Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
John McAuliffeBill Manhire in Conversation with John McAuliffe
(PN Review 259)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Patricia CraigVal Warner: A Reminiscence
(PN Review 259)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Tim Parksin conversation with Natalia Ginzburg
(PN Review 49)
Next Issue Gwyneth Lewis ‘Spiderings’ Ian Thomson ‘Fires were started: Tallinn, 1944’ Adrian May ‘Traditionalism and Tradition’ Judith Herzberg ‘Poems’ translated by Margitt Helbert Horatio Morpurgo ‘What is a Book?’
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
PN Review 276
PN Review Substack

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


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 ...

Searching, please wait... animated waiting image