CPR Classic Readings: Donald Davie’s “In the Stopping Train”

As Reviewed by: Paul Lake

Donald Davie’s In the Stopping Train appeared in 1977, the year I was accepted into Stanford University’s writing program, where he taught. When the offer of a fellowship arrived, I had only the foggiest notion of who Donald Davie was and not one inkling of the nature of his poetry. Nevertheless, I abandoned my plan to study writing at Syracuse under W. D. Snodgrass and set about reading all of Davie’s poetry and criticism—a process that continued throughout the next year alongside my regular studies.

When I arrived in Palo Alto and met him for the first time, Donald was fifty-five, only a few months older than I am now. There I was, a twenty-seven year old provincial American, coming to Stanford straight from teaching ninth grade English in a Baltimore ghetto junior high school; and there was Donald Davie, thoroughly British, a world-famous scholar, critic, and poet; a speaker of several languages, a world traveler and veteran of the second World War. No wonder his poetry seemed on first acquaintance so knotty and difficult—and off-puttingly English. Clotted with foreign words and strange place names, and dense with literary and historical allusions, it was hardly the stuff to warm a young poet’s heart or spur emulation.[private]

But emulation is what it inspired. At heart, Donald was, even in his poetry, what he called Ezra Pound—a pedagogue. Initially drawn to Stanford in part by the notion of filling the shoes of Yvor Winters, one of his own literary heroes, Davie extended the master’s tradition of poetic formalism and uncompromising moral criticism throughout his years at Stanford. Davie’s poetry seminar was one of the few places in America where a young poet could write formal verse and have it treated with considerate attention. An accomplished formalist himself, Davie began his poetic career as a member of the Movement, which had helped re-introduce formal, metrical verse to Anglo-American letters.

But Davie was far too curious and wide-ranging in his sympathies to limit himself, or his students, to Winters’ brand of plain-style formalism. In fact, he alienated some of Winters’ acolytes by criticizing, in his writing and conversation, some of the master’s more extreme literary judgments—like ranking the 18th century poet Charles Churchill above Pope and Dryden. In addition, Donald was one of the great explicators of literary Modernism and sometimes scandalized the faithful by incorporating Modernist elements into his own poetry and by giving sympathetic hearings to Modernist verse. In his classes, he was as likely to commend the poetry of George Oppen or Ed Dorn as that of J. V. Cunningham. As a young poet equally infatuated by Frost and Eliot, I discovered in Donald Davie the perfect mentor.

What most distinguished Davie in his poetry workshop was his acute attention to every dimension of a young poet’s work. He bestowed on fledglings the same learning, intellect, and uncompromising judgment he brought to bear on the eagles of modern poetry, from Pound to Eliot, Mandelstam to Milosz. Nor was his criticism limited to technical features. He demanded that a poem allot the right proportions to things; that it contain the requisite dose of humor, understanding, or outrage its subject required. He pointed out not merely the technical flaws in a poem’s execution, but its author’s failure of human sympathy or perception. If a poet’s subject matter seemed too constricted, if his or her attitude betrayed a morally or politically questionable stance, Davie would suggest more radical adjustments to the verse. Donald was not an aesthete who believed in art for art’s sake. To him, a poem was infused with a moral dimension and demanded a like response.

One of the poems in In the Stopping Train, “Seur, Near Blois,” gives voice to its author’s notion of ethics in poetry.

That a toss of wheat-ears lapping

Church-walls should placate us

Is easy to understand

In the abstract. That in fact

The instance of seeing also

A well with its wrought-iron stanchion,

Of feeling a balmy coolness,

Of hearing a Sunday noon silence,

Of smelling the six ragged lime-trees,

A church-door avenue, should

Placate, compose, is as much

As to say that the eye and the nose,

Also the ear and the very

Surface of one’s skin is

An ethical organ; and further,

If indeed it is further

Or even other, a learned

Historian of man’s culture.

According to Davie, even our senses are “ethical organs,” particularly when opening us to such states of psychological and spiritual calm as the poem describes.

Davie’s personal ethics were evident even in the way he ran his writing seminar. Insisting that we call him Donald, despite the large disparity in our ages, learning, and experience, he preserved the pleasant fiction that we were all poets working together in a state of democratic equality. Since he presided over the discussions and offered his criticism of our poems, he insisted on the same treatment for himself. And so, on a scheduled day, he appointed a discussion leader to manage the affair and presented his poems-in-progress to the class. At the end of the session, after stoically enduring our critique, he responded to our criticisms with good manners and even a measure of gratitude. By contrast, the far less distinguished poet-professor who ran the seminar the following semester haughtily refused to submit his work to our rough hands.

