The opening scene of the folk opera Singin’ Billy, for which Donald Davidson wrote the book and lyrics, takes place in the yard of Callie Wilkins, “Miss Callie,” the matriarch of Oconee Town in Pickens County, South Carolina. Two young people have married, John and Jennie Alsop, and are in danger of a shivaree. They flee but are caught by boys and girls from their community. Because all of this happens on her ground, “Miss Callie” is able to deliver the Alsops from the rough celebration that was in prospect. But before bride and groom depart in safety, the matriarch decides to give them a wedding present, a quilt from her own collection. Baskets full of her sewing are brought out and Callie, with the girls she has instructed in her art, sings “The Quilt Song,” telling how to “read the signs” sewn into their work. Seen in context, her song is a proper introduction to the role of memory in Davidson’s conception of the artist and to his view of the place of art in reinforcing and directing that faculty in its cultural and political work.
By the firelight, in the night-time
I sewed laughter, I sewed tears.
Woman’s sorrow, woman’s gladness,
Cloud and sunshine, days and years.
What the sword said in the battle.
What the axe said to the tree,
All our travels, all our wanderings—
Sewed to keep in memory.
All our travels, all our wanderings.
Sewed to keep in memory.
While the candle guttered slowly,
I remembered times of men.
I remembered kings and heroes,
Deathless deeds of now and then.
Red Culloden, grief of Sedgemoor
Washington and liberty,
Mountain riders, mountain rifles.
Sewed to keep in memory.
Mountain riders, mountain rifles.
Sewed to keep in memory.
From earth’s corners four winds blowing
Cross to make this sacred sign,
Set in round where sun is center—
Heaven and earth by God’s design.
Sweethearts’ fancies, roadside flowers.
Lore of plant and lift of tree.
All we know that’s wise and lovely.
Sewed to keep in memory.
All we know that’s wise and lovely,
Sewed to keep in memory.
Miss Callie is talking about many quilts, not just the one she gives to Jennie. And she insists that the reproduction of a traditional pattern reminds those who know how to understand or “read the signs” preserved in such artifacts that they are an important part of the living memory of their culture. The elegiac truth sewn into various coverings is like the complex but well-orchestrated images that interpret the lives of men on the shield of Homer’s Achilles. As do traditional ballads and many folktales, the quilts speak of “woman’s sorrows, woman’s gladness”—the harmonious relation of supposedly antithetical components in human life. Moreover, they prepare those who correctly read them to handle human limitations and the unhappy expectations attendant upon our mortal state, especially as they relate history to cosmic order, the heavenly manifestations of “God’s design.”
Contemplating the four winds brought together under the images of cross and sun, the poem concludes with a reference to memoria in its most benign phase; for the bride, “all we know that’s wise and lovely” is now “sewed to keep in memory.” The quilt is a mnemonic device, rendering in the language of form the prescriptive wisdom of womankind—or at least of women in a traditional culture. The reconciliation of laughter and tears in the artist’s sewing represents what craft may achieve. But, as the Nashville Agrarians insisted, the process that gives us quilts, laws, marriage customs, folktales, tables, and chairs cannot be stimulated by “soft material poured in from the top.” Or by chronic resentment of everything providential or inherited.
The idea that an elaborate and officially sanctioned memory is the best means of sustaining and perpetuating a particular culture is everywhere apparent in the work of Donald Davidson. For this poet/critic/historian, the cultivation of memory is all but an end in itself. Furthermore, Davidson is persistent in insisting that artifacts of various sorts are necessary to sustain and reinforce that memory in its workings, to preserve its authority and prevent its reduction from the concrete to general propositions and theories.
By means of such memory, history can be kept “fabulous,” writes Davidson in “Woodlands, 1956-1960.” In this work, the poet has come to South Carolina to visit the home of William Gilmore Simms, the great novelist of the American Revolution in the South, in the hope of reestablishing the communal memory of what happened to and among his people in those strenuous times. In Simms’ novels, he finds history with an edge or admonitory “bite,” which, as he informed his editors at Farrar and Rinehart, he intended to produce himself in the two-volume The Tennessee. Once he arrives at Woodlands, Simms’ home, he anticipates that the “folk-chain” may be restored:
While by these glowing coals remembrance
Knits up its fitful present with the past.
