Quotes by Donald Davie

"The Devil for a joke
Might carve his own initials on our desk,
And yet we'd miss the point because he spoke
An idiom too dated, Audenesque."

Donald Davie
  • Donald Davie

  • Born: Barnsley, Yorkshire, The United Kingdom.

  • Description: Donald Davie was born in Barnsley, Yorkshire, to George Clarke and Alice Sugden Davie, received his early education at Barnsley Holgate Grammar School, and spent his boyhood in “the industrially ravaged landscape,” as he called it, of the West Riding. As a Northerner, he has said that in literature he grew to like “the spare and lean.” From his mother, who had a liking for poetry and knew, according to Davie, “the greater part, perhaps the whole” of Francis Turner Palgrave‘s The Golden Treasury of the Best Songs and Lyrical Poems in the English Language (1861, 1897) by heart, he developed an early interest in verse. From the art master of Barnsley Grammar School, he learned to appreciate church architecture, an appreciation expressed in a number of his poems. Of Baptist parentage, he was, to quote from an essay written in his fifties, “an Englishman bred ... near to the heart of English Dissenting Protestantism.” A considerable part of his critical writing is devoted to a defense of the conservative, orthodox, dissenting tradition—Baptist, Congregationalist, and Presbyterian—which he considers to be—at least in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—rational, intellectual, and enlightened. Although by the late 1970s he no longer considered himself a Baptist or a dissenter, his Baptist upbringing had a profound influence on his career as a scholar, a critic, and a poet.

    In 1940 he entered St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge, where he says in his memoirs These the Companions (1982) he had the opportunity to indulge in voracious reading of seventeenth-century pulpit oratory at the English faculty library and to pursue his second major interest, architecture. At about this time he began to have doubts about adhering to the dissenting church. Although he was in sympathy with the strong monarchical sentiment in the church, he regretted its involvement with liberalism, and he felt that when the Liberal party collapsed in England so did the dissenting church. He joined the navy in 1941, and in the summer of 1942 he was sent to northern Russia, where, successively stationed at Polyarno, Murmansk, and Archangel, he remained until December 1943. His Russian experience is vividly described in These the Companions, and his enthusiasm for the poetry of Boris Pasternak was an important literary development of his stay in Russia.

    1944 found him in Plymouth, the birthplace of Doreen John, whom he married on 13 January 1945. They have three children. In 1946 Davie returned to Cambridge, where he and his wife lived in “four draughty and mouse-infested rooms over the village store in Trumpington.” He became a disciple of F.R. Leavis (“Scrutiny was my bible and F.R. Leavis my prophet”) and, with the majority of the intellectuals at Cambridge, an admirer of T.S. Eliot: “It is hard to convey the virtually unchallenged eminence that Eliot continued to enjoy in Cambridge.” At this time he attempted to improve “his shore-leave sailor’s Russian” and “to grapple with Pasternak.” His initial interest in Pasternak developed into a serious study of Russian literature of the last two centuries, and he eventually wrote his dissertation on an Anglo-Russian subject. He also began at this time his long “Pushkin Didactic Poem” (included in his Collected Poems 1950-1970 [1972] in a greatly abbreviated form), an attempt “to see how near to prose poetry can come while still remaining poetry.” He received his B.A. from Cambridge in 1947, his M.A. in 1949, and his Ph.D. in 1951. In 1950 Davie went to Trinity College, Dublin, as a lecturer in English, and in 1954 he became a fellow. Among the many Irish writers and scholars he met there, he expressed especial admiration for Joseph Hone, biographer of William Butler Yeats, and the poets Austin Clarke and Padraic Fallon. After giving up his lectureship and fellowship in 1957, he lectured at the Yeats summer school directed by his former tutor T.R. Henn. He returned as a visitor to Ireland a number of times, but by