Guy Davenport (1927-2005)
Bernard Hoepffner

Scholarship begins as a critical act of loving eyes: curiosity is passion.
("The Scholar as Critic")


Guy Davenport died on January 4 at the age of 77. The end of a fifteen year long friendship: no more will the postman bring to my door the more or less monthly letters posted in Lexington, Kentucky. How can I now forget the last sentence of his last letter, "If I could think of something else to say, I would not have the strength to type it"? Those eighteen words are a sort of full stop, the end of a long written and spoken conversation.

    The life he lived - what I know of it - was very close to the life of his reading, and his reading fed the passion with which he wanted to share what he had read - once in his house, it wasn't difficult for the visitor to believe that the walls were made of books. He never stopped conveying what he found in the texts he read, his curiosity for details, the history of the world - a history he was endlessly reconstructing in a form to which he had given the name of "necessary fictions," in which he intertwined elements taken from his reading with the riches of his own imagination, created links between all these elements which attempted to explain the past, attempted to remove, to banish, as he wrote, the barbarian side of human beings:


     "Necessary fiction" means merely that if I am writing about an historical figure - Vladimir Tatlin, Kafka, Walser, Pausanias, C. Musonius Rufus - I supply weather, rooms, samovars, Greek dust, Italian waiters, and so on, not in the historical record but plausible. It does not mean that I give fictional accounts.

     Prose: one writes, or is written. (Barthes's great subject: that our phrases exist so extensively that an author merely arranges them).

     I approach writing with the sense that my words must be chosen and arranged with care, as we live in a world of abused and meaningless words. I think it can be said that I write in order to use words in my way, for certain effects, rather than for any programmatic purpose (psychology, drama, politics, thematics).

     What I write about is therefore all but gratuitous. I have enough sense of anecdote to make a narrative. But the narrative is the stage.

The prime use of words is for imagery: my writing is drawing.


    After a thesis on James Joyce's Ulysses in 1949 (the first one to be accepted about that book at Merton College, Oxford), then another one on Ezra Pound, Guy Davenport illustrated two books by Hugh Kenner (The Stoic Comedians: Flaubert, Joyce, Beckett and The Counterfeiters) as well as his own books; he was a painter (his studio was littered with hundreds of canvasses), a translator (Sappho, Archilochos, Herakleitos, etc.), a poet (he knew Ezra Pound, Zukofsky and collaborated with Jonathan Williams and Ronald Johnson); his first book of short stories was published when he was 47, to which he added another eight, as well as six books of essays. It is often difficult to differentiate what is fiction and what is essay in Davenport's work, although one could say that there are always real persons and events in his short stories while his essays rarely contain fictitious events. It is also sometimes difficult to differentiate between what is his and what he borrowed from others - since his reading was incredibly wide and his sources numerous, his work can appear to be close to a cento; he had no qualms about Macrobius' words mentioned by Lipsius and quoted by Robert Burton in his Anatomy of Melancholy: "omne meum, nihil meum", when I applied them to his writing in the book I wrote about him. In A Geographer of the Imagination, Hugh Kenner wrote that "There's no getting around the way Davenport's poets and painters, as we get to know them, come to resemble Guy Davenport." And, for good measure, we could add Samuel Johnson: "Every quotation contributes something to the stability or enlargement of the language", and Gertrude Stein: "Everything is the same except composition."

    According to his own conception of his worth as a writer, he was "a minor prose stylist", and he rarely left Lexington to speak about his work, though he traveled extensively in Europe. He didn't drive, and prepared his classes when walking from his house to the university; it was during his walk back home that his classes were metamorphosed into essays and short stories. His style is a pyrotechnic display of constructions and words, to him one might apply two images, the first by William Goyen - the spider's web -, the second by Toby Olson - the Tensegrity Sphere -: so fine are the words tuned that while reading, one feels that if he had pulled a little more here and there, the whole thing would have disappeared; each text is a perfect work of balance and tension. Reading, in "C. Musonius Rufus: "Right deflection under azimuth, earthspin downward polaroid greens in quanta red shift, dip and shake, forward zoom." or, in "Au tombeau de Charles Fourier": "A wark in the gaster, a curr in the jaws, and she flies in a figure of eight. She bounces in the air, trig of girth and smelling of ginger-flower wax, of apples, of vespa. She thirls her wings, clapfling and brake flip, shimmering her neb. She dips." One cannot forget what he wrote in "Ernst Machs Max Ernst: "Though I admire styles in which words are deployed in a practical economy (Bunyan, Caesar, Agassiz), my heart is with styles controlled by artifice".

