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.
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.
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).
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.''