Laurie Lee 1914–
English memoirist, poet, nonfiction and travel writer, essayist, and dramatist.
The following entry provides an overview of Lee's career through 1994.
Lee is highly regarded for autobiographical works depicting his childhood in the English countryside, his travels in Spain, and his involvement in the Spanish Civil War. Having garnered critical acclaim for his vibrant portraits of village life in the English Midlands and his descriptive characterizations of the chaotic and destabilizing environment of war, he is considered among England's foremost writers of the post-World War II era.
Born into a large, rural English working-class family in Stroud, Gloucestershire, Lee was a small child when his father abandoned the family. Financially strapped, Lee's mother raised him and his siblings with little economic means, and she has been described in his writings as a resourceful, fun-loving—if at times impractical—woman and a major influence on his life. At the age of nineteen, Lee left the English countryside on foot for London, where, to support himself, he worked a variety of jobs and played the fiddle. He eventually traveled throughout continental Europe, spending much of his time in Spain. In the late 1930s, Lee joined the International Brigade and fought in the Spanish Civil War on the side of the Republicans, or Loyalists, in their struggle to overthrow the fascist regime of Francisco Franco. During World War II he worked in a variety of government ministries in England, eventually undertaking scriptwriting duties with a number of their film units. After publishing several volumes of poetry and a well-received narrative of his leisurely travels in Andalusia, A Rose for Winter (1955), Lee turned to autobiographical writing and has since continued primarily in this genre.
Lee's best-known work details his childhood and his experiences in Spain. Set in a village in the Cotswolds, Cider with Rosie (1959) celebrates nature, boyhood, and rural traditions. Recounting the passing of a pastoral way of life in unsentimental terms, the collection provides an affectionate account of Lee's childhood, family, and friends. As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (1969) begins with Lee's departure from his childhood home in the 1930s, chronicles his peripatetic wanderings throughout Europe, and ends with Lee—having been evacuated from Spain by a British ship—returning to Europe, crossing the Pyrenees, and joining the Republican forces of the Spanish Civil War. In A Moment of War (1991), Lee examines the effects of the war on a personal level, discussing his own horrors and follies. For example, he details his initial fascination with aerial bombings as well as how, on several different occasions, he was captured and sentenced to death only to be miraculously rescued at the last moment. Although not as well known as Cider with Rosie, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, and A Moment of War, Lee's A Rose for Winter, a memoir recounting his travels through the Iberian peninsula, provides a sensuous picture of the land, its inhabitants, and their customs. His other major works include several volumes of poetry—including The Sun My Monument (1944), The Bloom of Candles (1947), and My Many-Coated Man (1955)—and the essay collection, I Can't Stay Long (1975).
Many critics have praised Lee's skilled use of figurative language and the sharpness of his descriptions. Cider with Rosie, perhaps Lee's best known work, was warmly received by both critics and popular audiences. When it was published in the United States as The Edge of Day, T. S. Matthews noted that "once in a blue moon, a book appears that deserves its success. This time the moon is blue, and The Edge of Day is the book." Likewise, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning and A Moment of War have both received accolades from many reviewers. Writing about the former, Charles Causley found its romantic style to be "as juicily ripe as an autumn pear" and possessing a "charm in the writing that genuinely makes it difficult to put the book down." In discussing more serious aspects of Lee's work, Albert Hoxie recommended A Moment of War "[for] anyone who wants to understand what war is actually like, when it is not being dramatized, hyped, heroized or propagandized." Overall, critics have found Lee's stories both accessible and expressive. As one commentator noted in The New Yorker, "Mr. Lee's writing—almost precious, almost naive—has a tone and intensity that are truly entirely his own, and are inimitably pleasing."
The Sun My Monument (poetry) 1944
Land at War (prose) 1945
The Bloom of Candles: Verse from a Poet's Year (poetry) 1947
The Voyage of Magellan: A Dramatic Chronicle for Radio (drama) 1948
My Many-Coated Man (poetry) 1955
A Rose for Winter: Travels in Andalusia (travel essay) 1955
Cider with Rosie (memoir) 1959; also published as The Edge of Day: A Boyhood in the West of England, 1960
As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (memoir) 1969
I Can't Stay Long (essays) 1975
Two Women: A Book of Words and Photographs (reminiscences) 1983
∗A Moment of War (memoir) 1991
†Red Sky at Sunrise (memoirs) 1992
∗This work has also been published as A Moment of War: A Memoir of the Spanish Civil War.
†This work contains Cider with Rosie, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, and A Moment of War.
