This post is the first in a series of evolving sketches on “decorum” in poetry; it leads into the next post, on Emily Dickinson, both of which are much refined and restated in yet another post on Emily Dickinson (223). Through all of these posts, I’m writing against and with Donald Davie, the critic best remembered for Articulate Energy and Purity of Diction in English Verse. None of the posts involve close reading, but might open the doors to it, for the poets I mention.
Among the most confusing and confused but nonetheless—to me at least—compelling of Donald Davie’s critical preoccupations is his notion of “decorum” in the diction of a verse. I prefer “decorum” to the term “purity,” which he uses elsewhere, if not as an exact substitute then as a rhetorically approximate surrogate, but either term might raise the hackles of those who would accuse Davie of snobbery and prudery. The latter, by Davie’s own admission, interferes with some of his judgments so far as to warp them; but I don’t think a critic with tastes as catholic and cosmopolitan as Davie is simply a snob. He often defends and censures poems on principles that are conservative in outlook, but to defend and censure poems was, at his time, in the nature of the critic’s task (is it still?).
“Decorum,” without entering the thicket of Davie’s mind, might be charitably understood as the criteria by which we ask whether words are suitable for a given situation. Suitable by what standards, and whose standards, Davie’s detractors might wonder? Here Davie is at his most elusive, and sometimes evasive. But at his best, the answer would be, “according to the standards that the poem contains and communicates within itself.”
Those criteria can themselves be understood several ways. For one approach, turn to F.H. Bradley’s thought, celebrated and developed by Geoffrey Hill, that a poem must get within its judgments the conditions of those judgments; put bluntly, and too roundly, a poem’s specific characteristics and features ought to communicate, in their sum effect, the conditions against which they can be deemed apt or right. To clarify the idea, Hill looks to Keats:
When Keats, in Book I of the first Hyperion, is endeavoring to reveal hos poisonous now to the Titan in his decline are the ‘spicy wreaths | of incense’ offered up by mortal men, he focuses on the central impression of pollution. Suddenly we find:
Instead of sweets, his ample palate took
Savour of poisonous brass and metal sick.
Our question can be put as follows: what is contributed to the quotation by the word ‘savour’? First, it is getting within the judgment the condition of the judgment, ‘savour’ being so to speak the normative focus of eating or drinking; second, though Hyperion is in one sense helpless, a sufferer, a degree of petulance within the suffering is perhaps suggested by the verb form ‘took savour’ and by the moment of enjambment in which, presumably, he might have come up with some alternative less satisfyingly wounded.
Either way, the real interpretive work of the critic is not, on such an account, an explication of what a poem really means, but instead a working out of the judgments within a poem alongside the conditions of those judgments, with the ultimate evaluative account emerging out of whether or not those align or support one another.
Bradley helps us to understand Davie by helping us to see what is special about his notion of decorum. As Davie sees it, decorum would mean that a poem’s language ought to be understood not just in terms of the conditions of its particular judgments, but, more specifically, in terms of the more generalizable, potentially debatable standards of judgment that it implies—if a poem is to be said to have “decorum” at all, then those standards of judgment are themselves readily graspable in reading the poem. In other words, Davie’s decorum would seem to ask that condition of judgment be understood to include a standard of judgment that, though not explicit, might be inferred by means of careful reading and context.
Davie might also suggest that there is a class of poems that include conditions of judgments but not standards of judgment, and suffer as a consequence; for Davie, such poems suffer because they lack decorum, and so possess an impure diction.
For Davie, Augustan poetry is both fortified and set at a distance by virtue of the standards of judgments it often implies. The advantage for the Augustans, in his mind, is the social situation for which they wrote, which enforced upon the poets a rough standard of judgment (for which reason Johnson can appeal to “the common reader” in his criticism), which they then did not have to invent anew in their poems, but which allowed them to write poems that attained that masterful rightness of success, across a variety of genres and modes. The trouble for the modern reader is that such a standard is no longer our own. That much seems true enough. But then how much work must we do?
