It may be true that Donald Davidson went too far in his concern for art’s effect on the community. Given the decadence of much popular and highbrow art in our time, perhaps other readers of Davidson’s verse find themselves in a curious predicament. Like me, they may find fault with the principles of his poetic; but they also find his verse—and the voice of the citizen-poet—to be both worthy and salutary.
Donald Davidson (1893-1968) and the other major Agrarians did not see eye to eye on every social, political, and economic concern. More than Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, and Andrew Lytle, Davidson believed agrarianism offered a healthy alternative to twentieth-century industrial culture, and he worked more resolutely for the agrarian cause than they did, though seldom as a political activist. His defense of segregation (from a states’ rights position) in the late 1950s was his only foray into active politics.
Just as Davidson differed with some of the Agrarian brethren concerning agrarian doctrines and the feasibility of putting those doctrines to work in the body politic, he also differed with them concerning the office of the man of letters in the modern world. Davidson told Ransom in 1929 that the times called “for a mixture of poets and philosophers in affairs,” meaning that poets no less than social philosophers should concern themselves with social and political affairs.
As for Tate and Ransom, while they also were interested in affairs, they thought Davidson’s verse was sometimes too preoccupied with the concerns of the social philosopher. They had qualms about what might be called Davidson’s “literary activism.” This is clear in Tate’s 14 July 1932 letter to Andrew Lytle, in which he complained that Davidson expected the Agrarians’ “poems and plays to be propaganda pure and simple—that is, he wants us to try to control minutely the reactions of the public.” In other words, Tate thought Davidson was too zealous in his desire to indoctrinate the public with the Southern agrarian tradition through art itself. Ransom also had misgivings: He thought Davidson’s verse was too “patriotic” for the Kenyon Review. Moreover, Davidson’s literary criticism, which Davidson once described as “literary-historical-social criticism,” was not made to order for Ransom’s periodical either, for the Kenyon Review published the “new criticism.” Davidson, on the other hand, always wrote criticism which ranged outside the text to comment straightforwardly on historical and contemporary social, political, cultural, and spiritual concerns.
A useful way to describe Davidson’s literary orientation as it is affected by his social concerns is to say that he is a citizen-poet, a poet who is vitally concerned with art’s effect on the community. At times Davidson seems as interested in the philosopher’s wisdom, which he would impose on the city through art, as he is in the poet’s beauty. And this is the heart of Ransom’s and Tate’s discomfort with his poetry and poetic.
One can see Davidson’s poetic developing in his Fugitive poems, poems he wrote between 1922 and 1925—five years before he and the other Agrarians took their stand for the South’s agrarian tradition. Davidson’s concerns as a citizen-poet are not evident in all of his Fugitive verse. He has a romantic strain that is too private, too fanciful, to be the utterance of a citizen-poet. And there are poems tinged with modernism, with a voice and mode ill equipped to serve the citizen-poet. And finally, we do find Fugitive verse that prepares the way for such Southern agrarian poems as The Tall Man (1927) and “Lee in the Mountains” (1934), Davidson’s best-known work as a citizen-poet.
In most of Davidson’s earliest Fugitive poems he does not assume the office of the citizen-poet, who will always evince some concern for the community or the polis. His earliest published poems reveal instead a strong escapist or romantic strain. A case in point is “Following the Tiger,” which appeared in the April 1922 issue of The Fugitive, the magazine’s first number. The lure of faeryland, a blissful place free from all the sins, toils, and worries of the ordinary world, is Davidson’s theme; his diction, as the first stanza indicates, is reminiscent of the 1895-1910 Yeats:
When I was weary of toiling
I put on a beggar’s clothes,
Borrowed a lute of the tinker,
And garnished my cap with a rose,
Left all the lands behind me
Far as ever I could,
And followed the track of the Tiger
Into the thick of the wood
For the feet of the Tiger pass
Where no man ever has trod.
