Armadillo

Christopher Ricks

  • Dissentient Voice: Enlightenment and Christian Dissent by Donald Davie
    University of Notre Dame Press, 154 pp, £11.85, June 1982, ISBN 0 268 00852 3
  • These the Companions by Donald Davie
    Cambridge, 220 pp, £12.50, August 1982, ISBN 0 521 24511 7

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 doesn’t make for any great difference of temper. The critical essays which make up Dissentient Voice: Enlightenment and Christian Dissent are an act of making good; they fulfil the promise and they repair the deficiencies of Davie’s earlier book on Dissent and culture, A Gathered Church. The recollections gathered as These the Companions are an act of making permanent, with such permanence as time has; they fulfil a promise often made and often kept in Davie’s poems but which these days asks, too, for the expatiating element of prose: the exercise of ‘the faculty of pious memory’.

There is no reason to question the sincerity of the foreword’s concluding insistence: ‘For certainly I’m not writing to vindicate myself, if only because in this book I am not the principal character. You must bear with the first person singular only so as to have me introduce you to persons and places and ambiences that have a singularity and a value such as I won’t claim for myself.’ The trouble is that this is an insistence. The swell and throb of the title, These the Companions (as against, say, Charles Tomlinson’s recent recollections, Some Americans), are evidence, not just that Davie will over-forgive Ezra Pound almost anything (‘Lordly men are to earth o’ergiven/these the companions’), but also that he needed to underline the self-abnegation. Sincerity, like patriotism (which Davie has too), is not enough. Moving as these recollections often are, in their evocation of places (the West Riding, the Arctic Circle, Cambridge or California) and of people (Douglas Brown, Yvor Winters, an early love, fellow-sailors), his touch in this prose is less secure than in either the kind of prose which he has most practised or the poems which figure within the book as at once asides and nubs. You may say, and believe, that you ‘are not the principal character’, but you can’t help sounding like it when you use such a locution as ‘when I and Sean White took him to Dublin Castle’. After you ... Likewise the author of Purity of Diction in English Verse is perhaps not abnegatingly absent when he attributes to F. R. Leavis a book called New Bearings in English Verse.

Still, Davie’s not being entirely in possession of his means, in a kind of writing relatively new to him, does little to lessen the worth of his living gratitude. Since he is what used to be called a good hater and a bonny fighter (‘I am happy in my glittering envelope, and will fight those who would puncture it,’ ‘I am not prepared to give up my inheritance without a fight’), it is notable that he vindicates such praises in the only way they can be vindicated: by manifesting that he is, too, a man of love. This is not, to put it mildly, a claim usually made for the man. But his love of literature and of literary studies (in descending but not demeaning order); his love of landscape, of rocks and roots (human nature is fine, but scenery is in some respects finer); his love of those who taught him and of those whom he has taught: these are crowned by a feat of the book, its establishing the continuing presence of the people most important to Davie – those so near and dear as not to be companions exactly, his wife and children. They are seldom mentioned, they are indeed, as he says, ‘taken for granted’ – but not unthinkingly or perfunctorily. Davie’s beliefs about privacy, in life and in literature, made it essential that he in no way parade his family, his marriage, his domesticities. He has managed to convey that his family is not at all an element in his book because it is something more important, the element of the book. He has managed to convey, not only that he loves his wife, but that she – who does not get a word in edgeways – loves him, edges and all.

The intimate relation of such covert love to Davie’s overt hatreds is akin to his great strength as a critic, his mounting of polemic from which he can then take off, since it is entirely continous with his more highly imaginative criticism. The last paragraphs of these recollections, even as they thank Davie’s wife, have the courage to incorporate a hot anger coolly turned, there in the deft doffed list at the centre:

  More special pleading, you see. But at the end of a venture like this, modest though it is, being conscious of so much left out – lepers in Ceylon, mutilated professional beggars beside a 1940s train in Madras, variously frenzied people known in Essex in the 1960s – how can the writer enter any plea that is not ‘special’, quite specially pleading for indulgence?