One final anecdote to illustrate Davie’s pedagogy. One day, when it was my turn to present work to the class, we had an unexpected visitor—a young woman who’d received her poetry credentials at Iowa and was now studying for a Ph. D. in literature at Stanford. Donald warmly welcomed the guest, but as the class progressed and she continued to treat every poem with sneering condescension or disdain, he appeared almost visibly distressed. Nevertheless maintaining a cordial demeanor, at the end of class he declared that since our guest had taken part in the critique, it was only fair that she submit her poems to the same process. Only too happy to comply, the poet agreed to present her poems the following week. When she did, they displayed all of the ellipticism and opacity that characterize her work to the present day. The class responded accordingly, and the unnamed poet never visited again.

Though Donald would certainly have behaved in the same manner regardless of which of his students had been unfairly ambushed, I think the fact that it was I who’d received the ill treatment roused a more personal response. One of the first things we discovered upon meeting was that we had an unlikely connection. Donald had grown up in the Yorkshire mining town of Barnsley, a town where my wife’s mother and grandparents had lived a good part of their lives. Furthermore, my wife’s grandfather Tommy Kirk had been a miner—one of those very “colliers of my boyhood” described by Davie in his poem “Townsend, 1976.” A couple of years before coming to Stanford, Tina and I had even visited what Donald in the poem called “black Barnsley” on a family trip, spending over half of our month’s stay in England there in the bleak brick row houses of her Barnsley relatives and socializing at the local working-class pubs. Forever after learning of this connection (despite her having been born in Middlesex), Donald referred to Tina as “our Barnsley lass.”

In an early poem called “Remembering the Thirties,” Davie wrote of his boyhood home,

This novel written fifteen years ago

Set in my boyhood and my boyhood home,

These poems about “abandoned workings” show

Worlds more remote than Ithaca or Rome.

The fact was, however, that those lines merely embodied wishful thinking. Davie was haunted by the memory of his hometown all his life. Again, in “Townsend, 1976” from In the Stopping Train, he writes more emotionally of the ambiance of that Yorkshire mining town,

Thanks therefore for the practical piety

Of E. G. Tasker, antiquarian;

His Barnsley Streets. Unshed, my tears hang heavy

Upon the high-gloss pages where I scan

What else, though, but remembered homely squalor?

Generations of it. Eldon Street

Smells of bad drains forty years ago

Ah sweetly. But should penury smell sweet?

Later in the poem, after giving directions how to get there, he adds more darkly:

For this is under us now, as we come down:

The Silkstone seam, where woods compacted lay

Shade upon shade, multiplication of blackness

That seeps up through: ‘black Barnsley’, we would say.

The sneer of it—black Barnsley, that my mother

Indignantly thought corrupted out of ‘bleak’,

‘Bleak Barnsley’. Who else cared? Corruption in

All that we do, decay in all we speak.

Throughout In the Stopping Train, it is that ethical organ, the nose, that Davie relies on most heavily on his journey of discovery. Trained on the “Eldon Street / Smells of forty years ago,” that delicate organ sniffs out sin and depravity throughout the book.

Concerning another trans-Atlantic writer of refined olfactory sensitivity, Henry James, Davie writes in “Depravity: Two Sermons,”

. . . Prefaces

Delineate the exquisite pains he took

To bottle up a bad smell in a book.

In ordinate pains! For Paris, London, Rome

Were not much less disorderly than back home;

There too, already, what he sought was traced

Upon no maps, but must be found by Taste,

A nostril lifted to the tainted gale

Of words, of words—all shop-soiled, all for sale.

Throughout his poem and book Davie traces the decline of taste and the concomitant rise of vulgarity that afflicts his native England. By the time of In the Stopping Train, Davie had reverted to the Christianity of his youth. It is not merely the aesthetic vulgarity of a population unable to appreciate its country’s architectural and artistic monuments which he assails, it is the abandonment of the Christianity that under-girded its civilization, as he implies in the poem’s second half, “St. Paul’s Revisited.”

. . . Liquid, yellow, thick,

It pools here, fed from the Antipodes,

The Antilles . . . For the seven seas run with bile

To the Pool of London, sink where the ordure, talent

At home in this world, gathers. And it pools

Not only there but in whatever head

Recalls with rage the choir of Christ and Wren.