The lair of the Tiger is blessed;
Its place is the place of God.
In all five stanzas of the poem allegorical refrains, italicized by Davidson for extra emphasis, stress the perfection of an otherworldly place, and by contrast, the imperfection of the real world. The tiger leads the speaker to the Queen of the Faeries, who dwells with God in a hut in the woods. In this hut, the closing stanza reveals, the speaker finds perfect bliss in the company of a rather silly trinity:
And then was the latch-string lifted.
There were the lovely Three—
God, and his Queen, and the Tiger!
And God’s hand welcomed me.
The Tiger slept on the Hearthstone;
The Faery gave me her Ring;
My Rose began to blossom;
My Lute began to sing.
It sang how the ways of the Tiger
Led me to beauty and God,
To the door of the Hut of the Faery
By paths men never had trod.
This poem and others that mention tigers and dragons (“The Dragon Book,” “The Tiger-Woman,’’ and “The Valley of the Dragon”) invite the reader into a romantic faery world, a world of the imagination. They are “private” poems without public concerns. In these faeryland poems both the ordinary world that the speaker would escape and the imaginary ideal world to which he would flee are described in general terms; there is not much specific concretion.
These poems are prophetic in that they protest against the boredom, sin, and toil of the ordinary world, a world which is not modern except in that it is juxtaposed to the old world of romance. But Davidson does not succeed in making this ordinary world especially unattractive, certainly not unattractive enough to draw the reader into the alternative world of timeless faery wonders. The strong tendency toward escapism, the sing-song rimes and rhythms, and the fact that Davidson’s imagination seems to have been inspired by a private romanticism—these features overshadow any genuine prophetic quality.
While Davidson was writing his early romantic poems (those mentioned above appeared in the April and June 1922 issues of the Fugitive), he was engaging in a serious debate with Tate concerning the merits and demerits of literary modernism. Their correspondence in the early to mid-1920s touches on almost all the issues related to the tradition versus modernism debate. In their letters one sees an encounter between a decidedly “modern” poet, Tate, and a decidedly conservative or traditional poet, Davidson, with respect to the techniques of the art of poetry. The first letter in the correspondence (from Davidson, dated 17 June 1922) is illustrative: Davidson had bought a volume of T.S. Eliot’s verse and wondered “very oddly whether [his] $1.25 was well-spent’’ (TLC 4). Two months later, he admitted that the several chapters of James Joyce’s Ulysses which he had read were interesting and unique, but, playing on Leopold Bloom’s name, he added that he would not “accept them as art—My God, think of reading 782 pages of that blooming stuff” (TLC 43).
While Davidson had difficulty appreciating two of the most famous of the moderns, Tate was the zealous champion of one (Eliot) and the calm advocate of the other (Joyce). Striking differences between their aesthetic views are evident in other letters. While Davidson thought greatness of theme and “grandly serious things” were important (TLC 18), Tate didn’t (TLC 21). Davidson approved of the memorable line, was suspicious of irony, thought orderly syntax a necessary and accessibility a virtue (TLC 33); Tate praised irony and defended obscurity, incongruity, difficulty, and sophistication in poetry (TLC 56-58). Davidson believed the poet “must have an attitude toward his object; one must pity or scorn or accept; one cannot simply analyze” (TLC 24). In contrast, Tate’s aesthetic was more impersonal and sophisticated. He suspected that the emotion many poets put into their work was not connected to reality but the creation of an artificial reality, an “unreal emotional world” (TLC 29), and he referred Davidson to Eliot’s idea of the “objective correlative” for an explanation of his views (TLC 36).