And from no one more than you? Of course!

Even at such a moment, Davie is combative, for he knows there is a war on. He speaks of the Cambridge which educated him as still unchangingly complacent, and he might have said, too, that Cambridge is unchangingly combative, a state of mind only superficially at odds with complacency. Tennyson’s friend Arthur Hallam saw such prickliness in a Cambridge friend of theirs:

It is Tennant’s misfortune that with a soul yearning for sympathy, and capable of feeling and glorifying the tenderest, and the most exalted passions of which our nature is susceptible, he should be perpetually defeating his own end by the pugnacity of his intellect, and the captiousness of his wilful humours. The essential parts of him are worthy of all honour, admiration, and affectionate regard; yet the causes I have mentioned often make his conversation unpleasant, and give one a sensation like that of sitting near a hedgehog.

But the further interest of the matter is Hallam’s own evincing of pugnacity – not only in using such a word but in then underlining it, as well as in the compact combativeness of that hedgehog. Such recalcitrances – ones which poetry is now better adapted than prose to meet and acknowledge – can be heard in Davie’s repeated italicisings. He attributes to his mother’s dislike of Tchaikovsky his ‘own proclivity to judge, in other arts than music, the loud as always too loud, the emphatic as overemphatic’. But in the very moment when he is suggesting that he may be exacerbatedly sensitive to emphasis and overemphasis, he needs to have recourse to the emphasis or overemphasis of twice italicising.

It is one of the many paradoxes of Davie’s achievement and character that this apostle of temperance, moderation, coolness and privacy should so often sound (my emphasis) as if he were in thrall to their opposites. He will say that ‘the Cantabrigian ethos ... leaves no margin for caprice’, where the weight put upon ‘caprice’ takes from it all possibility of the free-floating provisional levity which it ostensibly values. He will speak of ‘a specifically Cambridge way of putting privileged emphasis on the verbal arts’, in the act of using italics to do that which he is deploring. Those who believe Davie to be a bundle of contradictions will – as he does – call up the old Essex days, and will recall that he was then publicly described as touched with the wing of madness. Those of us who – through all the trials which he inflicts (most of them putting us justly on trial, others a bit trying) – still hold to the confidence that he is the best, the most fertile, critic of the generations after Eliot, Leavis and Empson will see the most important of these contradictions as paradoxes; will judge that the paradoxes are fecund and revelatory when they are in touch with the Christian paradoxes to which Davie is dedicated; and will believe that, at 60, he is unique in offering so principled a resistance to Yeats’s famous slice of neatness: for sometimes we can make out of the quarrel with ourselves nothing but rhetoric; and sometimes we can make out of the quarrel with others poetry.

Davie has so many positive capabilities that it is hard to know just what to make of his so seeming to lack the Keatsian negative one. It is not so much that he reaches irritably after fact and reason, and will not admit an aperçu unless it can be theorised. But he is, by temperament and by conviction, hostile to open-mindedness, which he sees as liberalism’s dogma. When, in a related thought, Keats said ‘that Dilke was a Man who cannot feel he has a personal identity unless he has made up his Mind about every thing,’ he prophesied Davie – or rather Davie the critic. Certain things are occluded from such a man. But Davie can reply that ours is not an age in which people are too much or too candidly making up their minds about things, but one in which doubt is the one thing undoubted. Literature is praised as all questions and no answers; interpretation as determinedly indeterminate; and pyrrhonism as the one thing not to be sceptical of.

