In recent months Philip Larkin, based as always in Hull, and Donald Davie, back in Europe from California, have been conducting a restrained slugging-match concerning Larkin’s fidelity to the locus classicus in modern times, as defined – or distorted, if you are of Professor Davie’s persuasion – in The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse. Important issues have been raised, and it will be some time before any keeper of the peace will be able to still them. The time is propitious for an assessment of Professor Davie’s Thomas Hardy and British Poetry, which in a normal climate might be politely – and erroneously – half-praised as a well-bred squib, but for the duration of hostilities demands to be regarded as live, heavy-calibre ammunition.
Professor Davie is a poet of importance – of such importance, indeed that his academic title can safely be set aside for the remainder of this article – and from poets of importance we want works of criticism that are less safe than strange. There is nothing safe about this volume, and a lot that is strange. Thomas Hardy and British Poetry is a surprisingly odd book, but it is also a considerable one. In fact, the forces ranged against each other in the current squabble can now be said to be more evenly matched than might at first appear.
A good part of the secret of what Larkin really thinks about art is distributed through the pages of All What Jazz?, and if you want to take the weight of Larkin’s aesthetic intelligence, it is to that collection (and not so much to his so-far uncollected criticisms of poetry in the magazine Listen, although they count) that you must go. On the Davie side, we are given, in this new book, a view of his thought which is at the very least as luminous as the one made available in Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor. When Davie talks about Hardy he sounds like Larkin talking about jazz. To put it crudely, on their pet subjects they both talk turkey. But this doesn’t mean that either man makes himself plain. Larkin worships Bix Beiderbecke and deplores Charlie Parker, believing that Parker destroyed with arid intellectualism the art to which Beiderbecke contributed by lyrical instinct. Conveying this distinction, Larkin apparently makes himself clear; but it would be a suicidally foolish critic who thought that such a distinction could be used unexamined as a light on Larkin’s poetry. In poetry, Larkin is Beiderbecke and Parker combined: his criticism chooses sides among elements which are in balance within his complex creative personality. Similarly with Davie: his critical position calls for an even more cautious probing, since he is less aware of self-contradictions by the exact measure that he is more receptive to Literary influence. Thomas Hardy and British Poetry raises confusion to the level of criticism: it is a testament to Britain’s continuing fertility as an intellectual acreage in which ideas will flourish at rigour’s expense, the insights blooming like orchids while the valid syllogisms wither on the vine.
Davie starts by proposing Hardy as a more important influence than Yeats on the poetry of this century. The distinction between is and ought is not firmly made, with the result that we spend a lot of our time wondering whether Hardy has been the big influence all along, or merely should have been. ‘But for any poet who finds himself in the position of choosing between the two masters’, Davie says, ‘the choice cannot be fudged; there is no room for compromise.’ The reason why there is no room for compromise is not made as clear as the ordinary reader might require. ‘Hardy’, it is said, ‘has the effect of locking any poet whom he influences into the world of historical contingency, a world of specific places at specific times.’ Yeats, apparently, doesn’t have this effect: he transcends the linear unrolling of recorded time and attains, or attempts to attain, the visionary. Davie says that the reader can delight in both these approaches, but that the writer has to choose. It is difficult, at first, to see why the writer can’t employ the same combinative capacity as the reader. Difficult at first, and just as difficult later.
The other important thing happening at the beginning of the book concerns Larkin. Davie mentions Larkin’s conversion from Yeats to Hardy after The North Ship in 1946, thus tacitly proposing from the start that Larkin was doing the kind of severe choosing which Davie asserts is essential. Neither at this initial point, nor later on when Larkin is considered at length, is the possibility allowed that Yeats’s influence might have lingered on alongside, or even been compounded with, Hardy’s influence. One realizes with unease that Davie has not only enjoyed the preface to the re-issue of The North Ship, he has been utterly convinced by it: instead of taking Larkin’s autobiographical scraps as parables, he is treating them as the realities of intellectual development. Larkin conjures up a young mind in which Hardy drives out Yeats, and Davie believes in it.
But Davie’s main comments about Larkin are postponed until some sturdy ground-work has been put in on Hardy. We are told that Hardy’s technique is really engineering, and that he is paying a formal tribute to Victorian technology by echoing its precisioned virtuosity. A little later on we find that Davie doesn’t wholly approve of this virtuosity, and is pleased when the unwavering succession of intricately formed, brilliantly matched stanzas is allowed to break down – as in ‘The Voice’, where, we are assured, it breaks down under pressure of feeling.
A crucial general point about technique has bulkily arisen, but Davie miraculously succeeds in failing to notice it. At one stage he is almost leaning against it, when he says that Hardy was usually ‘highly skilled indeed but disablingly modest’, or even ‘very ambitious technically, and unambitious every other way.’ For some reason it doesn’t occur to Davie that having made these admissions he is bound to qualify his definition of technique in poetry. But not only does he not qualify it – he ups the stakes. Contesting Yeats’s insistence that Hardy lacked technical accomplishment, Davie says that ‘In sheer accomplishment, especially of prosody, Hardy beats Yeats hands down’ (his italics). Well, it’s a poser. Yeats’s critical remark about Hardy doesn’t matter much more than any other of Yeats’s critical remarks about anybody, but Davie’s rebuttal of it matters centrally to his own argument. He is very keen to set Yeats and Hardy off against each other: an opposition which will come in handy when he gets to Larkin. But keenness must have been bordering on fervour when he decided that Hardy had Yeats beaten technically in every department except something called ‘craft’ – which last attribute, one can be forgiven for thinking, ought logically to take over immediately as the main subject of the book.
Davie argues convincingly that we need to see below the intricate surface form of Hardy’s poems to the organic forms beneath. But he is marvellously reluctant to take his mind off the technical aspects of the surface form and get started on the problem of what technical aspects the organic form might reasonably be said to have. ‘We must learn to look through apparent symmetry to the real asymmetry beneath.’ We certainly must, and with Hardy Davie has. But what Davie has not learnt to see is that with Yeats the symmetry and asymmetry are the same thing – that there is no distance between the surface form and the organic form, the thing being both all art and all virtuosity at the same time. Why, we must wonder, is Davie so reluctant to see Yeats as the formal master beside whom Hardy is simply an unusually interesting craftsman? But really that is a rephrasing of the same question everybody has been asking for years: the one about what Davie actually means when he praises Ezra Pound as a prodigious technician. It is written in the stars that Donald Davie, clever in so many other matters, will go on to his grave being obtuse in this? Why can’t he see that the large, argued Yeatsian strophe is a technical achievement thoroughly dwarfing not only Pound’s imagism, but also Hardy’s tricky stanzas?
Davie is continually on the verge of finding Hardy deficient as a working artist, but circumvents the problem by calling him a marvellous workman whose work tended to come out wrong for other reasons. In ‘During Wind and Rain’ he detects a ‘wonderfully fine ear’, which turns out to be a better thing than ‘expertise in prosody’ – the wonderfully fine ear being ‘a human skill’ and not just a ‘technical virtuosity’. It ought to follow that knowing how to get the ear working while keeping the virtuosity suppressed is of decisive importance to poetic technique. It ought to follow further that because Hardy couldn’t do this – he spent a lot of his time being at odds with himself as a poet. What Davie is struggling to say is that Hardy wasn’t enough of an artist to make the best of the art that was in him. But the quickness of the pen deceives the brain, and Davie manages to say everything but that.
The strictures Davie does put on Hardy are harsh but inscrutable. There is in Hardy a ‘crucial selling-short of the poetic vocation’. In the last analysis, we learn, Hardy, unlike Pound and Pasternak (and here Yeats, Hopkins and Eliot also get a mention), doesn’t give us a transformed reality – doesn’t give us entry ‘into a world that is truer and more real than the world we know from statistics or scientific induction or common sense’. This stricture is inscrutable for two main reasons. First, Hardy spent a lot of his time establishing a version of reality in which, for example, lovers could go on being spiritually joined together after death: nothing scientific about that. Second, even if he had not been at pains to establish such a version of reality – even if his themes had been resolutely mundane – his poetry, if successful, would have done it for him. In saying that Hardy’s poetry doesn’t transform statistical, scientific reality, Davie is saying that Hardy hasn’t written poetry at all.
It should be obvious that Davie, while trying to praise Hardy as an artist, is actually diminishing him in that very department. Less obviously, he is also diminishing art. To look for a life-transforming theme, surely, is as self-defeating as to look for a life-enhancing one. Good poetry transforms and enhances life whatever it says. That is one of the reasons why we find it so special. In this case, as in so many others, one regrets the absence in English literary history of a thoroughly nihilistic poet. The Italians had Leopardi, who in hating existence could scarcely be said to have been kidding. Faced with his example, they were obliged at an early date to realize that there is poetry which can deny a purpose to life and yet still add to its point.