Davie’s trouble is that he makes it seem as if poets that possess a standard of judgment—a strict notion of decorum and a pure diction—have, as it were, something that transcends and completes the condition of the judgments they make. We might ask, against Davie, why a standard of judgment is not simply a feature of the broader condition of its judgments. Poets who write with such a standard of decorum are different, but not more complete, in so far as any poem can contain within itself the condition of its judgments. We would say, in fact, that poets who write with a socially-specific standard of judgment (and which poets don’t?) in mind would do well to realize that such a standard has conditions of its own, and so should communicate the awareness of those conditions. That is, they ought not to communicate the standard as if it is real, but to establish the standard and acknowledge that it’s judgments are conditioned by a world just as the particular judgments of language in a poem are conditioned by a world. And, unsurprisingly, it has been shown time and again that those Pope and Johnson and Swift do just this (the latter not least when he is least decorous). The generalized standards of decorum from their worlds are not simply in the poems; the conditions for those standards are there too, subject to scrutiny, and helping to communicate the standards themselves.
Davie’s willingness to celebrate standards of judgment for their own sake—a traditional, quite non-American conservativism that cherishes a community’s tightly shared understanding—makes him both a more generous critic than most when confronted with the Augustan era, able as he is to accept the value of the standards of judgments on which their poems rely, and willing to help others understand those standards; but it also can make for strange encounters with poets who do not communicate or appeal to standards, as much as they might succeed in communicating the conditions of their judgments.
Given what we have seen in Geoffrey Hill, it is perhaps unsurprising that Davie likewise looks to Keats’ poetry as an exemplar of such a poet. In an essay on Keats found in the essential Davie collection, Older Masters, he writes of Keats’ unevenness:
In Endymion, Peona dries her tears: ‘Hearat Peona, in their silver source/ Shut her pure sorrow-drops with glad exclaim’—which is, from any point of view, excruciating. Yet elsewhere in the same poem we read how ‘dolphins bob their noses through the brine’, where Keats insisted on ‘bob’ when friends urged on him either ‘raise’ or ‘push’. How could a poet, so right about the latter locution, have perpetrated the other? But in so saying so we appeal to a standard of decorum that Keats had no access to, since in his time it had not been formulated. Poets of the 1980s who complain that they write in an age when ‘anything goes’ should probably recognize that on the contrary they observe a quite strict decorum (populist and therefore, in a looser sense, indecorous); whereas under the Regency it was indeed true that anything—but anything—went. In such a situation what could a poet do except what Keats did in Endymion—learn to swim by throwing himself in at the deep end?
I disagree with a lot of what Davie says in this passage: how could a poet? Because poets can make mistakes and misjudge. And did not Keats have access to a notion of decorum from at least an earlier generation, from contemporaries like Crabbe and Southey? But Davie’s sense of Keats is not entirely askew. After all, here is a poet without a unified notion of decorum, who finds instead a success that a poet with strict background of decorum would have perhaps not, in that word “bob.” Davie’s essay is appreciative of Keats, but, as is often the case, more appreciative of the poets of the sort Keats could never be without acknowledging probably that Keats is and remains so exciting not because of his unevenness per se, but because the condition of judgment that his poetry communicates is often a condition in which decorum is courted and rejected—this is a central insight of Ricks’ study, but also a consequence of what Davie writes. Davie chooses to write on Keats at all because a notion of decorum, far from being inaccessible to Keats, is very much kept alive in his poetry, even as it is set within conditions of judgment to which standards of decorum are alien or inexplicable; this is the breadth that his poetry permits, and probably the breadth that makes him the most Romantic of poets, rightly thought of alongside Baudelaire, for whom something similar is true (though there the effect is not to set standards of decorum alongside other conditions of judgment, but to variously ironize, and maintain the stability, of standards of decorum). It is a poetry that is alive to the aptness and ineptness of decorum itself, as a condition for judgment in life.