Davidson thought Tate limited his possibilities by adopting “the Eliotish manner” of ironic lyricism: “Poetry,” he wrote to Tate, “is surely something broader than a rather sardonic, half-beautiful laugh. Why not let one’s art include ironic lyricism, if you will, but not to the exclusion of other things, if one may attain them” (TLC 70). In another letter he described the limited possibilities of Tate’s verse as a “narrow lane” (TLC 161). Tate, on the other hand, justified his peculiar style and the limited scope of his poetry, and of much modern poetry besides: “We are an age of Minors, and our only raison d’eh-e is good technique, it seems to me” (TLC 111). Tate humorously noted some of the differences in their aesthetic views when he observed: “You, my dear Don, [are] mule-like in your standards of beauty and rhythm, which I am always trying to undermine with a blast of entrails and livers!” (TLC 56).
Despite Davidson’s conservative inclinations, he was influenced by Tate’s “blast of entrails and livers” and by his arguments in support of Eliot and literary modernism in general. He did not write successfully of “grandly serious things” in the grand style until he went to work on that series of poems called The Tall Men (1927). Davidson’s acceptance of some of the modernist aesthetic is evident in his review of Eliot’s Homage to John Dryden (Fugitive, June 1925), where he praises Eliot’s penetrating discussions of wit, satire, and irony in relation to the English tradition of poetry. We note from his later correspondence with Tate that he is attacking modernism less, grudgingly accepting some of Tate’s arguments.
Indeed, some aspects of literary modernism are conspicuous in Davidson’s own Fugitive-era verse. Davidson’s “Pan” series poems, written in 1922, are modern in technique, utilizing ironic juxtaposition and unusual diction. They are also modern in their straightforward or realistic (that is, unromantic and un-Victorian) treatment of sex. In “Corymba” a flapper of the 1920s is described in language that ironically suggests an ancient Grecian temple dancing girl. The poem’s diction is Ransomesque, unusual: Corymba wears no “snood” upon her head; the dance hall is a “sudatorium;” the band plays the “sistrum;” Corymba has “seen arms lifted, bosoms bared / In far other rigadoon.” Here rigadoon (a lively dance of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) suggests the ecstatic dancing in the dance hall, but it signifies another sort of dance associated with the bedroom, of which the wild dance-hall gyrations are but foreplay and shadow. In the final stanza the one-word line and the withering irony are solidly in the modernist manner:
Corymba has not rejected
It is past noon.
With half drawn-up knees,
Thinking of new stockings
And other such verities.
Like “Corymba,” the three other poems in the “Pan” series—“Dryad,” “Twilight Excursion,” and “Naiad”—treat sexual encounters in which the maddening power of the sex instinct is illustrated. In all of them Davidson describes modern-day people in language suggestive of ancient Greek creatures and myths. For the most part the poems are not modern or experimental in form, for in them—as in much of his verse—Davidson employs stanzas of equal length, regular rime schemes, and an essentially iambic (but not a sing-song) meter. Still Tate admired the “modern” quality of these poems—by modern he was signifying the qualities of restraint, subtlety, and incongruity, or the element of surprise. He urged Davidson to continue “in this new line” and to look to the poetry of T.S. Eliot for examples of it and to Eliot’s criticism for justification.
In their judgment of sexual decadence the “Pan” poems convey one of the concerns of the citizen-poet, but the obscure diction and the ironic voice of the detached speaker do not comport with the direct, unambiguous voice of the citizen poet. He prefers satire to irony and generally uses a voice and medium accessible to other citizens.
Some of Davidson’s Fugitive poems do successfully convey the concerns of the citizen-poet-concerns, incidentally, which were later identified as agrarian themes. “The Wolf” (August-September 1923) and “Old Harp” (October 1923) are two good examples. Interestingly, while Davidson did not include the tiger and dragon poems and the “Pan” series poems in his later collections of verse, “The Wolf” and “Old Harp” were collected in Poems: 1922-1961, Davidson’s last collection, which probably contains his best verse—certainly the verse by which he wanted to be remembered. “The Wolf” satirizes the modern mammon worshipper (in this case the owner of a general store) who has been tamed, denatured by his attention to merchandise, money, and account books:
The flour-barrels, cracker-boxes, cans
Of lard and coffee hem the live beast in,
Who jingles furtive fingers through the till,
Dropping delicious coins with snap and grin.