Larkin, Davie insists, follows Hardy and not Yeats. ‘Larkin has testified to that effect repeatedly’, he announces, clinching the matter. Yeats’s influence was ‘a youthful infatuation’. The ground is well laid for a thorough-going misunderstanding of Larkin on every level, and after a few back-handed compliments (‘The narrowness of range…might seem to suggest that he cannot hear the weight of significance that I want to put on him, as the central figure in English poetry over the past twenty years’ – narrowness of range as compared with whom? With people who write worse?) Davie buckles down to the task.
Hardy, we have already learnt, was neutral about industrialism because his technique mirrored it: his skill as a constructor implicated him. With Larkin it is otherwise. Larkin can feel free to hate industrialism because he has no special sense of himself as a technician: ‘The stanzaic and metrical symmetries which he mostly aims at are achieved skilfully enough, but with none of that bristling expertise of Hardy which sets itself, and surmounts, intricate technical challenge.’
By this stage of the book it is no longer surprising, just saddening, that Davie can’t draw the appropriate inferences from his own choice of words. Being able to quell the bristle and find challenges other than the kind one sets oneself – isn’t that the true skill? The awkward fact is that unless we talk about diction, and get down to the elementary stylistic analysis which would show how Larkin borrowed Hardy’s use of, say, hyphenated compounds, then it is pretty nearly impossible to trace Larkin’s technical debt to Hardy. Not that Davie really tries. But apart from understandably not trying that, Davie clamorously doesn’t try to find out about Larkin’s technical debt to Yeats. And the inspiration for the big, matched stanzas of ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ is not in Hardy’s ‘intricacy’ but in the rhetorical majesty of Yeats. In neglecting to deal with that inspiration, Davie limits his meaning of the word ‘technique’ to something critically inapplicable. Technically, Larkin’s heritage is a combination of Hardy and Yeats – it can’t possibly be a substitution of the first by the second. The texture of Larkin’s verse is all against any such notion.
Mistaking Larkin’s way of working is a mere prelude to mistaking his manner of speaking, and some thunderous misreadings follow as a consequence. In Larkin, we are told, ‘there is to be no historical perspective, no measuring of present against past’. Applied to the author of ‘An Arundel Tomb’, this assertion reminds us of the old Stephen Potter ploy in which a reviewer selected the characteristic for which an author was most famous and then attacked him for not having enough of it.
According to Davie, Larkin is a Hardyesque poet mainly in the sense that he, too, ‘may have sold poetry short’. With Larkin established as such a baleful influence, the problem becomes how to ‘break out of the greyly constricting world of Larkin’. Davie enlists the poetry of Charles Tomlinson to help us do this, but it might have been more useful to linger awhile and ask if Larkin isn’t already doing a good deal by himself to help us get clear of his dreary mire – by going on writing, that is, with the kind of intensity which lit up the gloom and made us notice him in the first place. Here again, and ruinously, Davie is dealing in every reality except the realities of art. He cannot or will not see that Larkin’s grimness of spirit is not by itself the issue. The issue concerns the gratitude we feel for such a grimness of spirit producing such a beauty of utterance.
Near the end of the book, Davie draws a useful distinction between poets and prophets. The prophet is above being fair-minded: the poet is not. The poet helps to shape culture, with which the prophet is at war. Prophetic poetry is necessarily an inferior poetry.
To this last point one can think of exceptions, but generally all this is well said, and leaves the reader wondering why Davie did not then go back and find something centrally and vitally praiseworthy in the limitations of the Hardy tradition. Because it is the Hardy tradition which says that you can’t be entirely confident of knowing everything that reality contains, let alone of transcending it. The Hardy tradition is one of a mortal scale. It does not hail the super-human. As Larkin might put it, it isn’t in the exaltation business. That is the real point which Davie has worriedly been half-making all along. In a striking way, Thomas Hardy and British Poetry is an eleventh-hour rejection of Davie’s early gods. Somewhere in there among the dust and hubbub there is a roar of suction indicating that the air might soon be cleared.
(T.L.S., 13 July 1973)