He suffered fools grimly, because he thought there were so many of them, but he was himself far from grim. His laugh was a cross between a splutter and a chuckle, as if the joke had been cooking inside him for some time, and now was too good to be retained any longer. No mistaking the deep amusement in this laugh; not a trace of rancour or disappointment. It's true that he placed 'sourness and spite ... among the legitimate pleasures of pedantry', and said he had made 'a comfortable career' out of the jeremiad; but then these formulations suggest a complicated performance rather than straightforward sourness or lamentation, and his professed worry that a series of his lectures seems 'ingratiating' in print strikes me as some sort of puritan mischief, rather as if Samson might have thought he was being too polite when he pulled the temple down. I often felt daunted by him, but I never met him without feeling better for the meeting - I am extending the notion of meeting to include casual encounters outside St David's Station, Exeter and a wry postcard, long ago, from Stanford, as well as more substantial talks. He was Donald Davie, who was born in Barnsley in 1922 and died in Devon last autumn, a precise and passionate poet and critic, the Empson or the Eliot of his generation. Or rather, he would have been the Empson or Eliot of his generation, if his generation had not largely failed to need him, as it largely failed to need either poetry or criticism in anything other than easy doses.
LRB 25 January 1996 | PDF Download