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This article is taken from PN Review 124, Volume 25 Number 2, November - December 1998.

Donald Davie, Thomas Hardy and British Poetry Clive Wilmer

Donald Davie, who died in 1995, was a major figure in the literature of the later twentieth century. To the reading public at large, he was never as noticeable as certain of his contemporaries - Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin among poets, Raymond Williams and Frank Kermode among critics - but what makes him remarkable is precisely what disqualifies him from competition with them. He belongs to that comparatively rare category, the poet-critic: which means he competes with Eliot and Empson in his own century, with Johnson, Coleridge and Arnold in the past. It is unlikely that any poem in Davie's oeuvre will ever be loved like the best of Larkin's, but it is possible to argue that the oeuvre itself is more challenging than Larkin's and likely to be more fruitful in its effect. Part of that challenge derives from the way Davie's thoughts about poetry interact with the thoughts he expresses in poetry. No one in our era has thought longer or harder about what poetry can do in modern times, what it should do, what the implications are of doing or not doing those things. No one was better equipped to test such thoughts in practice.

That being the case, it is sometimes instructive to compare those poems and essays of Davie's that seem to have arisen from identical occasions. There are poems, for instance, that pick up notions touched on in the essays and tease out their implications imaginatively. The poem 'Widowers', for ...

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