Essays in Dissent: Church, Chapel and the Unitarian Conspiracy 
by Donald Davie.
Carcanet, 264 pp., £25, October 1995, 1 85754 123 5
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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.

‘I have never known / What to do with this that I am heir to,’ Davie wrote in a poem. ‘This’ is Chapel as opposed to Church, English Dissent from the English Establishment. In another poem, Davie evokes ‘the long-deflowered/Dissenting chapel that / England is’ – where ‘long’ suggests both long ago and a long time in the undoing. Of course England for Davie is a lot of other things, mainly worse. These complications are compounded by the fact that in 1976 Davie was saying he no longer spoke ‘from within the ranks of Dissent’, meaning, I take it, that he was an Episcopalian in America and an Anglican in England. But Dissent was where his heart was, or would have been if there were any Dissent left; just as Dissent represented the best of the English heart when it was still connected to a mind – before sentimentality and intellectual slackness turned English Protestantism into an amiable masquerade. Davie’s Essays in Dissent brings together his Clark Lectures for 1976 and his Ward-Phillips Lectures for 1980, adding seven more pieces on related topics, notably ‘A Day with the DNB’, ‘Dissenters and “Antiquity” ’ and ‘Disaffection of the Dissenters under George III’. The book adds up to the biography of a lost strain of English thought, lost not because it has been ignored but because it has been flattened, because we have learned to treat Dissent as if we knew what it was – either because we celebrate it as a permanent challenge to authority, or because we think, with Eliot, that it’s just a ‘vague hymn-singing pietism’. What if it is, or was, neither of these things?

Davie believed, as Eliot did, in a fatal dissociation of English sensibility, except that for Eliot it took place in the 17th century, when Cromwell managed to ‘ruin the great work of time’, as Marvell put it, whereas for Davie it happened in the 18th century, when a sturdy but accommodating Dissent gave way to ranting Methodism and the amorphous tolerance of the Unitarians. Blake, in this view, was already a Dissenter without a tradition, and Lawrence, in spite of his proclaimed Nonconformist credentials, was just a heathen who knew some hymns. ‘They still had the Puritan tradition of no ritual,’ Lawrence said of the Congregationalists he grew up among, and F.R. Leavis remarked that Chapel, for Lawrence, ‘was the centre of a strong social life’. Davie makes very fine and firm distinctions here. ‘We have to repudiate Lawrence’s formula,’ he says, ‘and to insist on the contrary that Puritanism implies ritual, but of a singularly austere and frugal kind.’ Similarly, ‘the purpose of Chapel or Church is not to be “the centre of a strong social life”, but to be a centre and arena for worship, for the enactment of ultimate mysteries’ (Davie’s italics). Just how important these distinctions were for Davie can be seen in the following wonderful passage, where a lifelong anxiety about art and religion becomes a cry and a creed. A Calvinist aesthetic is not, as many have thought and as Davie had feared, an oxymoron.

It was after all John Calvin who clothed Protestant worship with the sensuous grace, and necessarily the aesthetic ambiguity, of song; and who that has attended worship in a French Calvinist church can deny that – over and above whatever religious experience he may or may not have had – he has had an aesthetic experience, and of a peculiarly intense kind. From the architecture, from church furnishings, from the congregational music, from the Geneva gown of the pastor himself, everything breathes simplicity, sobriety and measure – which are precisely the qualities that Calvinist aesthetics demands of the art-object. Just here, in fact, is where negative virtues become positive ones. And this is true not just of Calvinist art but of all art, not just of Calvinist ethics but of all ethics. The aesthetic and the moral perception have built into them and near the heart of them, the perception of licence, of abandonment, of superfluity, foreseen, even invited, and yet in the end denied, fended off. Art is measure, is exclusion; is therefore simplicity (hard-earned), is sobriety, tense with all the extravagances that it has been tempted by and has denied itself.

All art, all ethics. Davie would back off from these extremities if he had to, and allow other modes a little life. But he wouldn’t back off very far. Measure and exclusion are what in his first book, Purity of Diction in English Verse, he found in diction: not just the chosen language of a poet but a chosen language sternly at bay, as if ‘words are thrusting at the poem and being fended off from it’. What speaks in the extreme form of this argument is a love of renunciation, and a passionate love of what is being renounced – only at this price can this aesthetic (this ethic) move us by its severity. Eliot, for all his Anglo-Catholicism, is a perfect Calvinist in this sense, and so is Thomas Mann, and even more so his desperately disciplined writer-hero in Death in Venice, who dies of the mere proximity of the extravagances he has denied himself. Joyce, on the other hand, is no Calvinist at all, and neither is Hopkins (Davie’s own counter-example). Pound oscillated between strenuous calls for measure and the utter abandonment of it, and (many would say) lost his soul in the process.

In its less extreme form the argument is not about self-denial but about public poetry, about pitching your language within the hearing of your listeners or readers, and it allows Davie to defend the moderation of Isaac Watts and Thomas Hardy as at least as interesting as the wildness of Christopher Smart and W.B. Yeats. I’m not sure how moderate Hardy was – an amiable re-opening of this question was the subject of the postcard from Stanford – but Watts does sound like the unanxious Calvinist, the man who has made his peace with the abandonment of extravagance.