And of its future measures what will last
In the crazy skein of our new circumstance.
This is the work of an artist who writes from a position within his culture; that is, his work if the “folk-chain” has not been broken.
To subsist entirely outside the scientific or rationalist explanations of the human condition, to be what historian Arnold Toynbee called a “futurist,” is to be deprived of “deepest remembrance,” of “a present continuous with the past” that “both draws from and feeds into the life of the imagination.” Indeed, it is a form of “death.” Southerners, as Davidson insisted as late as 1966, “still are a community bound together by imaginative possessions”—and by a “deep and even frightening intuition of man’s radical dependence in this world.” As he maintained throughout his old age, the most important recollection is the one recommended in the twelfth chapter of Ecclesiastes; “Remember thy Creator.” Historic empathy, rooted in affection, kinship, piety, and, above all, religious belief, is often at the center of a Davidson poem. It is a premodern, anti-Promethean, ontologically submissive attitude which assumes that we cannot fully possess our inheritance by analysis. For the patrimony it affirms is more of a “picture,” song, or story than it is propositional truth. Living out of the resources of “transcendent memory,” the artist, the raconteur, the farmer, the carpenter, the composer, and even the architect sustain a culture by rendering its sense of itself in their handiwork—just as Davidson hoped with The Tennessee to make his neighbors remember who they were, where they were, where they belonged, what they lived by, and what they lived for, and he hoped for the same with an audience of younger Southerners with his brief history of the context that defined his own career. Southern Writers in the Modern World. For the Fugitive and Agrarian movements had, as Davidson recognized, become part of the literary heritage of all Southerners by the time he produced this account of them in his 1957 lectures at Mercer University.
Though Davidson in his discussion of various forms of intellectual inheritance naturally emphasizes literary tradition, his opinion of even this restricted subject is grounded in an understanding of tradition in a larger sense as the way or habitus of a particular people; a set of customs, attitudes, prejudices, tastes, narratives, and prescriptive laws. Though no one was more conscious of our intellectual heritage as a mostly European people transplanted westward, Davidson also believed in the singularity of American civilization—and even more fiercely in the uniqueness of the South. Having a living, premodern cultural tradition as a primary imaginative resource was, as Davidson demonstrates in his essays on these writers, also important to Thomas Hardy and William Butler Yeats. That a Tennessee legacy, a prescription that is both his own and representative of his world, is equally important to his own making, his sense of belonging as rendered in his art, is the theme of Davidson’s 1940 Phi Beta Kappa poem, “Hermitage”:
Now let my habitude be where the vine
Tumbles the sagging rails, and the late crow
Alone can challenge, whom for countersign
I open these uncrafty hands,
Unweaponed now, to seek upon the hill
Stones where no filial tribute can be lost,
Above the bones not laid in stranger’s lands,
But their own earth commingles with their dust;
Our home is far across the western wave
Back of whose steeps, forsaken and foregone.
Lost continents ebb we have no power to save.
The unending cycle breaks against this strand
Where blue tidewater laps our greener land.
And once the Virginia voyage brings us clear,
The hoodless eagles of the new-world skies
Towering, unshackle us, and the numberless deer
Confound the musket, and the wild geese rise,
Hurling southward with invincible wing
Omens unriddled for our journeying.
Rough pilgrims, faring far, whose Hesperus
Stooped by the piney woods or mountain cove.
Or whom the Buffalo Gods to the perilous
Lift of the Great Divide and the redwood grove
Spoke on and bid lay down from sea to sea
The sill and hearthstone of our destiny.
Salving our wounds, from the moody kings we came.
And even while kinsmen’s shoulders raised and set
The first log true, bethought us of a name
To seal the firm lips of our unregret.
To charm the door against the former age
And bless the lintel of our hermitage.
Recite then while the inviolate hearth-flame leaps
How Ilion fell, and, hound at knee, recall
Platonic converse. Let the screech-owl keep
Watch where the fat maize crowds the forest wall.
