto his feet. But can Davie’s long love-affair with America be elided so glidingly? Pound, ‘that expatriate and maverick American’, is the heart of the matter and the heart of the book. Some of the six pieces devoted to him have telling titles: ‘Ezra Pound abandons the English’, ‘Pound and The Exile’, ‘Ezra Pound and the English’. Davie is often persuasive in rebuking those in England who were violent or condescending towards Pound (though the English might reasonably be vexed by the deployment against them, in defence of a Fascist who supported their enemies during the war, of the dictum by Auden that the English are ‘persuaded beyond argument that they are the Herrenvolk’). But it is perplexing, and it incites a legitimate hunger which the book never satisfies, that Davie will not share his thoughts, in principle or in detail, about expatriation itself.

We are reminded that Pound was not the only one to find that England after the Great War was, for the artist, ‘uninhabitable’. D.H. Lawrence found it so, and Graves and then Auden and Isherwood. But the cases don’t click. For Pound – like James and Eliot – had previously found America uninhabitable. Davie finds America inhabitable. I should hope so too. But why wasn’t it part of his critical obligation, when engaged so much with ‘the matter of England’, to say just exactly what it is, this ‘point of view of a British poet who has lived for the last decade in America’? It cannot be the same as that of a British poet who simply knows and loves America and its poetry but does not live there.

At one point Davie defends Pound’s poem Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, and his own arguments about it, against an adverse critic. ‘For this sort of Englishman, “externality” – to things English – is what any American is condemned to; and per contra “inwardness” – with things English – is what an Englishman quite simply has, painlessly, as a birthright.’ Yet it was Pound himself who signed the warrant for some such condemnation, in a book which Davie has wistfully and wittily acknowledged elsewhere but not here, Patria Mia (1913). It was Pound who insisted: ‘If a man’s work require him to live in exile, let him suffer, or enjoy, his exile gladly. But it would be about as easy for an American to become a Chinaman or a Hindoo as for him to acquire an Englishness, or a Frenchness, or a European-ness that is more than half a skin deep.’

Perhaps Davie believes that the sufferings and enjoyments of exile are to be the tissue of his poetry and not of his criticism. Or perhaps the present collection is a stage towards his engagement with the nature of expatriation, its enabling and disabling propensities. Of his one perverse book, Thomas Hardy and British Poetry, he good-naturedly acknowledges that ‘it never makes up its mind whether it’s addressing the American reader or the British reader, and part of the time it is castigating the Americans for not being British, and the rest of the time it’s castigating the British for not being Americans.’ But then not does it make up its mind whether it is castigating the British for living in Britain.

It may be that there is a clue to what is deep in Davie, in one of the best essays, ‘American Literature: The Canon’.

My [American] students stare at me in surprise when I point out that in the 150 years between the landing of the Pilgrim Fathers and the Declaration of Independence very few people of Caucasian race, born and living in the territory of what is now the continental United States, conceived of themselves as anything but Englishmen who happened to live on the opposite side of the Atlantic from most of their compatriots. Yet so far as I can see (I stand ready to be corrected) this was indeed the case. Indeed, those very Americans who themselves created the American nation as a political identity distinct from the British, the very fathers of the Republic themselves – Ben Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson – conceived of themselves, at least up to 1776, as Englishmen who happened to live overseas. How could they have thought otherwise?

From these pages there rises a weird yearning. Davie, in his modern self-exile, joins in his imagination those who lived in America but were Englishmen, ‘Englishmen who happened to live overseas’. To live in America then was to be – as it now can never be – not an English expatriate but an Englishman’s compatriot. Englishmen in America, they lived then within a society profoundly attractive and impressive to Davie:

Eighteenth-century habits of thought and language persist in American public life as they do not in the public life of England. The Constitution of the United States was framed according to 18th-century pre-Romantic ideals, and is couched in 18th-century Enlightenment language ... Yet that the American should refuse to sympathise with his own pre-Romantic past, to the extent of denying (unless he is a constitutional lawyer or a professional historian) that he has any 18th-century past at all – this cannot fail to astonish us. Pope and Dryden, Fielding and Goldsmith, ought to be more your authors than they are mine, simply because the institutionalised public life of your nation has kept open avenues of access to their imaginative and intellectual world, in a way that the public life of England has not.

Nowhere does Davie speak as if he had access to a time-machine. Yet his words vibrate with a sense of how perfect a home this would have been for him, this 18th-century England which was America. There is a poignancy in this, as there was in Pound’s acknowledgment – never to be accepted by Pound himself – that no American could ‘acquire an Englishness, or a Frenchness, or a Europeanness that is more than half a skin deep’. Eliot too was haunted. ‘It is hardly too much to say,’ said he, ‘that Chaucer is difficult for a Continental because he is an Englishman, and difficult for an Englishman because he is pre-Reformation – because he belongs naturally and quite locally to the main body of European thought.’ Eliot, an American writing this on the brink of becoming an Englishman, longs to belong naturally and quite locally to the main body of European thought, back in the days when in Europe the word ‘catholic’ meant what it said. This poignancy, where you can conceive of a state within time, for ever closed to you, can be heard even in the wit of another of Eliot’s great sayings about James: ‘It is the final perfection, the consummation of an American to become, not an Englishman, but a European – something which no born European, no person of any European nationality, can become.’ Davie writes, tacitly and touchingly, as if it were the final perfection of an Englishman to become, not an American, but a born-again pre-1776 American, an Englishman who happens to live overseas, something which no born American can become.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences