David Daiches (1912–2005) was a distinguished teacher, critic and writer.
This collection, reprinted with a new introduction from Jenni Calder, collects his Gifford Lectures, given at the University of Edinburgh in 1983. Daiches principal concern and passion is poetry—specifically the relationship between the poet, their work and the possibility of communicating something of the Divine, and thus the lectures form a compelling investigation of the link between human creativity and spirituality. Beginning with a close reading of the book of Job,
Daiches adroitly draws out the tensions at play between demands of religious belief and the actualities of existing in the fallen world. Moving forward, Daiches turns to Milton and the direct personal voice of God that Milton seeks to articulate. The poetic attitude towards God is covered in breath-taking historical sweep in the middle lecture that moves from the Psalms and Hebrew poetry all the way to Dante.
Examining the Poets of the nineteenth century Daiches detects a predisposition towards what he terms ‘theological solipsism.’ Writing in a time of scepticism, ever increasing secularity and interests in sciences, the direct immediate voice of God becomes less accessible to the poetic voice and as a result, poets such as Keats, Wordsworth, and Tennyson stand in a darker, more uncertain cosmos, left with no choice but to turn increasingly inward. The sense of loss reaches its apex in Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”—yet for all the doubt, Daiches consistently finds poetry to be deeply expressive.
Daiches finds expression in the American poets, particularly the Calvinist tradition in New England best exemplified in Emily Dickinson. In his concluding lecture on poetry and belief, Daiches argues that the nature of poetry allows us to respond to expressions of faith which we do not necessarily share. In an era of ostensible secularity familiarity with the concerns of Job, of Dante and of Milton is perhaps scarce – culturally we are distanced from the Christian foundations of much of Western literature. Daiches concludes with a powerful plea for an ‘openness in language’ that would once again allow us to appreciate the scope, scale and force of the poems mentioned in these lectures.
Through its broad historical sweep, deep knowledge of language, allusion, myth and meaning and engaging tone, this work serves not only as an excellent example of Daiches work but a compelling testimony to the power of the generous critic to enlarge the understanding of what we read.