Serving as both the actual and metaphorical center of his book, the title poem, “In the Stopping Train,” marks a turning point in Davie’s career. It is also one of his singular achievements. In it, the poet turns his exacting Protestant Christian conscience not only upon the philistinism of the age, but upon himself and his human failings, in verses that fuse the two main currents of his writing into a bold new synthesis.

Davie began his poetic career as a formalist. His poems of the fifties and sixties are as expertly written and densely packed as those of his American contemporary Robert Lowell. We can still hear the Popian elegance of his couplets in the later poem we have just been examining. But by the 1970’s, Davie’s stanzas and rhythms had loosened. His free, or sometimes loosely formal, verses betrayed the influence of Ezra Pound, of whom he had been one of the world’s great exegetes. Sometimes this new laxity resulted in an impromptu, sketchy feel to the poetry that must have struck some readers as a falling off from the poet’s standards. But with “In the Stopping Train” the authors of Purity of Diction in English Verse and Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor have become one poetic flesh. For this highly personal poem, Davie took Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” as a model. But having written extensively on Pound’s poem over several decades, he learned from and avoided his model’s mistakes.

Pound’s poem was that of a young expatriate American attempting to expose the cultural and artistic vulgarities of his era. He described “Mauberley” as an attempt to condense a Henry James novel into a poem of a few pages. To accomplish this, Pound created the persona of the title character, who, despite being something of an aesthete, also represented Pound, with his very different character. Both men shared many of the same preoccupations and had overlapping tastes. But as Davie pointed out in various analyses of the poem, the mask Pound wears keeps slipping. His own robust American personality won’t be contained by the polite fiction that it is Mauberley, and not he himself, who speaks. And so the reader is left wondering from line to line and stanza to stanza just how—and how seriously—he is to take what is being said.

Donald Davie, on the other hand, is, at the time of In the Stopping Train, a middle-aged expatriate Englishman who lives in America and commutes back and forth to England on frequent visits. Instead of adopting a persona to achieve the impersonality sought by Pound, Davie begins his poem in the first person: “I have got into the slow train / Again. I made the mistake.” But by the second stanza he is referring to “the man going mad inside me” and by the third is referring to himself in the third person: “This journey will punish the bastard; / he’ll have his flowering gardens . . . .” Instead of wearing a mask, Davie lets his own robust personality into the poem without disguise, but achieves a certain detachment by shifting perspectives as he switches points of view, speaking of himself now in the first person and now in the third.

In “Mauberley” Pound expressed his rejection of the philistine culture in which he lived through subtle shifts of tones and exquisitely calibrated allusions and fragmentary quotes, which made it harder still for readers to understand exactly what he meant. His readers have to sift through the poem’s various layers of irony to discover just exactly what, or whom, Pound is mocking. Davie will have none of such tactics.

In his essay “Remembering the Movement,” Davie recounts the various strategies he and his compatriots employed to court readers and gain the right sort of public. Such efforts usually depended on adopting a certain tone and employing various forms of irony. In his essay, Davie rejected this approach:

What we all shared to begin with was a hatred for writing considered as self-expression; but all we put in its place was writing as self-adjustment, a getting on the right terms with our reader (that is, with our society), a hitting on the right tone and attitude towards him. And in fact, this was the only alternative to exhibitionism, to ‘self-expression’, which our education and the climate of ideas presented us with. . . . Just consider how much of an okay word ‘tone’ is, and has been ever since I. A. Richards put it into general currency; and how difficult we find it to conceive of or approve any ‘tone’ that isn’t ironical, and ironical in a limited way, defensive and deprecating, a way of looking at ourselves and our pretension, not a way of looking at the world. . . . The most obvious register of this is the striking absence from ‘Movement’ poetry of outward and non-human things apprehended crisply for their own sakes. I’m not asking for ‘nature poetry’, but simply for an end to attitudinizing.

The tone—or rather, tones—we encounter in “In the Stopping Train” are not ironical. The speaker of the poem is not given to attitudinizing, as Davie accused the members of the Movement of being and as Pound and his hero Mauberley certainly were; nor is Davie’s speaker a thinly disguised persona, like Mauberley, sometimes serving as a stand-in for the poet, sometimes not. The speaker in Davie’s poem is the poet himself, in all his irreducible human complexity. The moral fervor he expresses is genuine and personal. Later in his essay, Davie criticizes the Movement for its “imperiousness towards the non-human,” for the attitude that considers that the sole function of nature “is to provide a vocabulary of terms—‘symbols,’ ‘images’—by which people, poet and reader, can get in touch with each other.”