Granted, tentativeness has access to certain truths, and they are mostly truths by which Davie does not set enough store: but the tentative does not have a monopoly of the truth, and there is such a thing as the falsely tentative, much in evidence. Davie is against slides and glides. Dissentient Voice is out to rescue Dissent from its kidnappers. Dissent was not and is not ‘a stage on the way to enlightened unbelief’, or endemically of the Left; it has often been loyalist and royalist, and the take-over by E. P. Thompson is exposed as the irreligious left-winger’s imperialism. Davie is not only stringent, he is cogent – as only an extended instance of his interrogation can show:

Kolakowski, declaring himself Encounter an ‘inconsistent atheist’, had decided that ‘men have no fuller means of self-identification than through religious symbolism,’ and that ‘religious consciousness... is an irreplaceable part of human culture, man’s only attempt to see himself as a whole’ – whereat, Thompson avows, ‘not only the atheist but also some primal Lollard or Anabaptist within me rebels.’ And this provokes Thompson into what is surely regrettable chauvinism:

You may say this in Poland: you may say this, if you wish, in Italy or France. But by what right, what study of its traditions and sensibility, may you assume this as a universal in the heart of an ancient Protestant island, doggedly resistant to the magics of religious symbolism even when they remained believers, cultivating like so many urban gardeners the individual conscience as against some priest-given ‘religious consciousness’?

The italics here are mine – mine, who am no Polish bad or lapsed Roman Catholic but an Englishman bred, unless I am mistaken, much nearer than Edward Thompson to the heart of English Dissenting Protestantism. And what, I ask him, are those ‘magics of religious symbolism’ which those English Protestants were ‘doggedly resistant to’? Are they, for instance, or do they include, that bread or that wine sacramentally offered alike in the Roman Mass, the Anglican Eucharist, and the Dissenters’ Lord’s Supper? If they do include these, then there is no way in which people who rejected them, as ‘magics’ (an abusive term) or as ‘symbolism’ (a contentious one), could have ‘remained believers’, though they may have deluded themselves that they did. This is true of Lollards and Anabaptists, however ‘primal’. There truly is a point at which Believer and Unbeliever part company; there truly is not, as Thompson and many thousands suppose, a continous band of sentiment and opinion all the way from Belief to Unbelief. 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’.

This pays Thompson the supreme compliment of taking his statements more seriously than he had taken them himself. Davie is unusual among the most influential critics of our day in both proffering and inviting the compliment of rational opposition.

Where then should he be opposed? Wherever he allows his own polemical powers a license such as he rightly refuses to Thompson’s. ‘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.’ This has too much rhetorical backing: it is as if he had moved from ‘in any age it is the conservatives’, to ‘it is obvious that in any age ... ’, to ‘it is surely obvious ...’, to ‘Indeed it is surely obvious ...’ The man who is sceptical about social protest doth protest too much. In any case, there is no reason why those who are ‘wary of departing from precedents embodying the wisdom of the forefathers’ should not be handsomely complacent as to ‘the advances achieved by themselves and their contemporaries’, any more than those conservative artists who are – in Eliot’s words – original with the minimum of alteration need be any less complacent about their achievement than their maximising rivals. At such moments, Davie is less dissentient than insentient, as he is when he limits his vigilance to ‘Leftist politicos’, as if there were no such thing as Rightist ones, or when he speaks in passing of ‘the admirable Mrs Mary Whitehouse’ as if the grounds for esteeming her were entirely and patently indisputable. It is not that Davie lacks magnanimity: rather that he wrongly thinks it prudent to ration it.

So when he half-admires Thompson’s ‘furious impatience’, we are alerted to the need on occasion to recall Davie to his own highest standards. Davie deplores ‘a tone that is brutal, overemphatic, overconfident’: ‘It is, above all, impatient and therefore irreverent. And it is certainly to be heard at times in Browning, as in Charles Kingsley, where Gerard Manley Hopkins heard it and characterised it unforgivingly but vividly when he envisaged a man starting up from the breakfast table, his mouth full of bacon and eggs, declaring that he will stand no damn’d nonsense.’ Does it matter, except to patient pedantry, that this wasn’t exactly what Hopkins said about Browning? Hopkins spoke of ‘a way of talking (and making his people talk) with the air and spirit of a man bouncing up from table with his mouth full of bread and cheese and saying that he meant to stand no blasted nonsense.’ The difference between bacon and eggs at breakfast, and bread and cheese, may be small beer, but ‘damn’d nonsense’ is importantly different from ‘blasted’, which is a shunt-word for an expletive but is not a blasphemy. The instance is trivial but the principle is not. For the impatience has become Davie’s.