Drooling, like one who should be crunching bones,
He mouths the figured column of his kill.
A sneaking blast rattles the locked door;
The cat looks on, oracular and still.
The eyes that should be centering the brush
Blink at the hot stove’s belly, glowing red.
The breath that should go howling to the moon
Blows out the lamp and wheezes off to bed.
No less than the tiger or the dragon, the wolf is a cliché of poetry, one that has often been used to symbolize avariciousness. In Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen “malicious Envie,” who covets Lucifera’s gold, rides “upon a ravenous wolfe,’’ and Dante in The Divine Comedy uses the wolf to symbolize incontinence, especially avarice. In Davidson’s poem avariciousness has taken away the natural qualities of the “wolf” (its hunting instinct and wildness): instead of hunting, “crunching bones,” and “howling to the moon,” this modern merchant, separated from nature by his merchandise and the “locked door,” drools over his account books—“his kill”—then “Blows out the light and wheezes off to bed.” His nights, like his days, are spiritually void.
Another sort of spiritual vacuity is Davidson’s theme in “Old Harp,” a direct address to the harp that now hangs unused on the museum wall. The speaker laments the sad condition of poetry in the modern world, where much verse has lost its musical or lyrical quality, where it is chiefly encountered in books instead of in the hearts and on the tongues of men, and where it tends to celebrate or berate private concerns, not the heroic, communal themes of the scop and the gleeman:
Could thine ancient master rise
From his dark mound by the sea,
With what shame and hurt surprise
Would he look on thee,
Placarded here for eyes
That never knew the glee.
Once he sang of old, old things
In tongues men have forgot,
Of sleeping barrowed kings
That wait new Camelot
With richer coverings
Than men on earth have got;
Or of shield-rimmed galleys drifting
And Viking eyes ablaze
To catch gray towers lifting
Their round from bowered ways;
Or blue cliffs slowly rifting
That guard enchanted bays.
But his pliant hand is dust.
Here is no singing tongue
Only the mute cool rust
Fingers thee, loosely strung,
And men read, as read they must,
What once was sung.
The old harp, once played by the gleeman who sang enchanting romances and traditional racial songs to his people, now hangs rusting, “loosely strung,” on the modern museum’s wall, to be wondered at by men who know a hundred popular songs, but who “never knew the glee.” Here Davidson does not admonish us to “Throw out the radio and take down the fiddle from the wall,” as Lytle did in his symposium essay. Instead, this is one of his many ubi sunt poems in which he juxtaposes the spiritless present with a more vital past. As such, it is perhaps less effective than “The Wolf,” which is more an attack than a sentimental lament.
As poems in general, however, but especially as citizen-poet poems, “The Wolf” and “Old Harp” are much more successful than the modernist “Pan” poems and the romantic tiger/dragon poems. The “Pan” poems deal with what Tate called “entrails and livers,” are relatively complex (even obscure), and have that ironic lyricism Davidson identified with Eliot’s poems. They are not as accessible as the two poems just examined. On the other hand, the tiger dragon poems are extremely fanciful: They present a tension between two worlds (the ordinary world and the world of romance and faeryland), but neither world is objective enough, or particular enough, to engage the serious reader. In contrast, “The Wolf” is solidly planted in the real world. The merchant is hemmed in by “lard and coffee,” among other items, and he is described in terms of a real creature of nature. In “Old Harp” Davidson’s theme is communal, not private. And he successfully treats the tension between the present and the old world of romance, largely because he does not appeal to a fantastic faeryworld, as he had done in the earlier poems, but to a world more securely anchored in the West’s history, myth, and legend. In our mental landscapes, heroic Viking warriors and old English kings are more substantial than dragons and faery queens.