SOURCE: "Washed in Happy Air," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XXX, No. 36, September 6, 1947, pp. 23, 30.
[In the following review, Meyer notes Lee's focus on pastoral life and love in The Sun My Monument, as well as the volume's focus on metaphysical concerns.]
The war years saw in Britain (as they did in some of the Dominions, notably Australia) the rise of a number of "little magazines," among which Cyril Connolly's Horizon and John Lehmann's Penguin New Writing are best known on this side of the Atlantic. Laurie Lee has published poems in both these periodicals, as well as in the BBC magazine, The Listener, and in at least two anthologies of the newer verse; but The Sun My Monument is his first book publication. Mr. Lee is to be congratulated on the ready acceptance of his first book on these shores; and the American public for poetry now has another measure by which to appraise the new post-Auden generation of English poets.
Is there a greater freshness in the English air than here? At least, Mr. Lee dares to produce poetry that, by one of the standards now revered in local poetic circles, should be clearly "old hat." For example, he boldly packs his work with country, rather than urban, images. Is it that "England's green and pleasant land" provides greater justification for pastoral poetry than the less embraceable American countryside? Though, indeed, he has left his native Cotswolds:
O the wild trees of my home,
forests of blue dividing the pink moon,
the iron blue of those ancient branches
with their berries of vermilion stars,
With their fields ("that place of steep meadows"), he never really leaves them:
But here I have lost
the dialect of your hills,
my tongue has gone blind
far from their limestone roots.
When he writes of war, too, does he write more easily because his British audience, knowing the impact of war first hand, does not require the conscious strain of the poet's imagination to make the...
(The entire section is 942 words.)
SOURCE: "Palsied Apples Fall," in The New York Times Book Review, December 21, 1947, p. 8.
[In the mixed review of The Sun My Monument below, MacLiesh faults the uneven lyrical quality of the collection.]
Poe refused to publish somebody's poem on the ground that the disparity between the good lines and the bad was so incredible that the good must have been stolen. By that criterion a fair amount of his own poetry would have been suspect. If Mr. Lee is certainly not open to the charge, nevertheless the mixture of the excellent and of the perfectly terrible in his verse is equally baffling; so thoroughly are they mingled that there is scarcely a poem in [The...
(The entire section is 593 words.)
SOURCE: "Is the Travel-Book Dead?" in The Spectator, Vol. 194, No. 6625, June 17, 1955, pp. 774-75.
[Amis was an English educator, short story writer, critic, and essayist. In the following negative review, he characterizes A Rose for Winter as "vulgar and sensational."]
The vogue for the highbrow travel-book shows no immediate signs of abating…. The usual characteristics of such books are, first, a leaning towards the more elaborate and unfashionable graces of prose—rightly unfashionable they seem to me, if I may show my hand thus early—and, secondly, a desire to get away from the exhausted sterilities of Western civilisation so feelingly alluded to from...
(The entire section is 854 words.)
SOURCE: "A Winter in Andalusia," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 2783, July 1, 1955, p. 366.
[In the following commendable review, the critic characterizes A Rose for Winter as "poetic" and unlike other travel books.]
Although its sub-title is "Travels in Andalusia," [A Rose for Winter] is no ordinary travel book. It is an account of a return visit to southernmost Spain, in mid-winter, after a break of fifteen years or more. The story begins and ends at Algeciras—"a handsome and lordly city," as Miss Rose Macaulay has described it. From here the author and his wife make visits to Seville, to Granada, where they spend Christmas, to Ecija, at other...
(The entire section is 808 words.)
SOURCE: "In Spain It's Like That," in The New York Times Book Review, April 8, 1956, p. 6.
[The former president of PEN International, Pritchett is an English journalist, educator, critic, nonfiction writer, short story writer, novelist, and scriptwriter. Also known for his work as a memoirist, biographer, autobiographer, journalist, and editor, he additionally wrote a book review column for New Statesman. In the favorable review of A Rose for Winter below, Pritchett considers Lee's book to be idiosyncratic, "delicate and strong."]
Laurie Lee is a lyrical poet and he has written [A Rose for Winter,] a poet's book about Andalusia. He is also a droll...
(The entire section is 1351 words.)
SOURCE: "Five Young English Poets," in Poetry, Vol. LXXXIX, No. 3, December, 1956, pp. 193-200.
[Morse is an American educator, poet, critic, and author of children's books. In the excerpt below, he offers praise for My Many-Coated Man.]
