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This article is taken from PN Review 88, Volume 19 Number 2, November - December 1992.

Donald Davie's' Poems About the Sacred' Jeremy Hooker

DONALD DAVIE'S strengths as a poet and critic owe much to his quarrel with himself, and especially with himself as influenced by his English conditioning. This fact, obvious enough from his attraction over the years to Russian and American literature, and spaces, was underlined for me by an interview which I conducted with Davie in April 1991, and by readings of To Scorch or Freeze. The occasion of the interview was a BBC Programme, 'Daring the Depths', which I was making, with the producer Michael Symmons Roberts, about the situation of contemporary religious poets writing in a language - English - imbued with secular values.

When I asked him about the state of English today from the point of view of a religious poet, Davie's answer was forthright. It is 'still the same language that it was for Thomas Cranmer and the King James translators, and before that for Thomas Wyatt'. In talking about Christianity, he emphasised that it is a religion with certain dogmas; and it was accordingly the resonance and exactness and subtlety of English as a language for Christian doctrine that he stressed. The language 'is there for us if we choose to use it'.

Davie does so choose, in To Scorch or Freeze. But how does he choose to use traditional religious English in the poems in that book? He described the language of the poems as 'laminated out of bits of The Book of Common Prayer, bits of the King ...


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