Davidson is a reluctant modernist during these Fugitive years; later, as his agrarian convictions begin to take shape in 1926, he becomes an outright traditionalist, increasingly utilizing in his poems a more conventional diction, a more usable past, regional subject matter, greater themes, with less obscurity and ambiguity. There is less playfulness in meter and rime in his agrarian poems, and more solemn irony. In short, Davidson discovered that traditional elements were more suitable than the modern mode for the citizen-poet he aspired to be.
With The Tall Men, Davidson assumes the full-blown office of the citizen-poet, and all of the ten poems in the volume-written in blank verse, a meter suitable for serious concerns-criticize the modern world, usually by means of ironic comparison with the past, often the “Southern” past of Tennessee frontiersmen, Davidson’s ancestors. Aside from the citizen-poet concerns, what distinguishes The Tall Men from the earlier Fugitive poems is Davidson’s use of the mythopoeic method, a method variously used by other twentieth-century writers such as Eliot, Joyce, and Yeats. In most of the early poems (the dragon and tiger poems, the “Pan” series, and even “Old Harp,” for example) Davidson draws upon ancient legends and myths to give order and perspective to experience and emotion. Apparently he could not utilize history, myth, and legend that lay closer to hand. But in The Tall Men, “Lee in the Mountains,” and later poems, Davidson discovered material close at hand which, along with the ancient lore, could be used to organize his experience. He began to mine the “Southern” vein which earlier had seemed much too sentimental for serious treatment. He continued in this “Southern” and “citizen” vein in Lee in the Mountains (1938) and in The Long Street (1961).
In “A Mirror for Artists,” his I’ll Take My Stand essay, Davidson discusses the social conditions which compelled him to assume the office of the citizen-poet. This essay, in fact, is his justification for assuming the office. It contains his clearest and strongest statement regarding the responsibilities of the man of letters in the modern world and the vital connection between literature and the affairs of life. His arguments in other essays usually derive from the social and aesthetic principles of his manifesto essay.
Davidson’s symposium essay identifies the combinations of industrialism and democracy (two social forces that appeared at nearly the same time in the middle of the eighteenth century) as the destroyer of cultural unity (ITMS 43). One should emphasize here, however, that Davidson does not censure democracy alone in his symposium essay: he maintains that it is democracy combined with industrialism which wreaks havoc on the arts:
Only as democracy becomes allied with industrialism can it be considered really dangerous, as when, in the United States, it becomes politically and socially impotent; or, as in the extreme democracy of the Soviets, where, converted into equalitarianism within class limits, it threatens the existence of man’s humanity. Democracy, if not made too acquisitive by industrialism, does not appear as an enemy to the arts (ITMS 49).
The industrial revolution wreaked “spiritual damage” by separating work and play, art and life. As Davidson explains, under the industrial regime,
We live by the clock. Our days are a muddle of “activities,” strenuously pursued. We do not have the free mind and easy temper that should characterize true leisure. Nor does the separation of our lives into two distinct parts, of which one is all labor—too often mechanical and deadening—and the other all play, undertaken as a nervous relief, seem to be conducive to a harmonious life. The arts will not easily survive a condition under which we work and play at cross-purposes. We cannot separate our being into contradictory halves without a certain amount of spiritual damage (ITMS 34).
In industrial societies two things occur that are detrimental to the arts. First, art becomes a commodity to be sold on the market like any other mass-produced good, with the consequence that quality is sacrificed to quantity. Commercialized art, cheaply produced and easily distributed, is popular art, and it appeals to the “lowest common denominator”:
The shop-girl does not recite Shakespeare before breakfast. Henry Ford’s hired hands do not hum themes from Beethoven as they go to work. Instead, the shop-girl reads the comic strip with her bowl of patent cereal and puts on a jazz record while she rouges her lips. She reads the confession magazines and goes to the movies. The factory hand simply does not hum (ITMS 30-31 and 35).
