Donald Davie’s The Purity of Diction in English Verse is, first and foremost, a recovery of poetry written within the assumption and hope that the virtues of poetic diction and familiar, formal epistolary prose diction could be aligned to shore up the social bonds that constituted publicness. Davie does not put the argument that way, but from the post-Habermas perspective, we might have, and with the notion of publicness in mind, the aim of Davie’s study can seem something more than, if still bound to, a class-based gentlemanly decorum. The history not just of public poetry, but of publicness in poetry, remains unwritten, in part because, pace Habermas, the notion of publicness (I use that word, following the arguments of James Schmidt, in preference to the usual “public sphere”) is itself compromised. Davie goes too far when he sees poetry as complicit in that breakdown of publicness, but he is not alone in wondering whether poetry can have a public role, a public voice, in the twentieth century. That is, perhaps, a definitive question for poets from Ezra Pound through Geoffrey Hill, and to appreciate Davie’s argument, it ought to be placed in that context.
(To see how the question is approached by Hill, take his reproach of Davie’s description of Hopkins’ “decadence” in Hill’s essay “Redeeming the Time”: “That Hopkins wrote in a decadent age is unarguable; but to see him as quintessential of that condition is to fail to comprehend what decadence truly is. In contrast to Coleridge and Hopkins, it was ‘decadent’ of Mill to concede ‘a certain laxity’ for the sake of communication; acquiescence requires quiescence.”)
Davie’s position, reformulated throughout, so as to suggest a pursuit rather than a polemic, is given salient expression at the end of Part One of the study:
It seems rather ludicrous to consider a collection of poems as if it were a substitute for Fowler’s Modern English Usage. And yet it was not ludicrous to Sir John Beaumont [who penned an elegy for Samuel Johnson, praising the poet as lexicographer and lexicographer as poet]. But of course no one will argue that the poem’s existence in this capacity is in any way so important as in its other capacities, as communique and creation, as thing said and thing made. But the three functions hang together. As the language of poetry becomes more private and distinctive, the poem becomes less and less a manual of correct usage; but at the same time it becomes less and less a thing said and thing made.
“Correctness” is the crux of the matter, and Davie enters into the problem that is hardly limited to the criticism of poetry: what determines correctness? Or, to put it another way, that draws out the political implication of the question: “what determines rightness of reason,” Whereas his own preference is for a set of standards that is communitarian or organic institutionalism, there are other possibilities, with Kant’s discussions of public reason—and their late twentieth-century rehabilitation (in the work of Onora O’Neill especially)—offering the obvious alternatives.
But for practicing poets such as Davie, the problem is technical: what is the relation of poet to audience? What is the relationship of self to other? By one response (to which Davie feels drawn), the poet’s actual, lived social relationships are inherent to the reasons for the poet’s choice of language and form; in another response (that of Hill but also, I think, a critic and poet like Empson), the reasons for choosing language and form are something else, carrying instead a reason owed to oneself. The difference mirrors, strangely, two twentieth-century interpretations of Hegel’s master-slave allegory: in the major interpretation (Kojeve, Brandom), the master-slave dialectic is between self and social other; in the minor interpretation (McDowell), the master-slave dialectic is between self and self-as-other. I take Hill’s distinction between “compromise” and “communication,” and his setting the two at odds, as a suggestion that he does not believe himself beholden to the “common reader”—a view that he expresses directly elsewhere, but that is best understood along the compromise/communication axis. I take Empson’s view, expressed in an interview, that the Graves theory of conflict to which his work is indebted is in fact a conflict between different parts of the mind, to suggest a similar primacy of the sense that a poet first and foremost concerns themselves with self-as-other.
That is not to say that a poet writes, as Davie fears, in a private language: the public nature of a poem’s subject matter, the public bearing, of its concern, and the public life of language itself means that the poet cannot be reckon with bringing into focus, apprehending and comprehending, public life; but it is not possible, Hill feels, and Empson seems to feel, to write for a public as if it could provide a standard by which to decide on correct reasons for determining a word. Maybe it never was possible, and Davie’s own criticism of eighteenth-century poets justifies and interprets their choices of language in terms of reasons related to connotations of metaphors—he does not appeal to reviews; but behind Davie’s criticism is the suggestion that certain uses of metaphor and certain deviations from syntax and certain preferences vis-à-vis Abstraction, circumlocution, and formality were themselves limitations impressed by an alignment of poetic practice with good epistolary prose—and what’s more that both were themselves concerned with the absorption of questions of broad morality into specific circumstances of social conduct, again such as might have been taken up in the letters of that epistolary culture.