[Laurie Lee's] My Many-coated Man, published in 1955, was a choice of the Poetry Book Society and won the William Foyle Poetry Prize. An extremely slim book indeed, it contains fifteen poems Selected from those "written since the war." The austerity of Lee's selection works ultimately to the great advantage of the poems, each of which has a page to itself, without the competition of print on the verso of the preceding leaf....
(The entire section is 562 words.)
SOURCE: "A Gloucestershire Lad," in New Statesman, Vol. LVIII, No. 1495, November 7, 1959, pp. 634-35.
[In the following review, Ramsbotham offers a highly laudatory account of Cider with Rosie.]
A few years before the first World War a grocer's assistant in Stroud inserted the following advertisement in a local paper: 'Widower (4 children) Seeks Housekeeper'. It was seen by Annie Light, a romantic countrywoman of thirty, who had spent her youth either toiling for her father and five brothers or slaving below-stairs in the manors of the gentry. She took the post, fell in love with her employer, married him, and gave him four more children—one girl (who died) and...
(The entire section is 600 words.)
SOURCE: "An Acceptance of Life That Is Also an Embrace," in The New York Times Book Review, March 27, 1960, p. 4.
[Matthews is an American-born editor, essayist, poet, autobiographer, and biographer. In the following review, he praises Cider with Rosie, also published as The Edge of Day, as "funny, unsentimental and beautiful."]
Suicide, said Camus, is the one really serious philosophical problem. The only simple answer to the questionable human condition is the act that ends all problems. Any other answer ignores the question or shelves the problem. And yet there is another sort of response, oblique as morning sunlight, irrational as joy, absurd as a...
(The entire section is 1226 words.)
SOURCE: "The Gift of Unabashed Recall," in The Commonweal, Vol. LXXII, No. 1, April 1, 1960, pp. 22-3.
[In the following review, Cosman praises the subject matter and stylistic aspects of The Edge of Day.]
Discussing a book by a lady of whom it might be said she walked with genius throughout her life, the editor of The Golden Horizon tells us that though he retains a very clear impression of the complicated characters who were her familiars, to wit, Mahler, Werfel and Kokoschka, he still remains baffled by the author herself. One thing, however, he does claim to understand: her ability to get over everything.
If, by this, Cyril Connolly means a...
(The entire section is 694 words.)
SOURCE: "Bright as a Windblown Lark," in The New Yorker, Vol. XXXVI, No. 9, April 16, 1960, pp. 172, 174, 177-78.
[In the review below, Maxwell lauds Lee's portrait of family, neighbors, and village life in The Edge of Day.]
The common reader will put up with absolutely anything, but how like getting a stock split or finding a four-leaf clover it is to read a book by a writer who has managed to separate the material that is his from everybody else's, whose style is an approximation of his own manner of speaking, and who with some courage lays his cards on the table. The Edge of Day, by Laurie Lee, meets all three of these requirements, and is beautiful besides,...
(The entire section is 2492 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Edge of Day, in The Saturday Review, New York, Vol. XLIII, No. 17, April 23, 1960, pp. 45-6.
[In the following review, Green characterizes The Edge of Day as a "memorable and heartwarming autobiography," briefly noting the volume's focus on village life and similarities to the work of Dylan Thomas.]
Laurie Lee's The Edge of Day is a creamy Double Gloucester of an autobiography, "tasting of Flora and the country green," flavored with wit and poetry and Cotswold nostalgia. The author, who has played guitars in Andalusia in his time, here turns Pied Piper and leads us an enchanting dance up something that strongly resembles...
(The entire section is 583 words.)
SOURCE: A review of As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 224, No. 3, September, 1969, pp. 117-18.
[Weeks is an American editor, memoirist, and nonfiction writer long associated with The Atlantic Monthly. In the following mixed review, he relates the events recorded in As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning.]
Laurie Lee was nineteen when on a June morning in 1935 after a hearty breakfast and a pat on the back from his mother, he walked away from his country home in the Cotswolds. He was propelled by the traditional forces that have sent so many younger sons out into the world, and the Depression had doubtless strengthened his...
(The entire section is 837 words.)
SOURCE: "On the Fiddle," in New Statesman, Vol. 78, No. 2011, September 26, 1969, pp. 428-29.
[An English educator, poet, translator, editor, dramatist, short story writer, and author of children's books, Causley has served as the vice-president of the Poetry Society of Great Britain. In the review below, he offers a mixed assessment of As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning.]
One evening at his house in the high sierras of Kensington, Roy Campbell told me of an encounter he and his wife once had with a street-musician in Toledo. The fiddler turned out to be not a German, as they'd supposed, but a young man from Gloucestershire walking across Spain with a knapsack and a...