Secondly, in industrial societies ordinary people are moved farther and farther away from fine art and genuine folk art (art that is not mass-produced for popular audiences and consumers). This art is not found in man’s life and home; it is placed in museums, galleries, and libraries. The attempts of philanthropists (by contributions) and state and national governments (by taxation) to acquaint the common man with these arts only exacerbates the problem by emphasizing “the discrepancy between our life and our art”:
It is futile to imagine that the arts will penetrate our life in exact proportion to the number of art galleries, orchestras, and libraries that philanthropy may endow. Rather it is probable that a multiplication of art galleries (to take a separate example) is a mark of a diseased, not a healthy civilization. If paintings and sculptures are made for the purpose of being viewed in the carefully studied surroundings of art galleries, they have certainly lost their intimate connection with life. What is a picture for, if not to put on one’s wall? (ITMS 39)
One of Davidson’s key arguments in “A Mirror for Artists” is that “social conditions to a large extent direct the temper and form of art.” Thus the combination of industrialism and democracy, he maintains, produces romanticism in literature. Romanticism arises whenever there is “an artificial or maladjusted relation between the artist and society”; then the “artist is no longer with society, as perhaps even Milton, last of the classicists, was. He is against or away from society, and the disturbed relation becomes his essential theme” (ITMS 42-43). To illustrate this antagonism Davidson notes that poets have taken four paths—all but one in one way or another against the grain of their society. First, they may nostalgically turn to the past for themes and style. Secondly, they may reaffirm “the sacredness of the individual” and write “personal and subjective” lyric poetry, “with the objective [world] practically ruled out.” In this case, the “poet sings less for the crowd in whose experiences he no longer shares intimately. The lonely artist appears, who sings for a narrower and ever diminishing audience; or having in effect no audience, he sings for himself,” developing a unique style, peculiar ideas, and private myths which are difficult, obscure. The poet may choose a third path and attack his society, producing “works of social criticism and protest.” The artist’s last option, Davidson says, “is to accept the disturbed state of society as something which cannot be altered by him or as promising an altogether new kind of society that will require to be interpreted in some wholly new kind of art.” This fourth path has produced realism and naturalism, which Davidson believes to be, in many cases, closer to journalism, history, and science than to fiction or poetry (ITMS 44-47).
Davidson gives several examples of these various artistic paths (Poe and Emily Dickinson as subjective seclusionist; Whitman as accepter and celebrant of the new order). He gives no particular examples of the first group (those who nostalgically turn to the past) or the third (those who write works of “social criticism and protest”). But examples do come to mind: for the first group, the Southern writers of the sentimental school (such as William Gilmore Simms, Henry Timrod, and Thomas Nelson Page) and for the third, Marxist writers such as Upton Sinclair and satirists such as Sinclair Lewis and H.L. Mencken.
All four paths reveal the disturbed relation between the artist and his society. Davidson did see a fifth path for the artist, a path he himself takes in much of his “Agrarian” poetry. This fifth path is in many respects similar to that of the third group, who produce works of “social criticism and protest.” But this last group differs from the third in that the artist endeavors to regain harmony between himself and his society rather than simply to rebuke it in order to remake it. To regain harmony the artist must do more than utter anathemas against the system or society; he
… must share in the general concern as to the conditions of life. He must learn to understand and must try to restore and preserve a social economy that is in danger of being replaced altogether by an industrial economy hostile to his interests. (ITMS 58)
Davidson believed the provincial artist, unless he moves to New York City, has the best opportunity to restore harmony between himself and his society, for he is in touch with his own people, with a particular place, and with nature.
At the close of his essay Davidson maintains that the artist “should not forget that in these times he is called on to play the part both of a person and of an artist. Of the two, that of the person is more immediately important.” Davidson is not merely addressing the Southern artist in his essay, but any artist whose work is debased by a commercialized, industrialized civilization. Such an artist, Davidson says,
… will do best to flee the infection of our times, to stand for decentralization in the arts, to resist with every atom of his strength the false gospels of art as a luxury which can be sold in commercial quantities or which can be hallowed by segregation in discreet shrines.