Here is Davie in his stopping train meditating on such a failure, this time his own:

Jonquil is a sweet word.

Is it a flowering bush?

Let him helplessly wonder

for hours if perhaps he’s seen it.

Has it a white and yellow

flower, the jonquil? Has it

a perfume? Oh his art

could always pretend it had.

He never needed to see,

not with his art to help him.

He never needed to use his

nose, except for language.

In a later section of the poem, Davie elaborates on this theme, cudgeling himself for his inability to meet natural objects on their own terms, instead of as mere words or symbols:

What’s all this about flowers?

They have an importance he can’t

explain, or else their names have.

Spring, he says, ‘stirs’. It is what

he has learned to say, he can say

nothing but what he has learned.

And Spring, he knows, means flowers.

Already he observes this.

Some people claim to love them.

Love them? Love flowers? Love,

Love . . . the word is hopeless:

Gratitude, maybe, pity . . .

Pitiful, the flowers.

He turns that around in his head:

what on earth can it mean?

Flowers, it seems are important.

And he can name them all,

identify hardly any.

I can’t resist quoting the poem at such length because of the way, from line to line and stanza to stanza, it gathers momentum. Meant to be heard in large swatches, it proceeds like that passenger train, starting and stopping, only to build fresh momentum again. The opening quatrains, which catch the reader up and sweep him along, are, in their music and structure, vaguely reminiscent of “Mauberley’s”:

I have got into the slow train

again. I made the mistake

knowing what I was doing,

knowing who had to be punished.

I know who has to be punished:

the man going mad inside me;

whether I am fleeing

from him or toward him.

This journey will punish the bastard:

He’ll have his flowering gardens

to stare at through the hot window.

Words like ‘laurel’ won’t help.

He abhors his fellows,

especially children; let there

not for pity’s sake

be a crying child in the carriage.

So much for pity’s sake.

The rest for the sake of justice:

Torment him with his hatreds

and love of fictions.

In his little Penguin paperback on Pound, Davie describes “Mauberley” as a poem “where the appearance of metrical quatrains is largely illusory.” Just so with Davie’s. The only regular feature of his quatrains here is an accentual three-stress line, occasionally shortened. Rhyme is nearly absent in this section of the poem. To understand what Davie is up to in both these quatrains and throughout the rest of the poem, we need only refer to his remarks on Pound’s method in “Mauberley”:

The large-scale rhythms of free verse, with its roving stresses, inform Pound’s quatrains, which cannot be scanned by traditional principles, and similarly the rhymes are only approximate rhymes much of the time; still, the pattern of the rhyming stanza imposes itself, and the result is, to the ear, a peculiarly pleasant one—powerful surges of expansive rhythm never quite given their head, but reined back and cut short.

As in the best of Pound’s verse, there is more to Davie’s method than can be explained by the “roving stresses” that inform his accentual lines. Davie himself complained of the crude “swack or thump” of Eliot’s accentual verse in Four Quartets, contrasting it unfavorably with Pound’s more musical rhythms. For a clearer idea of what informs Davie’s music, we must turn to Pound’s mature method in The Cantos, and particularly to Davie’s explication of its most beautiful manifestation in Canto 81.

In this canto, written in Pisa while the caged poet was awaiting trial for treason, we find Pound at his most vulnerable and eloquent. He has dropped any pretence of a mask and speaks directly in his own person. His poem’s music, as Davie and others have pointed out, is rooted in Greek models, as well as Greek imitations by Hardy and the metrical experiments of Ben Jonson in “A Celebration of Charis: in Ten Lyric Pieces,” to which Pound’s poem alludes. Here are some lines from Pound and Davie, side by side. The first are from Canto 81:

Has he tempered the viol’s wood

To enforce both the grave and the acute?

Has he curved us the bowl of the lute?

* * *

Hast ‘ou fashioned so airy a mood

To draw up leaf from the root?

Hast ‘ou found a cloud so light

As seemed neither mist nor shade?

Then resolve me, tell me aright

If Waller sang or Dowland played,

And here are some lines from “In the Stopping Train”:

Time and again he rose

to the flagrantly offered occasion;

nobody’s hanged for a slow

murder by provocation.

Time and again he applauded

the stand he had taken; how much

it mattered, or to what

assize, is not recorded.

Time and gain he hardened

his heart and his perceptions;

nobody knows just how

truth turns into deceptions.

Time and again, oh time and

that stopping train!

Who knows when it comes to a stand

and will not start again?