And yet. Davie’s criticism is, he admits, motivated by a deeply personal concern; his yearning for an inherited, shared practice of publicness, and literary arena sustaining and sustained by such a practice, is felt along the nerves. It is felt, moreover, in the full awareness that it is not something that can simply be wished into being by a poet or built into the structure of a poem; the alienation from that ideal cannot be so easily dissolved. In his poems, then, he writes from an initial position of dissatisfaction, the absence of the publicness sustained by prose that itself sustains a common social conduct linguistic and otherwise.
But he does not want to abandon a poetry founded on the principles of good prose founded on something shared, something common and public, even if it is not publicness itself; and what he reaches for in its stead is place. “Place” is itself shared, accessible, common to all, but also testifying to the limitations of the common and shared, whether that is between poet and public, poet and self, or poet and intimate other. Davie’s poems then are not about particular places, so much as they use particular places in order to find grounds for communication, measures for the prosaic precision and rigorous elegance of expression that he condones in the criticism; and in so far as that breaks down, not into vagueness, but into fragmentation, or into those limits of the poetry, it is because there is something that place cannot sustain, that what place has become cannot sustain in the language of the work. He is concerned with the fate of a place only in so far as it bears upon the fate of communication. And he is not concerned with the fate of a place in so far as it bestows identity on the poet; he is very much a cosmopolitan poet, but also a provincial poet. In his criticism, urbanity corresponds to a center, a city but also all that the publicness that the city represents beyond its own geographical borders; in the poetry, lacking the center of publicness, all places are estranging and far-flung, containing within themselves both the liberating possibility of the cosmopolitan (it’s this liberating possibility that makes the poetry possible in the first place) but also the self-frustrated isolation of the provinces. The provincial and the cosmopolitan are not simply opposite ends of a spectrum.
Take, for instance, this epistolary verse, to an American, about the nation to which Davie would emigrate:
Curtis, you’ve been American too long,
You don’t know what it feels like. You belong,
Don’t you, too entirely to divulge?
Indifferently, therefore, you indulge
My idle interests: are there names perhaps
In Iowa still, to match the names on maps,
Burgundian or Picard voyageurs
Prowling the wilderness for France and furs
On the Des Moines river? And suppose there were
What would it prove? To whom would it occur
In Iowa that, suppose it so, New France
Not your New England has pre-eminence
If to belong means anything? Your smile
(Twisted) admits it doesn’t. Steadily, while
You on the seaboard, they in Canada
Dribbled from floods of European war
Boiled in small pools, pressure built up behind
The dams of Europe. Dispossessed mankind,
Your destined countrymen, milled at dock-gates;
Emigrant schooners spilled aboard the States
The dispossessed, the not to be possessed,
The alone and equal, peopled all the West.
And so what is it I am asking for,
Sipping at names? Dahcotah, Ottawa,
Horse Indian…Yet, but earlier (What is this
Need that I find to fill void centuries?)
Who first put up America to let?
You of the old stock paid him rent. And yet
Even so soon, crowds of another sort
Piled off the boats to take him by assault.
And a worse sort, the heroes. Who but they,
For whom the manifest was shadow-play
Of an all-absorbing inward war and plight,
Could so deny its presence and its right?
It was the given. But I only guess,
I guess at it out of my Englishness
And envy you out of England. Man with man
Is all our history; American,
You met with spirits. Neither white nor red
The melancholy, disinherited
Spirit of mid-America, but this,
The manifested copiousness, the bounties.
The idea of these places that belong to neither of them—that are subject to claims of possession by Europeans—become the occasion for the letter, but the intimacy of the two is inseparable from their exclusion from this “America” that contains so much that is not theirs, that cannot be theirs, melancholy and disinherited copiousness (an echo of the Renaissance rhetorical ideal of copia?).