The poet is advised to flee to and identify with the “Hinterland” rather than to be consumed by the cynical attitudes and commercial spirit of cosmopolitan places like New York City. But in order to resist the infection, the artist may have to “become less of an artist. He must enter the common arena and become a citizen” (ITMS 60). Thus Davidson emphasizes that the poet’s principal concern is with community.
To conclude, we might briefly contrast Davidson’s view of the office of the poet with Tate’s mature view, which I believe is the healthier of the two. Actually, in many respects their views of the man of letters are similar. Tate’s “The Profession of Letters in the South” (1935) emphasizes that Americans regard the writer as a business man, that writers and book publishers together produce “shoddy goods” for the sake of a “big, quick turnover.’’ The older writer, a member “of an organic society,” was able to perform as a whole person for a community audience, while the modern writer must participate “in his society through the cash nexus.” Tate maintains, too, that “The Southern writer should if possible be a Southerner in the South.” He should welcome “foreign influence,” but he should not lose his Southern identity.
In Tate’s “The Man of Letters in the Modern World” (1952), one observes where Davidson and Tate part company in their views of the writer’s duty. Tate argues that since “languages are being debased by the techniques of mass control,” the man of letters “has an immediate responsibility, to other men no less than to himself, for the vitality of language.” While Davidson subordinates the poet to the citizen, Tate places poet and citizen on an equal footing: the man of letters is responsible “to other men no less than to himself.” Like Davidson, Tate stresses that the artist is alienated from society. And at the close of this essay, he touches upon one of Davidson’s main arguments—that culture and society are the “true province of the man of letters.” But then, unlike Davidson, he extends the argument in a theological direction that Davidson would not have accepted at least not in 1930, and perhaps not until the end of his life:
It is the duty of the man of letters to supervise the culture of language, to which the rest of culture is subordinate, and to warn us when our language is ceasing to forward the ends proper to man. The end of social man is communion in time through love, which is beyond time.
So, according to Tate, the poet is equally responsible as poet and citizen but with respect to an ultimate, not merely a socially communal responsibility. In contrast, Davidson’s emphasis on the poet as citizen is more limited in its vision than Tate’s. As citizen-poet, he calls us back to the truths of the human community, but these truths are not firmly anchored in the transcendent. For Davidson, they are anchored in nature alone, which, he said in his symposium essay, is ultimately “the chief subject of art” (ITMS 29).
From 1930 (when he wrote “A Mirror for Artists”) to the end of his life, Davidson wavers little from this view that the artist is responsible as both artist and citizen. “Among modern poets,” Lewis P. Simpson declares in his introduction to Still Rebels, Still Yankees, “Davidson was virtually unique in his complete adoption of the role of vates—in taking on the ancient vocation of the poet as the seer and prophet who speaks out of the whole and living tradition of his people.” Perceiving that the whole and living tradition of his people was being destroyed by innovations in the modern world—by science, industry, urbanization, materialism, commercialism, and the Leviathan state—Davidson assumed the office of the citizen-poet, attacked the invading enemy, and called his people back to their old traditions. In some of his Fugitive verse the voice of the citizen-poet is not heard, or it is muted by modernism, by a private romanticism, by playfulness, by lament and nostalgia. But when Davidson discovered his voice as citizen- poet, when he unreservedly accepted his role as vates, he put aside the preoccupations of his early days and began to exploit and defend tradition in a way he had not done before.
It may be true, as Tate and Ransom thought, that Davidson went too far in his concern for art’s effect on the community. But it is also true that Davidson’s verse is worthy of praise. Given the decadence of much popular and highbrow art in our time, perhaps other readers of Davidson’s verse find themselves in a curious predicament. Like me, they may find fault with the principles of his poetic; but they also find his verse—and the voice of the citizen-poet—to be both worthy and salutary.