Sometimes, then, like a man who says he will stand no nonsense, he utters some of the kind which goes with saying such a thing. His impatience with England moves him to rhetorical questioning: ‘Where else but in England, I ask myself, does a clear-cut disagreement about a professional matter, for instance about the proper diction for poetry, get itself so immediately cross-hatched with shadows thrown from irrelevancies like egalitarian humanism or wounded amour-propre?’ But this violates Davie’s own deepest sense of the issues, for he elsewhere rightly refuses to accept that there is such a thing as ‘a professional matter’ when it comes to language and its properties and responsibilities. Purity of Diction in English Verse took seriously, in themselves, the concepts of purity and chastity; it did not countenance the dehumanised professionalism which would segregate the proper diction for poetry as a purely professional matter. Again, when Davie, as a Christian, dissents from the ‘spiritual twilight’ which he says he used to share with Leavis and Yvor Winters, he seems to me then to falsify his own clarity when he goes on at once to say: ‘I think it has to be the case that such crepuscular uncertainty about First and Last Things disperses itself, like a miasma, through the crevices of thought about apparently quite other things, accustoming us to approximations merely, and twilight zones in our thinking, about such entirely secular matters as the proper language for poetry.’ For he cannot with entire honesty – cannot without some self-suppression of the wrong sort – invoke the proper language of poetry as an entirely secular matter. He is defecting from an apophthegm of his own, one that should be as respected by an atheist like me as by a Christian like Davie: ‘If he [God] exists, there is no equation that he can be left out of.’

It matters when Davie travesties his opponents, not least because he then wrongs himself too. ‘My Voltairean friends ... surely misjudge when they suppose that dangerous irrationality is peculiar to religious life.’ I simply don’t believe that anybody as stupid as that has ever been granted the friendship of Donald Davie. Ian Watt and Matthew Hodgart, who are the friends who had just been mentioned in the vicinity of Voltaire, have been able to write as well as they have done about Conrad and about Johnson just because their respect for the Enlightenment has never been so fatuous as to ‘suppose that dangerous irrationality is peculiar to religious life.’ And Davie is left clutching at straw men: ‘Stamp it out [dangerous irrationality] there, by abolishing or persecuting or emasculating the churches; and it will only crop up somewhere else.’ In so disrespecting, those who honourably, even if it were misguidedly, oppose ‘dangerous irrationality’ in religious life, this ceases to respect itself. Davie has yielded to the one thing which his principles and tone least allow him to indulge: disingenuousness.

‘I am, and have always been – let’s face it – a prude.’ As manipulation, this is a brilliant way into an account of Davie’s rejection of erotic vulgarity and sensationalism in art and in life: but as part of a responsible deploring of those vices as a manipulation, it is lamentable. For of course Davie is not saying that he is and has always been a prude: he is saying, without taking the righteous rap for it, that he is and has always been a man of honourable and uncorrupted pudeur, of truly sensitive propriety. Naturally this puts him in an awkward position as an autobiographer, for it is a proud claim. But that is what it should be offered as, not with the glissade of a man who, not wishing to sound like a prig, affects to believe that he is a prude.

It is because a great part of Davie’s enterprise is the recalling of people to their own professed principles that he himself must not be granted exemption. For otherwise it would be impudence and not audacity in him to have rebuked T. S. Eliot for, of all things, an excessive liberalism. Eliot could praise Kipling’s ‘Recessional’ as a hymn only by condoning the essential frivolity with which religious belief is deployed in that grim and powerful poem. ‘This is liberal theology indeed!’ marvels Davie. Much of these two books is an engagement with Eliot. Eliot’s shade might murmur the words which Kingsley Amis recently used of Philip Larkin: ‘Sometimes he seems reactionary even to me.’