Elsewhere, the despair at place is more keenly felt, and the isolation is greater, but the poem remains fixed on and fixed in place nonetheless:
The Hardness of Light
“Via Portello,” I wrote,
“The fruity garbage-heaps…”
As if someone had read my poems,
Padua eight years later
Is so hot no one sleeps.
But this is a different quarter
Just off the autostrada,
Touched by that wand of transit,
I grow older, harder.
I wake in the night, to rain.
All the old stench released
On the risen night wind carries
Coolness across the city,
Streaming from west to east.
The equivocal breath of change,
In a clatter of sudden slats
Across the room, disturbs me
More than ever, in new
Motels and blocks of flats.
What is this abomination
When a long hot spell is breaking?
Sour smell of my own relief?
The rankness of cooling-off?
Rottenness of forsaking?
I glare. In that renowned
Hard light of burning skies
Nothing grows durable
With age. It neither solves
Nor even simplifies.
The waste of age, the waste of refuse, the waste of a place meet in the poem, illuminated by the hard light that endures but solves and saves nothing; “nor even simplifies” by transcending or subordinating the place to its illumination. The light has remained constant even where the place has undergone the “equivocal breath of change”; and though it does not glare, he does, at it, and at what it shows off, a world that does not provide the stability he needs, any more than he, within himself, can provide the center that he needs. The recrimination is ultimately self-directed, laced with shame (“sour smile of my own relief”) and regretful frustration (“Nothing grows durable| With age.”) And yet, being somewhere, he is permitted the clarity of the verse. “Renowned” alerts us to this being a place that is real, in so far as a place can only be real in so far as it is part of a social, historical imaginary; “renowned” makes this place the occasion for a language that, however personal the feeling of regret and the dissatisfaction, is not private.
In a poem that asks more and finds more in light:
The light wheels and comes in
over the seawall
and the bitten turf
that not only wind has scathed but
all this wheeling and flashing, this
sunburst comes across us.
At Holland on Sea
at an angle from here and
some miles distant
a fisherman reels back blinded,
a walker is sliced in two.
The silver disc came at them
edgewise, seconds ago.
Light that robes us, does it?
Limply, as robes do, moulded
to the frame of Nature? It
has no furious virtue?
What does “Holland on Sea” do to or in the poem? It situates it, it places the voice, and directs it towards us, and when the final stanza inquires into what can this mode of familiar and formal verse cannot express, it anchors its sudden pitch towards the sublime—not to deny or blanch at that realm, but out of respect for it, possessing an intimation of what it cannot apprehend, and in so doing placing the sublime relative to its vantage and standing. (This is what Davie wants of the Romantic poets, of Shelley especially)
For Davie, the glimpse of sublimity is compensation for the shared understanding, the shared background of convention and correctness, that place cannot afford, and that is why he returns, time and again, to the hardness of light: the paradox of sublimity’s transcendence, it’s simultaneous intangibile diffusion and lapidary presence, its difficulty and its imminence, all of which Davie encounters only as a facet of being somewhere accessible to others, as the sublime is often not. The hardness of light recognizes, as Davie’s criticism is more reluctant to do, how in a Romantic poet like Shelley, sublimity is a response to displacement; Davie does not forgo displacement as willingly as he believes Shelley to do so, he clings fast to the “hawsers of prose sense” and the hope for a center of common reason, but he glances the sublime as a redemptive possibility (in the later poetry a Christian redemption) in its absence. But the sublime is not a place for standing with another, with others:
Across the Bay
A queer thing about those waters: there are no
Birds there, or hardly any.
I did not miss them, I do not remember
Missing them, or thinking it uncanny.
The beach so-called was a blinding splinter of limestone,
A quarry outraged by hulls.
We took pleasure in that: the emptiness, the hardness
Of the light, the silence, and the water’s stillness.
But this was the setting for one of our murderous scenes.
This hurt, and goes on hurting:
The venomous soft jelly, the undersides.
We could stand the world if it were hard all over.
The last line is rich in meanings: we could abide the world, we could reside more easily upon, if it were more solid, if it were less like water (the Shelleyan element), and finally, if it were has hard as the hardness of light, though such hardness cannot sustain weight.