In many of these composures, I have just permitted my verse to rise above a flat and indolent style; yet I hope it is everywhere supported above the just contempt of the critics; though I am sensible that I have often subdued it below their esteem; because I would neither indulge any bold metaphors, nor admit of hard words, nor tempt the ignorant worshipper to sing without his understanding.

To sing without our understanding is just what the best modern poems demand of us; but then they are not supposed to be forms of worship, or to deal in ‘ultimate mysteries’. And Watts, as Davie shows, does not dilute his doctrine, only his language. In one hymn God gives the instructions for the crucifixion of Christ in these terms:

Thus saith the Ruler of the Skies,
  Awake my dreadful Sword;
Awake My Wrath, and Smite the Man
  That’s Fellow to a God.

Watts later changed the lines to:

Thus said the Ruler of the Skies,
  Awake my dreadful Sword;
Awake my Wrath, and Smite the Man
  My fellow, saith the Lord.

Davie asks: ‘Is this ferocious emendation in the direction of greater simplicity? I think we have to say it is, that the second version seals off any loopholes by which to evade the fearsomeness of what Watts is saying.’

Davie is fond of ferocity, and I think of Eliot angrily asking his liberal theologian friend Paul Elmer More whether his God was some kind of Santa Claus. Davie’s eloquent disagreement with E.P. Thompson allows us to see the strength of Davie’s uncompromising position, and also to see what he himself won’t see – or won’t allow himself to say he sees. Davie wishes to divorce Dissent and the Left in Britain, to show that Dissenters in religion could be Tories in politics, as indeed they could and were. But he also wants to deny all continuity between the ‘Old Dissent’ of Milton and Bunyan and modern radicalism. Thompson can’t inherit Dissent, Davie says, because ‘Old Dissenters were Christians, as Thompson explicitly and vehemently isn’t ... Reaching the point where an act of belief is called for, one makes the act or one does not; and one lives with the consequences. If Thompson lives with the consequences of his unbelief, there is no way for him to claim shelter under “Old Dissent”.’ One might add, filling out the argument from Davie’s more detailed case, that no one, not even a believer, can inherit Dissent if it’s as done for as Davie says it is.

What has sparked Davie’s resistance here is Thompson’s equation, in a letter to Leszek Kolakowski, of Protestantism and scepticism, and of both with Englishness, the habits of the people of ‘an ancient Protestant island, doggedly resistant to the magics of religious symbolism even when they remained believers’. Davie must be right to say that Protestantism is not, as Thompson implies, merely a run-up to modern atheism; and that belief makes a vast difference. Not even Milton was all that resistant to the magics of religious symbolism. But Thompson was surely not seeking shelter, only a history and a context, and he has to be right to see a link between consecutive mentalities of dissent, whether religious or not. Davie himself, as his practice implies but he never says, has honoured dissent as a critical mode, however established his church or conservative his opinions. When Davie says the American New Criticism ‘rolled back the frontier of magic, and in doing so provided some clues how to distinguish white magic from black, the honest mystery from the dishonest one’, he writes as one sympathetic to magics, but the word ‘honest’ locates him in just the tradition Thompson was talking about.

Davie spoke of the later 18th century as possessing the ‘will to conviction’ rather than conviction itself, and we might say something similar about him. He would regard this as a weakness, perhaps, but we are entitled to see it as a subtle form of strength, a means of telling truth from error while understanding the truths of error. To see the importance of conviction is not to lock oneself into whatever convictions one happens to have. Davie admired Winters and Leavis for separating the literary sheep from the goats – they sometimes got the animals wrong, but they knew there was a difference. Less convinced than they were, Davie knew that there were other animals, and that the desire for simple difference was a crucial part of the critical story.

In this sense Davie has always known what to do with what he is heir to, and the tradition is livelier than he allows. Dissent here is not sentimental opposition, but rigour, the always stricter line. Note the way the special pleading in the following, initially outrageous sentence, tilts into sudden scruple: ‘Indeed it is surely obvious that in any age it is the conservatives, wary of departing from precedents embodying the wisdom of the forefathers, who are least complacent about the advances achieved by themselves and their contemporaries, or by what figures as “the modern” at any stage of history.’ It’s true, I think, that conservatives (the type not the party) are not complacent about progress or modernity, how could they be? It’s also true that unless they are merely mournful they are complacent about almost everything else, but that view is indeed obvious, and may need the animation of dissent if it is to show us anything of interest – that conservatives don’t have a monopoly on complacency, for example, or that it’s not enough just not to be one.

Davie’s championship of Pound when he was, especially in England, a worse than unfashionable figure, was also dissent in this sense, although it appears to have begun in discomfiture, and Davie knew when the joke was on him. In These the Companions he recounts an evening with Mrs Yeats in Dublin in the Fifties (the poet had died in 1939). It was then the thing to regret Pound’s influence on Yeats, but Mrs Yeats would have none of this.

