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.
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Especially since the 1960s, the political manifestations of Davie's conservatism have increasingly alienated him from mainstream academic and literary circles, both here and overseas. His rejection of the socialistic aspects of England and of the libertine tendencies of the 1960s in general - ''that horrid decade,'' Davie once called it - was sharpened during four unhappy years as pro-vice-chancellor at the University of Essex. This experience with left-wing ideology and student unrest left Davie deeply embittered with England, and he moved to America at the end of his Essex tenure. He embodied these feelings of disillusionment in what some readers consider his two most moving collections, ''Essex Poems'' (1969) and ''More Essex Poems'' (1964-68).Skip to next paragraph
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This dissatisfaction with the secular world may have something to do with the increasing importance of religion in Davie's work after the 1960s. From the beginning of his career, he has written about religion, especially the Dissenting tradition into which he was born; but he himself, through the 1960s, lived in what he calls in his recently published memoirs (''These the Companions'') a ''spiritual twilight.'' In 1972, however, Davie converted to the American Episcopal Church, and since then he has written a number of poems not merely using religion as a backdrop for other concerns, but clearly expressing a firm sense of religious belief.
It would be wrong, however, to dismiss Davie, because of his allegedly stuffy views on literature, politics, and religion, as a poet who does not speak to a contemporary audience. For one thing, the impressive range of his work - he is one of our most expert and sympathetic critics of the highly innovative, modernist poetry of Ezra Pound, for example, and he has translated the poems of Boris Pasternak and Osip Mandelstam - defeats the stereotype of a limited, provincial writer. For another, his classical view of the poet and of his moral responsibility to society offers a badly needed corrective to the dissociated self-indulgence of much contemporary poetry.
But perhaps the most convincing argument for a wider appreciation of Davie - and one often overlooked in attempts to see him as an ''academic poet'' of limited interest - is the decidedly human quality that runs throughout his work. A reading of Davie's entire canon - now made easily accessible with the publication of ''Collected Poems 1970-1983,'' supplementing the earlier ''Collected Poems 1950-1970'' - reveals in poem after poem what he once called ''the reek of the human.'' However classical in form or intellectual in fabric, these poems speak with the voice of a man who has lived with a consistent vision of what life can be or ought to be, the voice of a man who reaches out to us not as a poet disconnected from his responsibilities as a human being, but (to steal a famous phrase from Wordsworth, a poet whom Davie admires) as ''a man speaking to men.''
This quality is especially noticeable in many of the poems that Davie has written in the past decade. These are the poems of a man who has taken his stand and made his mark - and now wonders whether, in terms of the human price that he has paid for his achievement, it has all been worth it.
What is most striking about these poems is their extraordinarily, even ruthlessly, personal note of self-examination and self-accusation. The long title poem of ''In the Stopping Train'' (1974) is something of a landmark in this regard. But that volume, along with others included in this new collection, contains a significant number of poems that poignantly describe the doubts that have besieged Davie near the end of a life devoted to art. '
'Seeing Her Leave,'' a poem about his daughter's departure from California to live in England, concludes with a remarkably human and candid realization of what that life has cost Donald Davie the man: ''So much of the price is missed/In the tally of toil, ink, years;/Count, neo-classicist,/The choking back of tears.''
Davie is not by any means the first poet to see himself this way, and, one hopes, he won't be the last. What is certain is that he belongs to the first rank of contemporary poets because he is capable of asking such questions, because for him art is a living thing, a way for one human being to engage another on as many levels as possible. ''Whenever I talk of my art,'' he says in a poem written in the 1960s, ''You turn away like strangers, /Whereas all I mean is the chart/I keep, of my own sea-changes.''