(The entire section is 1140 words.)
SOURCE: "Fiddler's Eye View," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3528, October, 9, 1969, p. 1155.
[In the following review, the critic favorably assesses As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning.]
Laurie Lee writes with such apparent ease that [As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, this] autobiographical sequel to Cider with Rosie may be discounted, by readers who think only those books good which are tough going, as merely a charming picaresque trifle. But it is a work of art the finer for appearing artless.
The nineteen-year-old Laurie Lee leaves his home in Stroud, Gloucestershire, to walk to London: a folk-hero like Dick...
(The entire section is 1048 words.)
SOURCE: "To Spain with a Violin and a Tin of Treacle Biscuits," in The New York Times Book Review, October 12, 1969, pp. 4-5.
[Mitchell is an English novelist. In the following review, he expresses ambivalence for As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning.]
Readers of The Edge of Day, Laurie Lee's enchanting memoir of an English west-country childhood, may remember that it ends with the adolescent Laurie sitting on his bed, making up poems. Just about a generation later, an adolescent myself, I thought he was one of the great poets of our time. Lines like:
Blown bubble-film of blue, the sky wraps round
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SOURCE: "All the Best Countrymen," in The Listener, Vol. 94, November 20, 1975, p. 680.
[Blythe is an English novelist, short story writer, and editor. In the following excerpt, he discusses I Can't Stay Long.]
When Laurie Lee was 17, he strolled out of his Cotswold village and tramped to Spain. The village for him was first base, a privately marked spot he could return to without feelings of betrayal. I Can't Stay Long is a group of essays, some about the marked spot but most about his restless forays from it.
On the whole, he takes wide-eyed journeys to touristy places, yet manages to avoid the results of their easy accessibility. 'Tourism is...
(The entire section is 475 words.)
SOURCE: "Writing Autobiography," in I Can't Stay Long, Atheneum, 1976, pp. 49-53.
[In the essay below, originally written in 1975, Lee discusses the writing process particularly as it applies to autobiography.]
Autobiography can be the laying to rest of ghosts as well as an ordering of the mind. But for me it is also a celebration of living and an attempt to hoard its sensations.
In common with other writers I have written little that was not for the most part autobiographical. The spur for me is the fear of evaporation—erosion, amnesia, if you like—the fear that a whole decade may drift gently away and leave nothing but a salt-caked mud-flat....
(The entire section is 1630 words.)
SOURCE: "Newer Signatures," in his The Poetry of the Thirties, St. Martin's Press, 1975, pp. 356-73.
[Tolley is an English educator, editor, and critic. In the following essay, he briefly assesses Lee's poetry.]
Not every poet of the thirties had a book published during that decade or even appeared extensively in periodicals. Laurie Lee seems to have been writing poems for ten years before the publication of his first book, The Sun My Monument, in 1944. He was one of the poets—among them Dylan Thomas, David Gascoyne and Ruthven Todd—who appeared in the Sunday Referee poetry column around 1934. He spent some time in Spain before the Civil War,...
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SOURCE: An interview in Caliban XIII, n.s., Vol. XII, No. 1, January, 1976, pp. 149-60.
[In the excerpted interview below, Lee discusses various topics, including life in the Cotswolds, his childhood, modern life, and the concept of literary style.]
[Nicole and Françoise Cavalerie]: The Cotswolds.
[Lee]: My Mother's family have lived in the Cotswolds for six or seven hundred years. They were farmers and lived by the river Severn. Then they moved up into the hills. Some of my uncles were foresters, others horse-dealers, some coachmen. My Grandfather is my only authentic, physical link with the past (all the other stories I have heard derive...
(The entire section is 4000 words.)
SOURCE: "Writer on the Move," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3855, January 30, 1976, p. 102.
[In the following review, Secker offers a mixed appraisal of I Can't Stay Long.]
Laurie Lee describes I Can't Stay Long as "on the whole a scrapbook of first loves and obsessions". He also records that some of the essays were written as long ago as twenty or thirty years. This no doubt accounts for the unevenness of the whole. In the [piece] called "Love", for instance one has a curious sense of déja vu. This is written in what seems in places a modernized version of the style of Rom Landau, who used the same high-flown language, and who was much admired...
(The entire section is 514 words.)
SOURCE: "Laurie Lee's Poetry: English, Clean and—Well—Nice," in The Christian Science Monitor, April 6, 1976, p. 27.
[Nye is a poet, critic, and essayist who lives in Scotland. In the review of I Can't Stay Long below, he notes that the most effective pieces in the collection revisit Lee's childhood and travels.]
