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This article is taken from PN Review 9, Volume 6 Number 1, September - October 1979.

A Principle of Conservatism Neil Powell

IN ONE of the occasionally teasing postscripts which he has added to many of the essays reprinted in this collection, Donald Davie writes: "I am proud to subscribe myself 'critic', no less than `poet'; but am that much the more horrified when the critic takes on the sanctity, and the visionary authority, which belong not to him, but to the poet." The point about sanctity and visionary authority is an important one-some would argue, plausibly, that it is the most important one-for the poet-critic to remember; yet in all other respects the distinction between poet and critic is, in Davie's case, a dangerous one to attempt. Elsewhere, indeed, he chides Kenneth Rexroth for proposing a facile distinction between "prophet" and "poet"; and in an uncollected poem he admits: "The poet-scholar cannot keep apart/The gift and the investment" ("The Poet-Scholar", Essays in Criticism, January 1955, p.43). Davie's poems and prose writings have sometimes seemed like a maze of reflexive footnotes; now they resemble more a collection of prisms through which his perceptions are variously refracted and reflected.

And "variously" is the word, of course, in a collection like this one which is likely to contain, and should contain, contradictions and inconsistencies. Does, for instance, the early condemnation of "bohemianism which, in its naive reliance on the generous impulse, spells death to any poetic whatever" entirely square with Davie's own generous impulse in suggesting that "the form and idiom of Gunslinger . . . transcend (dare one say?) any ...

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