‘Ezra,’ she declared flatly, ‘was always right about W.B. – always!’ Consternation! ... How the tatters of the evening were patched together, I do not now remember, though I have the impression that Mrs Yeats remained unperturbed. Indeed I now suspect that she was making a monkey out of ... all of us. For as we drove her home she remarked: ‘People say Ezra’s Cantos are difficult. I don’t find them difficult, do you?’ I like to believe that my reply was lost in the noise of my changing gear.

Much of Davie’s stance and career is sketched in a remarkable early poem, if only as riddle and fallible prophecy. It is called ‘At Knaresborough’, and it works mainly, I think, through the flicker of 18th-century manner against 20th-century distrust, or maybe the other way round, and through the play of cryptic irony around both the poet and the person he addresses as ‘you’. This is the whole poem:

‘Broad acres, sir.’ You hear them in my talk.
As tell-tale as a pigment in the skin,
Vowels as broad as all the plain of York
Proclaim me of this country and your kin.

And, gratified to have your guess endorsed,
You warm to me. I thaw, and am approved.
But, to be frank, the sentiment is forced,
When I pretend, for your sake, to be moved.

To feel so little, when his sympathies
Would be so much engaged (he would have said),
Surprised the poet too. But there it is,
The heart is not to be solicited.

Believe me, sir, I only ply my trade,
Which is to know when I am played upon.
You might have moved, you never shall persuade.
You grow too warm. I must be moving on.

This is to recognise the pull of local loyalties as a threat, but also to see how undeniable a history can be. It’s good to know you have to move on; but you’re almost always going to do it too soon or too late. Davie was willing to mention, in poems, the atrocities that many English poets were rebuked for avoiding. ‘At Dachau Yeats and Rilke died,’ he wrote, although I’m not sure he quite believed that. He did believe that an answer to Donne’s once daring question ‘Alas, alas, who’s injured by my love?’ might now be ‘Half Japan!’, and he was able to combine neatness and nightmare because he knew that ‘Horror starts, like Charity, at home.’ It is characteristic of Davie’s best work that there should be a double meaning in a simple word like ‘starts’; and that the crossing of the meanings should be full of such disturbing energy. He loves geography, for instance, but savours the ambiguous promise of the ‘lie of the land’.

If the heart was not to be solicited, it was never to be ignored, and some of Davie’s most delicate poems concern quiet and all too ordinary emotional desperations. A young woman in Iowa lacks ‘the ease of heart’ to see what she might have seen if she had not been so brutalised by poverty, and such ease does not feel like a luxury, some lightweight adjunct to a life. In another poem an English woman can’t leave the husband who beats her because she hopes for his return as much as she dreads it. The theme might be Larkin’s, but Davie’s comment makes him sound more like Empson:

                               A planet
Or else a meteor curves at the extreme
Bend of its vector, vehicle of
Prodigy and plague, and of hopeless love.

And there are moments when Davie’s metrical and other strictnesses yield to the purest lyricism:

Time passing, and the memories of love
Coming back to me, carissima, no more mockingly
Than ever before; time passing, unslackening,
Unhastening, steadily ...

There are satirical poems too, although these seem to me to have to work too hard for their bite; and self-accusation, however brilliantly and sternly performed, can seem self-absorbed:

Time and again he applauded
the stand he had taken; how much
it mattered, or to what
assize, is not recorded.

However, bite and accusation and the temptations of the hardening but not yet fully hardened heart all come together wonderfully in Davie’s late collection To Scorch or Freeze, a title offering a characteristically dire set of alternatives. These poems are versions of or responses to Old Testament Psalms. Their view of our world is withering and self-inclusive:

A masterly ironist
of history knows
his subject inside out;
his dry wit drying out
a sop of sentiment from
the cerements of the West.

Lover of the mephitic,
of fog and stink,
his natural haunt the road by the chemicals plant,

his elegant strong suit
is tacit and total carnage:
the Devil’s work, whose mark
(frivolity and distraction)
is on this page also

as on the best we can do.

But we have to note the grim wit too – the unfrivolous play in ‘strong suit’ and ‘inside out’ – and the insidious, phonetic and smell-bound connection between ‘mephitic’ and the Devil. Mephistopheles appears in the next poem to confirm our hunch. And even a poem about the violence of the Holy Ghost plays dramatic games with the traditional title of ‘Comforter’ and the notion of the ‘persons’ of the Trinity:

Integration, fulfilment

Have nothing to do with this Person;
cure, or harmony – nothing
like that is intended.

Invasion is His note:
A wind from the outside corners
of the human map;
disorienting ...

The poem ‘Nashville Mornings’, having eloquently cursed ‘the damnable steel guitar’, wonders whether we ‘inhabit a gap / between the departure of gods and / their necessary return’, and pictures ‘a man in love with silence, in / terror of silence, and in love with that: tundra, snow oceans’. The ‘sensuous grace and ... aesthetic ambiguity of song’ which Davie credits to Calvin are beautifully at work here. What would it mean to renounce a world we didn’t love; or to fall in love with silence without having been, perhaps even remaining, licentiously in love with words and sounds?

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