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This article is taken from PN Review 140, Volume 27 Number 6, July - August 2001.

Donald Davie and 'The exam of future life' Peter Robinson

1


Towards the close of 'Monks and Commissars', his 1952 review of Purity of Diction in English Verse, William Empson points out that since, according to Donald Davie's account, the Romantic poets cannot be blamed for failing to keep up a pure diction, because it depended on the class culture and speech of a late eighteenth-century society that had passed away, then, says Empson, 'I can't see how he can ask modern poets to bring it back now.' So, one father-figure of the Movement offers a crucial insight into problems besetting that project when it had barely got under way. Providing the pros and cons of a review, Empson turns wryly from Davie's book as poetic manifesto to its aspect as academic text book. 'But I should think he is probably right, he is making a good spot about what the exam of future life will be, when he recommends Pure Diction to his pupils.' The chastity, candour, and urbanity that the young poet and critic associates with dictional purity will, it is suggested, stand students in better stead when recruited into the professions or entangled in the complexities of a private life, than, say, the dictional and other conduct of Coleridge, Byron, or Shelley, as Davie understood them then.

While he may have been 'making a good spot about what the exam of future life will be' for a great many of his students, Davie was not conveniently in tune with what some ...


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