Day Lewis, C(ecil) (Vol. 10)
Day Lewis, C(ecil) 1904–1972
Day Lewis was an Irish-born English poet, novelist, translator, and children's author who was linked with the Oxford poets of the 1930s, Auden, MacNeice, and Spender. Although generally regarded as a minor talent (even though he was Poet Laureate of England), Day Lewis was a serious artist, throughout his career concerned with the search for selfhood, whether reflected in the overtly political poems of his early career or the pastoral lyrics of his maturity. He also received popular acclaim for the many mystery novels he wrote under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16; obituary, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 1)
Joseph N. Riddel
Literary history has come to consider Day Lewis almost exclusively in terms of his association with Auden and Spender, as a member of the so-called Auden Group. And while the group image, as we shall see, overstates the actual homogeneity of the three poets and detracts from the individual talent of each (in particular, Auden's), the tendency to associate Day Lewis with a collective point of view and an impersonal poetry reveals a crucial truth about his work. From the "Auden Group" to the Poet Laureateship, Day Lewis has sought in poetry to realize the self, or to discover a self, through self-effacement. His political and his personal poetry alike are of a piece, in that each begins with the vision of the disintegration of the self as mirrored in the disintegration of society. At the heart of Day Lewis' poetry is the search for a new society and thus a new language of human relationships; for language is not simply the medium of a culture but its infrastructure, and the self, if it is not to disappear, must be reconstituted in that structure. The fact of Day Lewis' belonging, if only figuratively, to a school or "Group" of poetry at the very time he emerged as a significant poet may be taken as an index to his career. (pp. 17-18)
The need of these poets for an impersonal poetry, while it derives theoretically from the argument set forth by Eliot in 'Tradition and the Individual Talent," testifies in fact to another view toward...
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The last notice of C. Day Lewis's verse to appear in these pages was a review of The Whispering Roots in 1970 [see CLC, Vol. 6]…. It was not so much a review, I thought, as a literary mugging.
Now that Day Lewis is no longer a living laureate, but simply a dead poet, perhaps the time has come to consider his work more temperately, to forgive him the great gifts that he did not have (and never claimed), and to value what he had, and what he achieved…. [He] was of Hardy's company, a decent minor poet in the same tradition.
If even Day Lewis's most friendly critics have not always seen him clearly in that tradition, they have had reasons for confusion. For one thing, he found his poetic place relatively late, after much searching and much imitating, and his earlier books are full of echoes of other poets, so much so that they often seem to have no more unity of style than an anthology of modern verse has…. [He] found it easier to speak in other voices than in his own: first the early Yeats and then the later, then Auden—all those kestrels and airmen—and after that Edward Thomas, Eliot, de la Mare, Frost, Hardy.
Day Lewis was quite aware that he was an imitative poet, though he sometimes tried to find a less pejorative way of putting it….
The other principal obstacle to a just assessment of his achievement is, of course, his connection with the other principal...
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Transitional Poem is a conventional young man's statement of the transition from adolescence to manhood, with the particular poetic themes customarily associated with that passage: love and lust, philosophic doubts, mind and imagination, pride and ambition, the power of poetry—all the subjects that young men write poems about. The four 'aspects' that Day Lewis enumerates are not, to my eye, at all distinct: the metaphysical and psychological sides of the problem interweave throughout the poem, and the ethical is scarcely apparent at all.
More fundamental to the structure than transitions are oppositions: mind/body, ideal/real, infinite/finite, love/fear, eternity/time. Day Lewis' use of these terms often echoes Yeats very closely, indeed the whole sequence is heavy with Yeatsian borrowings, and it is not surprising that Day Lewis used Yeats' word for such oppositions: he is dismayed, he says early in the poem, 'by the monstrous credibility / Of all antinomies'. But Yeats was content to live with his antinomies; Day Lewis was not, and one can see, from his restlessness here, that he would be an easy convert to an Hegelian system that would offer synthesis. Transitional Poem is not a political poem, and no political philosophy could possibly be inferred from it; but it expresses a need for certainty, for which 'single-mindedness' is Day Lewis' term, that would make dogmatic political belief attractive, and would later...
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