Under Briggflatts is the sixteenth volume of criticism by the English poet and essayist Donald Davie. Although the book announces itself as a history of British poetry from 1960 to 1988, it is nothing of the sort. The dates are only loosely observed: essays on Basil Bunting (1900-85), Edwin Muir (1887-1959), and Edward Thomas, who died in the First World War, jostle with articles on such contemporaries as Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin, and C. H. Sisson. What’s more, many inferior writers are discussed, sometimes at length, while poets more deserving of attention—Craig Raine and Andrew Motion, for example—go unmentioned. All in all, Under Briggflatts amply confirms Davie’s reputation as one of our most eccentric critics.

Among the book’s other oddities is Davie’s inclination to assess poetry on the basis of its subject matter rather than...


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