High by the talking waters grows the cane;
Wild by the salt-lick herds the forest game.
And let the graybeard say when men and maids
Come for his blessing: “This I leave to you!
The Indian dream came on me in these glades,
And some strange bird-or-beast word named me new.
Peace be to all who keep the wilderness.
Cursed be the child who lets the freehold pass.”
The heritage Davidson recovers and affirms in this sober invocation is not merely literary but also social and political. Or it is social and political first of all. But it so well informs and structures a text for extending this discussion of the theory of memory in his work that it deserves careful attention.
Davidson’s “Hermitage” is a poem in three parts. It begins with distance between the speaker and his ancestor, a pioneer of Bedford County, Tennessee—specifically, of Chestnut Ridge. There Andrew Davidson, the poet’s great-great-grandfather, had been the original white settler. Donald Davidson seeks him there. But there is, in the beginning of his quest, not enough memory to “find” the pioneer, the boy who, at 14, fought at King’s Mountain and then, after losing a family to Indian raids, came as a man over the mountains to begin again. Full of “unuttered vows,” the poet finds on Chestnut Ridge only the inclusive history of which Andrew Davidson, with his “gun and axe,” constituted a part: the generic history of frontier Tennessee. But, in the poem’s second section, within the “folk-chain,” in “hearthside tale his rumor grows,” and the poet is able to summon his forbear forward into our time.
In “a century of no belief . . . history is fabulous no longer.” Yet we know from Davidson’s “Soldier and Son” that through “communion and pietas” the son may come to know his father. This poem implies that generic history (here the memory of the War Between the States, or of a portion of it) can communicate a tradition and become personal if it is connected to an individual or setting that makes specific its example for those who seek it out. Or link it instead to a “hearthside tale”—as of “pibroch’s wail” and “how red / The dew lay at Culloden.” A fresh “clamor of danger” (foreshadowing World War II) brings Andrew Davidson “close”—rumors from the Old World of a “great wind in the twilight boughs,” foretelling ruin brought on by “false faith” in “world-gazing prophecies” (utopian dreams). The speaker in “Hermitage” has reached the place where his great-grandfather, “the man of flints and pelts,” built his cabin—the place where he was buried. Piety toward the ancestor has brought him that far. Then the general history of the Upper South as a culture shaped by its frontier beginnings and its long memory of “moody kings” and sorrows left behind can be expected to compensate for the lack of the specific ancestor who as settler had, though “harried from croft and chapel, glen and strath,” put Scotland away and “washed the old bitter wars in the salt sea.”
The composite voice of all the Andrew Davidsons in Blue-Stocking Hollow is the graybeard of part three of “Hermitage.” His teaching is for us all, answering the hunger for direction that had driven the modern Tennessean speaking in the poem to seek out Chestnut Ridge. Though coming 140 years after Andrew Davidson, the lesson is continuous with the first settlers’ example: “Peace be to all who keep the wilderness. / Cursed be the child who lets the freehold pass.” The homely and routine operation of tradition are summarized in the poem’s concluding image of young people coming to the grandsire for blessing and admonition. His lesson in tribal republicanism is continuous with all the history touched upon in this poem, reaching back “to how Ilion fell” and to how “Gael and Gaul, Palatine, Huguenot, came in company” from “our home . . . far across the western wave”: a history that runs until “kinsmen’s shoulders raised and set / The first log true.” According to Donald Davidson, it is a lesson that all of us require and that we can receive if we will—once the power of memory has been restored.
As I said, remembering is everywhere a motif in what Donald Davidson wrote. I will draw a final illustration of Davidson’s emphasis on the importance of memory and its role in perpetuating a culture from one of his Vermont poems, “Late Answer: A Civil War Seminar,” which has as its probable scene the porch at Endicott, the Davidsons’ home at Bread Loaf, where he taught most summers between 1931 and 1964. Once again, it is a Southerner’s poem, an answer to questions from an assortment of Yankee colleagues concerning the famous “Rebel Yell” of the Confederate soldier and how it sounded to those who first heard it in battle. Yet the point of Davidson’s answer is not Southern but generic: the importance of memoria to all civilized societies and particularly
To men whose logical eyes might never see
Those living fields I knew where memory
Was not yet shut in many books but strode,
A young Telemachus, the Old Plank Road.
