Energetic Articulation

Purity of Diction in English Verse & Articulate Energy, Donald Davie
(370pp, 12.95, Carcanet)

Donald Davie's Purity of Diction in English Verse and its sequel Articulate Energy, both written more than half-a-century ago and at the time published by Routledge & Kegan Paul, remain important critical works. It is good to have them re-issued together in one volume - as they were fifteen years ago by Penguin - now from Carcanet. This re-issue contains nearly four hundred pages of stimulating, closely-argued criticism: on that score alone, whether you agree or disagree with the back-cover assertion that the two originally separate works must be considered 'primary texts', it remains an intellectually challenging and enlivening read. Its emphasis on poetics, on technique, on how language is made to work in poetry, is not only of value to readers but to practitioners too.

For one thing
Purity of Diction in English Verse is important for the way fifty years ago it allowed for a re-evaluation of later eighteenth-century poets through a close analysis of the relationship between the moral values they had in common and the diction of their poetry, the proper appreciation of which had long been obscured by immersion in the Romantics. This was a significant act of recovery and one all attentive readers of poetry must be grateful for. It is criticism fulfilling a vital function - the surgical removal of mistaken assumptions and prejudices.

But the book was something else too. It was also a kind of manifesto not only for the poetry of the fifties that earned itself the title The Movement but for the poems Davie himself was writing.

Happy the days we could characterise poetry by the decade! Anyone interested in a detailed account of the poetry of the fifties should read Blake Morrison's
The Movement. Davie admitted in a Postscript, written in 1966 for a 1969 reprint, that The Movement (its anthologies were the two New Lines volumes edited by Robert Conquest), if it had in any way cohered enough as a group, might 'subscribe to a common manifesto'...(that) 'might have been Purity of Diction in English Poetry.' The Movement poets set their face against the Neo-romantics of the forties, what Davie characterises as Bohemianism. Conquest put it this way: 'In the 1940s the mistake was made of giving the Id, a sound player on the percussion side under a strict conductor, too much of a say in the doings of the orchestra as a whole.' What was needed was a return to 'a rational structure and comprehensible language, even when the verse is most highly charged with sensuous and emotional intent.')

Purity of Diction in English Verse helps us to read poetry attentively, to consider the degree of conditioning we have undergone preventing a proper appreciation of the poetry of the eighteenth century (including the hymn-writer Wesley); it also helps us to understand what was going on in the poetics of the forties and fifties, and finally to read Davie's own poems. All this and insights into Modernism too.

Articulate Energy (great title, especially if you read it as an imperative like Pound's 'Make it new!') deals with matters of syntax (what we might call, for the sake of simplification, the structural aspects of language, the way things fit together) and how this affects the way we read (or write) poetry. Davie saw this as unmapped territory and as 'an investigation of poetic method, not an estimate of poetic achievements.' Underlying it all is the notion of a 'contract' between reader and writer, an 'honourable stratagem...to act as if the writer and his readers were still civilised people.' As ever Davie's approach is rational and conservative; it is also wide-ranging, taking in such areas of interest as syntax as music, as action, as subjective, dramatic, objective, and discussing in the process writers and critics such as T.E. Hulme, Susanne Langer, Ernest Fenollosa, Thomas Sackville, Sidney, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Berkeley, Yeats, to show that once we are in possession of the truth of a poem 'diction, meter, rhyme, imagery, all are made transparent for the truth to shine through them...(a poem's) syntax articulates not just itself, not only its own world, but the world of common experience.' That is marvellous stuff.

What Davie (he died in 1995) would have made of the current poetry scene is hard to guess but I'm sure that, like the works under consideration here, it would be deeply thoughtful and worth very serious attention.

     Matt Simpson 2007