Focus on Special Collections

Welcome to our Focus on Special Collections blog! This month we will be looking at one of our literary collections; the Donald Davie Archive.


Donald Davie (1922-1995 was a poet, literary critic, editor, translator and academic. His published works include volumes of his own poems, works on the theory and criticism of poetry and edited and translated works of other poets. He was the first professor and founder of the Department of Literature at the University of Essex. During his time at Essex (1964-1968), he also served as Pro-Vice Chancellor.

Davie studied Literature at Saint Catherine’s College, Cambridge, under F.R. Leavis. Leavis’ exacting approach to literary criticism was to have a strong influence on his student. In his book, Purity of Diction in English Verse, written while he was working at Trinity College, Dublin, Davie argued that poets should be rigorous in their selection of vocabulary and metaphor.[1]

As a poet, Davie was associated with The Movement, a group of writers which
included Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Elizabeth Jennings, Thom Gunn, John Wain, D J Enright and Robert Conquest.[2]  The poets of the Movement reacted against the work of both past and contemporary writers, rejecting Romanticism and the Avant Garde in favour of what the Encyclopaedia Britannica describes as:

“urbane, formally disciplined verse in an antiromantic vein characterized by irony, understatement, and a sardonic refusal to strike attitudes or make grand claims for the poet’s role.” [3]

Eight poems by Davie were included in New Lines (1956), an anthology edited by Robert Conquest.

As well as poetry and critical works, Davie was also responsible for verse translations of the works of Boris Pasternak. His interest in Russian literature, and the works of Pasternak in particular, had been sharpened during his wartime service in Russia with the Royal Navy.

Davie at Essex

Donald Davie was recruited by Albert Sloman as the founder professor of Literature at the newly formed University of Essex in 1964. The Department of Literature was to form part of the School of Comparative Studies, supporting Sloman’s vision of a university that offered the students the opportunity of interdisciplinary studies. Together with Jean Blondel, founder of the Department of Government, Davie was responsible for devising the curriculum, not only for Literature, but also for a joint course for first year students, to which all the departments in the School would contribute.[4]

In his time at Essex, Davie served as head of department, dean of school and (eventually) Pro-Vice Chancellor. Davie left Essex in 1968, to take up a lectureship at Stanford University in California. The Department of Literature, founded by him in 1964, continues to inspire and challenge students today as LiFTS (Literature, Film and Theatre Studies). Professor Davie accepted an honorary degree from Essex in 1990.

In the Geography School

The Collection

The Donald Davie Archive is in two parts. The first part was donated to the Library in 1968 and the second was purchased with a grant from the Arts Council in 1976.

Part one contains:

  • Correspondence (including letters from Philip Larkin)
  • Notebooks
  • Worksheets

Part two contains:

  • Manuscripts
  • Published books
  • Annotated typescripts
An Ode to my Friends

A full list of the archive contents is available in the Arts and Literature section of the Special Collections webpages

If you have an enquiry about a specific collection, or to discuss the options for access to our collections, please contact the team on


[1] Davie, Donald. Purity of Diction in English Verse. New ed. London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1967.

[2] Edwards, Philip. ‘Donald Alfred Davie 1922-1995’. Proceedings of the British Academy 94 (1997): 391–412.

[3] Encyclopedia Britannica. ‘English Literature – Poetry’. Accessed 29 April 2021.

[4] Foundation, Poetry. ‘Donald Davie’. Text/html. Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, 29 April 2021.


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