Because they are products of a rationalist society, believing only in “historical process,” Dartmouth, Harvard, and Amherst have no patience with Davidson’s reference to the conflict of 1861-1865, the central episode in American history, in making some comment on contemporary affairs. Their impatience with his anachronism drives him into silence. He is surprised by their vehemence. Then, perhaps to relieve the tension (and change the subject), one of Davidson’s adversaries asks a question about the great war cry of the Southern soldier:
The talk had drifted further than they dreamed
While in the dusk the Adirondacks gleamed.
And all around us in the afterglow
Vermont woods turned to purple, and the slow
Fog-banners mustered out the darkling range.
Then Harvard said:
“Oh, not that war! How strange
That you should mix it in! Why, who would talk
Of Sixty-one, or bother to make walk
Old John Brown’s ghost that’s laid past all debate?
There’s no ill-will from here to Scituate.
When I said ‘war’ I meant of course the late
Unpleasantness. I must say you surprise
Me with these dank Faulknerian memories.
Why should you care for what we’ve long forgot?
That’s not the issue now.”
Two briar pipes glowed at me, and one said:
“We’ve heard so much—and so much more have read—
About that cry the Confederate soldiers gave.
The ‘Rebel Yell,’ you know. And yet to save
My life I could not confidently cite
One decent account of what it sounded like.
The books all disagree. Now, won’t you tell
Just what it was—or, better, give the yell.”
The Tennessee poet’s reaction to both the inquiry and the passion directed against him at the beginning of “Late Answer: A Civil War Seminar” concerns how northerners might do well to consult memoria themselves. He suggests an immediate visit by all present to a Vermont monument “to the Union dead,” an obelisk to be found “not far below” Bread Loaf, near Cornwall Village, where Truman Lane is remembered as having died in the Wilderness north of Richmond and Stillman Smith as having fallen at Donelson, as did Captain Samson at Cold Harbor. But first Davidson delays responding so as to consider whether there is any point in answering. Then come the four lines on memory not shut in books quoted just above, and a rejoinder quickly fills the poet’s mind, a speech concerning sorrow, mourning, brotherhood, and memory—how memory is nurtured or restored; how it is rooted in human nature:
“The whispering in the marrow spreads to the brain;
The remembering heart carries it round again
Till it beats in the throat, the lips, the weeping eye
And is born at last in a blazing wordless outcry.”
Once more Davidson mentions ancient memories, portions of an identity that he and the New Englanders share. As is so often the case in his verse, he calls up Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse images. What tradition means to him is, as in The Tall Men and “Hermitage,” clearly suggested. The northern scholars who would “debate by night” have forgotten to mourn, forgotten how we started on the long journey over “the viking wave.” They consider not at all
“Far-off kinsman dead or a roof burning;
Yet a burning roof, kin dead long ago.
If you could weep, would give you right to know
The sound of valor where it dwells with sorrow
Or, chilled by reason, hides in the deep marrow.
Did you hear it rousing once at Saratoga?
Or when the Highland dead at Ticonderoga
Lay naked to the stars? Or when the blood
Of Jennie McCrea cried out, you understood?
“We mourned with you then in brotherhood.
And I’ll weep with you now for those whose names
Burn on your monuments like altar flames.”
At this point we are prepared for the powerful directive conclusion that I summarized above:
“Come, let no darkness daunt us. Let us go
Where Cornwall Village dreams not far below
And on their obelisk read how Truman Lane
Died in the Wilderness; Stillman Smith was slain
At Donelson; and at Cold Harbor
Captain Samson. Then, strangely, Alva Barlow
‘Hung by guerrillas!’—the stone does not say where.
Perhaps it’s not a monument’s affair.
But I’ll weep—even for Alva—if you can weep
For him, for all, for Southern boys asleep
Like these your fathers may somewhere have known.
“We, too, have names that blaze on mouldering stone
And I have seen men’s tears fall where they slept
And heard a shouting while I wept,
A century off yet louder in my ear
Than all that’s so much magnified and near.