Reprinted with the gracious permission of Modern Age (Fall 1993).
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1. Letter to John Crowe Ransom, 5 July 1929, Davidson Papers, Jean and Alexander Heard Library, Nashville, Tennessee.
2. The Lytle-Tale Letters: The Correspondence of Andrew Lytle and Allen Tate, ed. Thomas Daniel Young and Elizabeth Sarcone (Jackson, 1987), 60.
3. Ransom writes this in a 29 March 1939 letter to Tate, written while he was editor of the Kenyon Review. The letter is in Selected Letters of John Crowe Ransom, ed. Thomas Daniel Young and George Core (Baton Rouge, 1985), 257.
4. Letter to Allen Tate, 14 April 1931, in The Literary Correspondence of Donald Davidson and Allen Tate (hereafter cited parenthetically as TLC), ed. John Tyree Fain and Thomas Daniel Young (Athens, 1974), 260.
5. The Fugitive 1 (April 1922), 17-19. rpt. (Gloucester, 1967).
6. The Fugitive 4 (June 1925), 61-62.
7. The four “Pan” poems were published in The Double Dealer, not in The Fugitive, perhaps because Davidson thought them too racy for those readers of The Fugitive in Nashville who knew him. They were included in his first collection of verse, An Outland Piper (1924), but not in later collections. Again, they may have been too risque, or perhaps too modern, for his post-Fugitive sensibilities.
8. Donald Davidson, An Outland Piper (Boston, 1924), 33-34.
9. His commendation of Davidson’s “Pan” poems and his remarks about Eliot’s verse and criticism are in three letters in TLC p. 12 (5 July 1922); p. 26 (31 July 1922); and pp. 34-35 (17 August 1922). Davidson’s poems are similar in some respects to those in Eliot’s second collection, Poems (1920), which are rich in irony and highly regular in form. Another similarity is thematic, for Eliot portrays both male and female degenerates (Grishkin and Sweeney, for example), with ironic undertones supplied by allusions to Greek myth and to Greek plays by Sophocles and Aeschylus. More striking similarities can be seen between “Corymba” and Eliot’s The Waste Land. Davidson’s poem was published in the October 1922 issue of The Double Dealer, the same month and year Eliot’s The Waste Land appeared in the Criterion. Eliot portrays a casual and loveless encounter, with much the same attitude towards it as Davidson’s. Both poets ironically juxtapose their modern characters with women in older times: Davidson utilizes an ancient Greek temple-dancing girl who dances in fertility rites, a very serious concern to the ancients, while Eliot alludes to Olivia’s song in Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield, where Olivia takes her seduction much more seriously than Eliot’s typist regards hers. Corymba’s coupling with her unidentified lover is no doubt more exciting and vigorous than that of the typist and clerk in Eliot’s poem, but both women are nonchalant after their affairs: Corymba thinks of new stockings, and the typist, glad to be rid of her lover, “smoothes her hair with automatic hand. / And puts a record on the gramophone” q. S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1950 (New York, 1971), 44.
10. Poems 1922-1961 (Minneapolis, 1966).
11. The Fugitive 2 (August-September 1923), 119.
12. Edmund Spenser’s Poetry, ed. Hugh Maclean (New York, 1982), 46.
13. The Fugitive 2 (October 1923), 133.
14. “The Hind Tit,” I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, by 12 Southerners (New York, 1962), 244. Future references to I’ll Take My Stand will be cited parenthetically as ITMS.
15. He had taken other paths, his “Old Harp” an instance of the first and “The Wolf” of the third.
16. Essays of Four Decades (Chicago, 1968), 517-18
17. Ibid., 519 and 529.
18. Ibid., 531.
19. lbid., 3.
20. Ibid., 4 and 16.
21. “lntroduction: Donald Davidson and the Southern Defense of Poetry,” Still Rebels, Still Yankees and Other Essays (Baton Rouge, 1972), ix.
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