Once again, I’m compelled to quote more than strictly necessary to make my point. The mixture of bi- and tri-syllabic feet, of dactyls and anapests alternating with trochees and iambs, is almost identical in the two quoted passages above. Here are Pound’s anapests: “Has he curved us the bowl of the lute?” And Davie’s: “to the flagrantly offered occasion.” Pound mixing iamb and anapest: “As seemed neither mist nor shade?” And Davie: “The stand he had taken; how much . . . ”

But the similarities between Davie’s poem and Pound’s go deeper than metrical experiment. Both poems mark a high point in their respective author’s careers, brought on by a deep emotional crisis. Pound’s most obviously results from being caged like an animal while awaiting trial for a crime for which he could be executed. Davie’s temporary cage is the stopping train, which serves, among other things, as a metaphor for his life’s journey and the biological process of aging. Davie’s poem describes a sort of dark night of the soul for the Christian poet, who, for lack of a better term, is undergoing a mid-life crisis. Both poems resound with an uncharacteristic moral fervor. Both poems deal with the poet’s spiritual crisis as he contemplates his personal vanity, failures of love, and human mortality. Both poets also assume something of a prophet’s voice as they address the reader in the imperative mood. Here’s Pound’s climax in the famous “Pull down thy vanity” section of the same canto, 81:

“Master thyself, then others shall thee beare”

Pull down they vanity

Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail,

A swollen magpie in a fitful sun,

Half black half white

Nor knowst’ou wing from tail

Pull down thy vanity

How mean thy hates

Fostered in falsity,

Pull down thy vanity,

Rathe to destroy, niggard in charity,

Pull down thy vanity,

I say pull down.

And here is Davie, intoning his failures in similarly repeated phrases, in the same imperative mood:

Torment him with his hatreds,

torment him with his false

loves. Torment him with time

that has disclosed their falsehood.

Time, the exquisite torment!

His future is a slow

and stopping train through places

whose names used to have virtue.

And again later in the poem as he, like Pound, assails his own vanity:

The things he has been spared . . .

‘Gross egotist!’ Why don’t

his wife, his daughter, shrill

that in his face?

Love and pity seem

The likeliest explanations;

Another occurs to him—

Despair too would be quiet.

The final section of Davie’s poem is its most plangent—made more so by the juxtaposition of its tone of serious self-appraisal and a sudden shift of viewpoints that catches the reader in a comic misjudgment:

‘A shared humanity . . .’ He

pummels his temples. ‘Surely,

surely that means something?’

He knew too few in love,

too few in love.

That sort of foolish beard

masks an uncertain mouth.

And so it proved: he took

some weird girl off to a weird

commune, clutching at youth.

Dear reader, this is not

our chap, but another.

Catch our clean-shaven hero

tied up in such a knot?

A cause of so much bother?

He knew too few in love.

Having used the third person pronoun to refer to himself throughout the poem, Davie knows that when he uses it here the reader is likely to mistake the bearded middle-aged man who runs off to a commune for his poem’s troubled hero. Davie lets readers make that mistake before addressing them directly, advising, “this is not / our chap, but another.” In a tone of comic pathos, he reassures us that the clean-shaven, prudent Donald Davie would never cause so much “bother” as to run off with a girl to resolve his mid-life crisis. Still, the other chap’s foolish romantic gesture serves to remind the troubled poet of his own failures of love and fellow feeling, even with the “shared humanity” of the other passengers.

Though the poet judges himself harshly, we might take a more charitable view. Such a harrowing self-examination as Davie presents in “In the Stopping Train” signals the presence of a sinner, yes, but one with a highly developed Christian conscience. The scrupulosity he turns on himself is a measure of his moral gravity. The critical eye with which the great poet-critic regards himself in his poem was sharpened by a lifetime of acute moral discriminations, among poems as people, in both classrooms and living rooms. In his life as in his art, the warmth of Donald Davie’s personality and the heat of his moral judgments evoke a like response in us, his faithful readers.[/private]

About Paul Lake

Paul Lake is a professor of English and creative writing at Arkansas Tech University. He graduated from Stanford University with an MA in Creative Writing and English. He has published two volumes of poetry, Another Kind of Travel (Chicago), and Walking Backward (Story Line), along with a novel, Among the Immortals (Story Line), a satirical thriller about poets and vampires. His poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals, including Poetry, The New Republic, The American Scholar, Yale Review, Southern Review, Paris Review, Partisan Review, and Sewanee Review.
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