“Ah, Truman Lane, you heard it well as I!—
That rage of belief, the tears, the mystery
Quickened the flags of men right willing to die.
Only such men could tell what once could be.
Hear what we hear, see what we see.”
In completing this extraordinary poem, Davidson treats once more of images and acts, not of abstract principles. Mourning, of Northern or Southern dead. Civil War dead, Highlanders killed at Ticonderoga, or Jennie McCrea murdered by the Iroquois during the French and Indian War, will do the turn and make the past present for those who seek it out. Needless to say, those who are thus “prepared” will be able to hear the “Rebel Yell”—and to imagine such outcries and shouting and the feelings they reflect—that “rage of belief, the tears, the mystery,” better than “all that’s so much magnified and near.”
In “Late Answer: A Civil War Seminar,” memory is treated not as a distinctively Southern faculty but as precisely the opposite: what a Southern poet believes that all Americans require if their civilization is to retain anything like continuity, a sense of its own origins in the colonial experience and of all the unfolding that has brought it into its deracinated present. Nations of men that neglect to cultivate the faculty turn into what Allen Tate describes as “provincials in time” and are thus rendered so individual and separate as to be forced into recapitulating the human experience from its start when they arise each morning and greet the day. For the only alternative, says this formula, is mere nostalgia. And it will not suit modernity or postmodernity to begin politics there. In this context, mourning is expected to foster memory, which in a practical sense is quite plausible. Mourning results in “historic empathy,” as we recall what we have lost. The love between parents, children, and grandchildren is the basis of all tradition. That and the affection for tested principles and familiar, friendly places and ways connected with our nurture—a political philosophy recommended in Davidson’s The Attack on Leviathan: Essays on Regionalism and Nationalism in the United States. By this matrix is fostered a reconstitutive memory that is not “shut in many books.” Davidson recommends it to all as a basis for the pious life—not just to Southerners or Americans. For he knows from his careful study of the history of poetry that nothing can replace the work of memoria when there is a long continuity of life led according to a particular style—another aspect of the “freehold” cherished by the old man, the memory-keeper, whose recommendation concludes Davidson’s “Hermitage.”
In his essay “Yeats and the Centaur,” Donald Davidson discusses the Irish poet’s image of modern art as a centaur, “finding in the popular lore its back and strong legs.” But the rest of the centaur, Davidson insists, is another matter. It is an unnatural beast, a hybrid given to unattractive or monstrous behavior. And if one part of it is strong in back and legs, the other component has no business being attached to that strength. Yeats knew old Ireland, its lore and literature. But he also knew and took seriously William Blake, Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, all sorts of occultism, mythography, the theory of automatic writing, and the Society of the Golden Dawn. The difference between the man of tradition (the voice of Irish memory who asked “Who goes with Fergus?”) and the fellow who wanted to “sail to Byzantium”—along with the way those two sometimes appeared together in a single Yeats poem— Davidson emphasized in teaching the great Irish poet in his class on modern poetry. This difference is also mentioned in his poem “Meditation on Literary Fame”:
Yeats, consorting with moon-demons, heard
Images only, clutched at the abstract Bird
Of charred philosophy until he lost
Usheen, whom once he knew, and his dear land.
And all the Celtic host.
Which of course says the same thing that Davidson maintained in his Yeats essay.
Once the poet’s relation to his tradition is broken by the private enthusiasms that have so much interested modern artists (who wish to think of themselves as high priests or aristocrats not as memory-keepers), it becomes difficult to address anything but the coterie that fosters these isolating enthusiasms and encourages his alienation. Because of what he thought about memory, Davidson stood at as great a distance as possible from the modern stereotype of the alienated artist. Yeats (whose achievement Davidson honored) both did and did not assume that posture. The calculus of memory pulls the artist back and reconciles him to an essentially inherited role, to a world where some things are merely given (but not what we do with them), a world of mystery and manners. But the old patterns in the great quilt of life tell a true story—of our limits and of what is predictable:
Happy the land where men hold dear
Myth that is truest memory.
Prophecy that is poetry.
That knowledge, too, is part of the “freehold” to which we either hold fast or lose our way.