and the Failure
A family with the wrong members in control—that, perhaps, is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase.
— George Orwell ( 1941)
Despite a deliberately polemical intention, this essay is written, as they say, more in sorrow than in anger. Sorrow because it mourns a poetic talent that, I shall argue, never fulfilled its promise, but anger also because, as I shall try to suggest in this space, what did most to suffocate that talent was the dominant tradition in English culture, particularly as that tradition focuses on poetry.
We may begin by considering two poems. The first is the title piece of Donald Davie's volume A Winter Talent ( 1957):
Lighting a spill late in the afternoon,
I am that coal whose heat it should unfix;
Winter is come again, and none too soon
For meditation on its raft of sticks.
Some quick bright talents can dispense with coals
And burn their boats continually, command