    He may be compared to Jose Luis Borges in that reading his texts can lead to a complete education of his reader; his vast erudition does not squash his readers, on the contrary - and this was the case when I discovered his books - it leads to an infinite spiral of discoveries, of authors often forgotten by the traditional canons of literary history. For those who are willing to be carried away by his enthusiasm and his insight, reading Davenport can be the equivalent to a university education; he does not explain, does not present a theory (though he has theories), the fragments he brings together are a kind of kaleidoscope within which one could easily seem to lose oneself while, with a little patience, a coherent vision of the world appears along with the artists who gave us their image of it, of those who tried to lift the veil behind which nature hides its secrets.

    Today, as I'm trying to write a few lines to pay homage, to give an account of his world, I can still see him, sitting in the imposing armchair of his living room, surrounded by books, paintings and photographs, listening very kindly to whatever I had to say, correcting my crass blunders, answering every one of my questions, launching into digressions on every possible subject, all fascinating; I can still hear him explaining to me that in The Dawn of Britain, Doughty only used words with a Saxon origin, talking to me about Walter Savage Landor, Pyrrho of Ellis; I remember the hours spent on a paddle boat, with our companions, Bonnie Jean Cox and Catherine Goffaux, going up the Kentucky River to visit the Shaker village of Pleasant Hill, I remember the very long discussion we had about a sentence by Mother Lee Ann, "Every force evolves a form"; I also remember the hours spent talking about etymology, about words, about colours - the difference between grey and gray, the impossibility of correctly translating blue into French, etc., without forgetting the pages of explanations about his vocabulary, plants, animals, parts of the body, when I was translating him.

    The work of Guy Davenport is made up of a constant verbal invention, of humour, of philosophy, the sentences are as finely wrought as any by Louis Zukofsky, William Gass, Donald Barthelme or Harry Mathews, his are texts which take the reader into a re-creation of history and language so rarely encountered.


I would like to end this homage by quoting four lines from Davenport's poem, Flowers and leaves:


Word on word folded, as the wind folds leaves.


This glossolalia of leaves and vortex of wrens

Works beneath our dialogue as the heartbeat

Of battle horses foaming with charge and retreat.



Tatlin!, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1974; Baltimore and London, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

Da Vinci's Bicycle, Baltimore and London, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979, 1982.

Eclogues, San Francisco, North Point Press, 1981; London, Picador, 1984.

Apples and Pears, San Francisco, North Point Press, 1984.

The Jules Verne Steam Balloon, San Francisco, North Point Press, 1987.

The Drummer of the Eleventh North Devonshire Fusiliers, San Francisco, North Point Press, 1990.

A Table of Green Field, New York, New Directions, 1993.

The Cardiff Team, New York, New Directions, 1996.

The Death of Picasso, Washington, DC, Shoemaker & Hoard, 2003.



Cities on Hills: A Study of IöXXX of Ezra Pound's Cantos, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University, 1961; Ann Arbor, Michigan, UMI Research Press, 1983.

The Geography of the Imagination, San Francisco, North Point Press, 1981; London, Picador, 1984, New York, Godine, 1997.

Every Force Evolves a Form, San Francisco, North Point Press, 1987; London, Secker & Warburg, 1989.

A Balthus Notebook, New York, The Ecco Press, 1989.

The Hunter Gracchus, and Other Papers on Litterature and Art, Washinton, D.C., Counterpoint, 1997.

Objects on a Table, Washinton, D.C., Counterpoint, 1998.



Flowers and Leaves, Highlands, NC, Nanthala Foundation/Jargon Society, 1966; Bamberger Books, 1991.

Thasos and Ohio: Poems and Translations, 1950ö1980, Manchester, Carcanet, 1985; San Francisco, North Point Press, 1986.



7 Greeks: Archilochos, Sappho, Alkman, Anakreon, Herakleitos, Diogenes, Herondas, New York, New Directions, 1995.

The Logia of Yeshua, (with Benjamin Urrutia), Washington, DC, Counterpoint, 1996.


About Guy Davenport

Erik Anderson Reece, A Balance of Quinces: The Paintings and Drawings of Guy Davenport, New York, New Directions, 1996.

Bernard Hþpffner, Guy Davenport: L'Utopie localisŽe, Paris, Belin, "Voix amŽricaines", 1998.