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On Donald Davie, an indispensable man; Collected Poems 1970-1983, by Donald Davie. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press. 172 pp. $14.95.

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For more than three decades now, Donald Davie has been writing against the grain of his times: erecting a considerable literary monument to the ideals of tradition, reason, and propriety in an age seemingly bent on putting the past behind it, trusting to emotion and intuition, and basking in the pleasures of license.

The label most frequently applied to this English-born poet and critic, whose life and reputation have crossed and recrossed the Atlantic, is that of conservative. It is one that fits as long as the idea of conservation embedded in the word is kept in mind. Through his art and his criticism, Davie has emerged in both England and America as perhaps our day's most widely admired and respected voice arguing for modern man's need to preserve the best of his cultural inheritance. Indeed, his chief contribution to the age that he has struggled against may well be his warning that the abandonment of such time-honored values as reason and taste will inevitably have dire consequences for our private and public lives.

Not the least extraordinary feature of Davie's career is the extent to which he has earned his reputation both as a poet and as a critic, and his critical views and poetic practice are inextricably intertwined. His art has always reflected his essentially conservative, classical position that the poet is not one of society's alienated outlaws but rather, at best, a morally responsible member of the human community. In an essay entitled ''Sincerity and Poetry,'' Davie states his quarrel with the more popular, romantic school that sees the poet as a special being endowed with mystical and even prophetic powers. Summing up his attitude, he writes:

''The poet will absolve himself from none of the responsibilities of being human . . . and being human involves the responsibility of being judicious and fairminded. In this way the poet supports the intellectual venture of humankind. . . . His poetry supports and nourishes and helps to shape culture; the prophet, however, is outside culture and, really, at war with it. He exists on sufferance; he is on society's expense account, part of what society can sometimes afford. Not so the poet; he is what society cannot dispense with.''


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