On Donald Davie, an indispensable man; Collected Poems 1970-1983, by Donald Davie. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press. 172 pp. $14.95.
For more than three decades now, Donald Davie has been writing against the grain of his times: erecting a considerable literary monument to the ideals of tradition, reason, and propriety in an age seemingly bent on putting the past behind it, trusting to emotion and intuition, and basking in the pleasures of license.Skip to next paragraph
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The label most frequently applied to this English-born poet and critic, whose life and reputation have crossed and recrossed the Atlantic, is that of conservative. It is one that fits as long as the idea of conservation embedded in the word is kept in mind. Through his art and his criticism, Davie has emerged in both England and America as perhaps our day's most widely admired and respected voice arguing for modern man's need to preserve the best of his cultural inheritance. Indeed, his chief contribution to the age that he has struggled against may well be his warning that the abandonment of such time-honored values as reason and taste will inevitably have dire consequences for our private and public lives.
Not the least extraordinary feature of Davie's career is the extent to which he has earned his reputation both as a poet and as a critic, and his critical views and poetic practice are inextricably intertwined. His art has always reflected his essentially conservative, classical position that the poet is not one of society's alienated outlaws but rather, at best, a morally responsible member of the human community. In an essay entitled ''Sincerity and Poetry,'' Davie states his quarrel with the more popular, romantic school that sees the poet as a special being endowed with mystical and even prophetic powers. Summing up his attitude, he writes:
''The poet will absolve himself from none of the responsibilities of being human . . . and being human involves the responsibility of being judicious and fairminded. In this way the poet supports the intellectual venture of humankind. . . . His poetry supports and nourishes and helps to shape culture; the prophet, however, is outside culture and, really, at war with it. He exists on sufferance; he is on society's expense account, part of what society can sometimes afford. Not so the poet; he is what society cannot dispense with.''
Davie has embodied this vision in his art partly because it charts his personal and artistic conflict with a society that seems to ignore what he cherishes, and partly because it pays consistent homage to poetic and human history. Davie's poetry is, in fact, steeped in an awareness of the history of English verse; with some notable exceptions, he has chosen not to abandon the conventional stanzaic and metrical forms that have come down to us through the centuries, but rather to adopt them deliberately in an effort to express his view that the past is relevant to the present.
Moreover, Davie has never hesitated to incorporate into his art his considerable learning, and many of his poems are frankly intellectual and allusive. These qualities have made Davie seem to some readers a somewhat outdated and inaccessible figure - especially in the context of a literary culture (particularly in America, where Davie has lived since 1968) so taken with the formal innovations of William Carlos Williams and the overt confessional poetry of Robert Lowell and his many disciples.
In some ways, the impact of Davie's thinking has been felt at least as much in his criticism and teaching as in his poetry. (Since coming to the United States, he has taught principally at Stanford and Vanderbilt Universities.) His early critical books - ''The Purity of Diction in English Verse'' and ''Articulate Energy'' - appealed to the 18th century, the age of an Augustan concern for form, reason, and restraint, as a model for contemporary poetry. The first of these two books came to be seen as a manifesto for a group of English poets (including Davie, Philip Larkin, Charles Tomlinson, and Kingsley Amis) known loosely as ''The Movement,'' and reacting against the poetic excesses of writers like Dylan Thomas. More recently, Davie has been arguing for the importance of the English Dissenting tradition, contending with characteristic iconoclasm that this tradition was, at its best, entirely in harmony with the enlightenment values of reason and order that Davie himself so champions and practices.