There is a very particular reading pleasure afforded by the most recent edition of Donald Davie’s Collected Poems, a pleasure supported by the volume’s sheer size. Standing heftily at a little over six hundred pages, the book physically announces itself as the most complete collection of Davie’s poetry to date — not an idle accomplishment, surely, since the breadth of Davie’s work is considerable, at once intellectually pugilistic and emphatically brooding, lyrically sonorous and crystalline in its perfectly cut rhetoric. There is an element of dèja vu, however, to this entire
project: in his introduction to the volume, Neil Powell reminds readers that Davie had already come out with ‘two and a half’ Collected Poems during his career — the first coinciding with the
poet’s fiftieth birthday in 1972 and covering the period between 1950 and 1970; the half volume extending from 1971-1983; and the last one being published in 1990, five years before Davie’s death. Powell remarks that none of these editions has been particularly satisfying due to large omissions (notes, translations, long poems), and thus his most recent volume is offered as a definitive corrective — the details of which his concise introduction usefully summarizes. Indeed, Powell’s meticulous restorative work looms over the entire tome as a sign of retrospective admiration and careful reputation-building. It isn’t hard to imagine that the project of collecting the greatest number of Davie’s poems — some of which appear in the book for the first time — performs a double service of refining Davie’s reputation as a ‘scholar-poet’ as well as reinventing the terms of that reputation altogether.
Known for his early critical works such as The Purity of Diction in English Verse (1952) and Articulate Energy (1955), and such later volumes as Slavic Excursions (1990), Studies in Ezra Pound (1991), and the posthumous Two Ways Out of Whitman (2000), Davie’s intellectual stance describes an interesting arc that is marked less by the staleness of dogmatic adherences, and more by an accommodating intellectual curiosity. Critically working in the same vein as F.R.
Leavis, Davie’s poetry became associated with The Movement in the 1950s and its adherents (Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, Thom Gunn), but in contrast to the latter poets’s sobering reductions and social discontent, his own work tempers some of that harsh anti-Romanticism that seemed part and parcel of that environment. Indeed, Davie’s poetic output, which abundantly
stretches from Hardyesque lyrics (‘Bride of Reason,’ ‘A Winter Talent,’ ‘The Battered Wife’) to cognitively powerful long poems (‘Six Epistles to Eva Hesse,’ ‘The Forests of Lithuania’), from translations of Pasternak and Mandelstam to lyrically brutal political commentary (‘August, 1968’), evinces a kind of wide sweep and committed imagination that doesn’t necessarily close itself off to confrontation and experiential risk, nor resign itself to failure as the phenomenological and lyrical refusal of further inquiry. In this sense, Davie has always seemed to be a poet working in the very high art of his eighteenth-century forebears (Powell remarks on Davie’s early piece ‘Homage to William Cowper’ where he himself comes clean as ‘A pasticheur of late-Augustan styles’). And yet, instead of pursuing that line from a conservative seat of
judgment, definitively detached from its abstractions and moralizations (as some of Auden reads at times), Davie’s Augustan work is fueled by an exuberance for a kind of speculative poetry that is deeply engaged in its objects of enquiry. The pursuits of the mind develop in Davie an exceptionally attuned rhetoric that extends beauty through intellectual perplexity, a labor that always seems capable of reasoning matters beyond merely personal orbits, and eschews the self-enclosures that Davie’s anti-Romanticism cautiously opposes.
Caustically ‘religious’ poems such as those in To Scorch or Freeze (1988), or the splendid final pieces from the posthumous Poems and Melodramas (1996) such as ‘Chernobyl. A Disaster’ or the Larkin elegy, ‘Two Intercepted Letters,’ elaborate a sensibility that cannot ever be exhausted or utterly disappointed by its musings. Davie’s inventiveness, however, is astutely measured; although declamatory, he never reaches the kind of visionary pitch of someone like Geoffrey Hill, for example, who in recent volumes like The Triumph of Love and Speech! Speech! has launched a poetry of densely knotted debate. Davie’s art parries with a sharpness that carefully assaults and damages, and although he isn’t entirely free of hectoring and philosophical assaults (see the wonderful late piece ‘Three Pastors in Berlin’), his arguments prefer to observe rather than be absorbed by more ominous depths:
In the unparented, insomniac
Damp and universal vast
A volley of groans breaks loose from standing posts,
And still the nightwind , self-aborted, idles.
And hard behind, in an unseeing scurry
Some slant drops fall. About a stretch of fencing
Damp branches quarrel with the pallid wind
Sharply. I quail. You, bone of their contention!
(‘Death of a Voice’)
There always appears to be a matter capable of being uncovered or freed from burial, knowledge withheld that is only a few words or thoughts away from disclosure: ‘Such regularities / Outside us, without us, extant! Poems stand around. They stand / Without our exclamations’ (‘Mandelstam in the Crimea’).
Davie is also most extraordinary in those poems where the timbre of his writing is softened, the lines delicate and suffused by beauties not entirely (nor immediately) exposed to immediate scrutiny:
As a horn of the high moon veers in the clear skies over Main Street
And inflames with a fugitive heat the sea-green pavements,
Out of the town cloaked horsement ride across sheep
On the lukewarm roads that founder halfway in the hayfields.
It needs there to be no one
Left in the piazza,
Only a boy on his own,
For the thunderhead that shelves
Its far slateblue over small
Lit farms in the plain, to be dealt with
(‘Looking out from Ferrara’)
In these excerpts, Davie’s art finds a kind of high noon stillness that reverberates with dreamy resonances. Natural descriptions give way to a belief in the enduring capacity to think through events rather than merely register them in their utter simplicity. Such contrasts are wonderfully in evidence in the Collected Poems, and the infinite display of themes, subjects, and styles testifies to a volume that deserves discovery and frequent perusal. There is very little to quarrel with
in Powell’s editing, apart from some minor points — perhaps more selections from Poems and Melodramas, or from Davie’s Russian translations and adaptations; also, pagination for Davie’s own notes at the end of the volume would have made for a more easily organized reading. That being said, however, this recent edition strongly establishes the span of an extraordinary poetic career, not simply delimiting Davie’s capacities, but tracing all the fine nuances and subtleties of a refined and diverse palette.