Donald Davie and the English

Christopher Ricks

  • Trying to Explain by Donald Davie
    Carcanet, 213 pp, £6.95, April 1980, ISBN 0 85635 343 4

‘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.

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