Laurie Lee is an underestimated English poet. He is underestimated because he has never gone out of his way to advertise himself or his work. Norman Cameron—another neglected poet—used to say of Mr. Lee that even when he wasn't very good, he was always clean. Mr. Lee's work, in verse and prose, speaks of a certain purity preserved or achieved at...
(The entire section is 739 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Selected Poems, in Books and Bookmen, No. 335, August, 1983, p. 28.
[A fellow of England's Royal Society of Literature, Stanford is an English educator, poet, and critic who has frequently written about Muriel Spark, Christopher Fry, and Emily and Anne Brontë. In the review below, he offers praise for Lee's Selected Poems, noting the volume's nostalgic tone and subject matter.]
Some of the purest poetry of sensuous perception that has been written this century comes from the pen of Laurie Lee whose Selected Poems are a pot-pourri of intense, yet almost antiquated, sweetness.
It is more detailed, less...
(The entire section is 282 words.)
SOURCE: "Childhood," in his The Inner I: British Literary Autobiography of the Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press, 1985, pp. 117-37.
[In the following excerpt, Finney discusses Cider with Rosie from a Jungian perspective, suggesting that Lee is "attempting to describe the evolution of his individual psyche by relating it to … archetypal images."]
[Like Herbert Read, author of the autobiographical The Innocent Eye, Laurie] Lee sees his childhood as an idyll of the past to which he returns in memory for refreshment and renewal. Although longer, Cider With Rosie (1959) has the same air of simplicity verging on naivety which mirrors the...
(The entire section is 2394 words.)
SOURCE: A review of A Moment of War, in Books, London, Vol. 5, No. 5, September-October, 1991, p. 26.
[Glover is an English nonfiction writer who frequently focuses on historical events and themes. In the review of A Moment of War below, he finds Lee's autobiographical account of the Spanish Civil War "an affecting, engaging document."]
Laurie Lee is one of the most popular and least prolific of our contemporary novelists: the sequence of autobiographical novels that began with the publication of Cider with Rosie in 1959—which has sold almost two million copies in paperback alone—will be continued this autumn with the appearance of A Moment...
(The entire section is 379 words.)
SOURCE: "On the Road to Teruel," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4620, October 18, 1991, pp. 11-12.
[In the review of A Moment of War below, Cunningham describes Lee's autobiographical portrait as "momentous, extraordinary, [and] compelling."]
Laurie Lee's account of what he did in the Spanish Civil War—momentous, extraordinary, compelling—reads like a confession. But it is a very belated one. As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, the second volume in what we are now to regard as the Cider With Rosie trilogy, ends with our author slipping through a gap in some frontier rocks and entering a Republican farmhouse with the greeting "I've...
(The entire section is 2022 words.)
SOURCE: "My Enemy's Enemy Is Not My Friend," in The Spectator, Vol. 267, No. 8520, October 26, 1991, pp. 38-9.
[Corke is an English educator, poet, editor, and translator. In the following review, Corke calls A Moment of War a "remarkable story."]
In December 1937 Spain was tearing itself apart and Laurie Lee could no longer bear to remain outside the country that had given his mind its second birth. He was 'betraying the people of Spain'. Failing to convince the regular recruiters, he made himself into a one-man International Brigade and hiked over the Pyrenees. The closing page of As I Walked Out has him walking with his violin between the two rocks...
(The entire section is 1037 words.)
SOURCE: "A Wide-Eyed Witness to War," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 2, 1993, pp. 3, 10.
[Hoxie is an educator who specializes in history. In the review of A Moment of War below, he considers Lee's book to be essential for "anyone who wants to understand what war is actually like, when it is not being dramatized, hyped, heroized or propagandized."]
Laurie Lee's memoirs are little known in the United States, though in English schools his first two volumes occupy about the same place that J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye has filled here. A Moment of War, the third volume of Lee's story, had a substantial run on the British bestseller list...
(The entire section is 1366 words.)
SOURCE: "Poets of the Spanish Tragedy," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XLI, No. 21, December 22, 1994, pp. 18, 20-2.
[In the excerpt below, Knox examines Lee's account of the Spanish Civil War as presented in A Moment of War.]
[Lee came to Spain] in the winter of 1937. He was twenty-three years old, and not yet widely known as a poet, though when in Spain he met Fred Copeman the commander of the British Battalion, who had been his strike leader when Lee worked as a builder's laborer in London, he was greeted with the words: "The poet from the buildings. Never thought you'd make it."
This was not his first visit to Spain. In the spring of 1936...
(The entire section is 2333 words.)