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This article is taken from PN Review 156, Volume 30 Number 4, March - April 2004.

Donald Davie's Arguments with Modernism Clive Wilmer

In his first critical book, Purity of Diction in English Verse (1952), Donald Davie wrote: `there is no denying that modern poetry is obscure and that it would be less so if the poets adhered to the syntax of prose'. Taken out of context, this may surprise those of his readers who think of him as an authority on Modernism, especially as a champion of Ezra Pound. Of course, in the sentence I have quoted he is not exactly condemning the obscurity, but there is an implication that another sort of poetry would be preferable - for instance, the late Augustan verse he explores and celebrates in the book in question. Davie admires such poetry for its lucidity, its verbal restraint (`pure diction') and the attention its language pays to the world of fact. But he is also conscious that literary nostalgia and the kind of critical alertness he practises do not cohabit happily. In `Homage to William Cowper', a poem of the same period, he calls himself `A pasticheur of late Augustan styles', but he is all too aware that the committed pasticheur is a sentimentalist and that, if poetry is to thrive, it must engage with the reality of the world it is written for and must do so in the language of its time. That reality and that language are the products of historical developments, which for the poet have to include both the Romantic and the Modernist revolutions. In a chapter on Coleridge he records ...

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