C. Day Lewis 1904–1972
(Full name Cecil Day Lewis; also wrote under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake) Irish-born English poet, novelist, nonfiction writer, editor, and translator.
Day Lewis is recognized for poetry which establishes and develops his search for both an individual and a social self and for the means to bring them into harmony. His writing sets forth the tension between the uncertainty of a society in decline and the desire to retain a hold on traditional values. Ambivalent about his political and pastoral beliefs throughout his career, Day Lewis reflected incongruous philosophies in his verse. Also evident—particularly in his earlier works—are social and political unrest and a tendency to radicalism, perspectives incited by a growing awareness of class disparities and social injustices.
Born in Ireland in 1904, Day Lewis moved with his family moved to England in 1908; his mother died shortly thereafter. Raised by his father, a clergyman, and an aunt, Day Lewis portrayed the strained relationship between himself and the elder Day Lewis in his poetry. While attending Waltham College, Oxford, Day Lewis met and came under the influence of W. H. Auden. His writings reflect this mentorship and situated Day Lewis as a member of Auden's literary "group," sometimes referred to as the "Marxist Poets." Day Lewis published his first volume of poetry, Beechen Vigil, and Other Poems, in 1925, and three years later he produced Country Comets. (Day Lewis would not include any poems from these volumes in his subsequent collections, considering them inferior to his other works.) In 1929, he established his reputation as a mature poet with his piece Transitional Poem. After graduating from Oxford, he worked for ten years as a teacher. Looking for solidarity with mankind, Day Lewis joined the Communist Party in 1935. Due to conflicts with his activity in the Party, he resigned from teaching and became a full-time writer. Between 1935 and 1968, Day Lewis wrote three novels under his real name and twenty detective novels under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake. His detective series contains many autobiographical elements, such as the deterioration of his first marriage, his extramarital affairs, and his eventual remarriage. In 1938, believing that his responsibilities in the Communist Party were increasingly incompatible with his poetic life, he left the organization. Thirteen years later, Day Lewis was awarded the Chair of Poetry at Oxford, and in 1968 he was appointed Poet Laureate of England, a position he held until his death in 1972.
Transitional Poem is a lengthy, four-part poem in which the poet explores themes of wholeness, harmony, and the search for an integrated identity. The poem is evidence of Day Lewis's poetic maturation in its blend of modern and traditional forms, emphasis upon future over past, and stylistic unity and organization. The piece features the author's preoccupation with the moral and social collapse of the modern world and the consequent need for order. His subsequent publication, From Feathers to Iron, is a lyric sequence inspired by the birth of his first son. Another notable Day Lewis volume is Magnetic Mountain, a political allegory which clearly manifests Auden's influence on the poet's works. In 1935, Day Lewis produced the successful A Time to Dance and Other Poems, a collection that stylistically balances romanticism and politics. His next achievement, Overtures to Death and Other Poems—written at the time of Hitler's advance on the Rhineland, Mussolini's attack on Ethiopia, and Franco's victories in the Spanish Civil War—contains some of his most effective political lyrics, born of a genuine fear of the implications of and repercussions from war. Day Lewis's postwar poetry includes An Italian Visit, a seven-part lyric about a trip taken by the author. This piece is generally regarded as his most ambitious work and represents a literal journey as well as a search for self-discovery and spiritual renewal. Day Lewis also contributed essays to the study of poetry; the most prominent include A Hope for Poetry, the collected Cambridge lectures of 1946-47 entitled The Poetic Image, and the 1964-65 Harvard lecture series, The Lyric Impulse.
Although Day Lewis's standing among critics and other poets suffered a steady decline in the years following World War II, he received both academic and official recognition, which is, as Robert H. Canary stated, "reserved for poets who live long enough to be regarded as tamed." Acknowledging the loss of vitality in his later works, Day Lewis himself remarked that he was "fated to be a good starter but a poor finisher." Many critics praised his early ideological works as complex and energetic but judged his later romantic and traditional pieces to be introspective and nostalgic, hence, less original. Day Lewis has been widely recognized as an imitative writer, adopting the styles of not only his contemporaries, such as Auden and Robert Frost, but of past poets whom he admired, including John Donne, Andrew Marvell, Walt Whitman, and especially, Thomas Hardy. Appraising Day Lewis's verse in a 1964 article for The New York Review of Books, G. S. Fraser commented that the poet has "a fine sense of structure, a various command of rhythms, but with a thinnish feeling for texture and with a tendency to stretch the surface of a poem too thinly, also, over a predetermined framework." Joseph N. Riddel opined that Day Lewis is "a minor poet in the best sense of that phrase; and whatever reputation he has as a poet seems more the result of historical accident than of individual genius." However, Samuel Hynes asserted, "Day Lewis needs no apology at all. He worked steadily and honestly at his craft, and he wrote poems … that will give pleasure and the sense of a shared emotion…. [By] finding and writing in the English lyric tradition, he helped to keep that tradition alive, and earned his place with Hardy in Stinsford Churchyard."
Beechen Vigil, and Other Poems 1925
Country Comets 1928
Transitional Poem 1929
From Feathers to Iron 1931
The Magnetic Mountain 1933
Collected Poems, 1929-1933 1935
A Time to Dance, and Other Poems 1935
Noah and the Waters 1936
Overtures to Death, and Other Poems 1938
Poems in Wartime 1940
Selected Poems 1940
Word over All 1943
Collected Poems, 1929-1936 1948
Poems 1943-1947 1948
Selected Poems 1951
An Italian Visit 1953
Collected Poems 1954
Pegasus, and Other Poems 1957
The Gate, and Other Poems 1962
On Not Saying Anything 1964
Requiem for the Living 1964
Selected Poems 1967
The Whispering Roots 1970
Other Major Works
A Hope for Poetry (criticism) 1934
A Question of Proof [as Nicholas Blake] (novel) 1935
Revolution in Writing (pamphlet) 1935
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SOURCE: "Poetry in the 1930's, I: Cecil Day Lewis," in Poetry and the Modern World, The University of Chicago Press, 1940, pp. 190-213.
[Daiches is a prominent English scholar and critic who has written extensively on English and American literature. He is especially renowned for his in-depth studies of such writers as Robert Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Virginia Woolf. His criticism in general is best characterized as appreciative in content and attached to no single methodology. In the essay "The 'New Criticism': Some Qualifications" (1950), Daiches summarized his conception of the critic's role: "In the last analysis, the test of [a work's] value can be judged only by the receiver, and judged by him on some kind of 'affective' theory…. Literature exists to be read and enjoyed, and criticism, at least in its pedagogical aspect, exists in order to increase awareness and so to increase enjoyment. The purely philosophical critic may entertain himself by trying to isolate the quiddity of poetry … but the 'appreciative' critic will use any means at his disposal—analytic, descriptive, histrionic, yes, even historical—to arouse alert interest, to produce that communicative impact without which all further critical discussion is useless. " In the following essay, Daiches examines the search of Day Lewis and some of his contemporaries for a place in the English poetic tradition.]
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SOURCE: "The Development of Day Lewis," in Auden and After: The Liberation of Poetry, 1930-1941, George Routledge & Sons Ltd., 1942, pp. 1-9.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1941, scholar and critic Scarfe looks at different stages in Day Lewis's verse to assess his progress as a poet, finding a "deep integrity and a firm attachment to the best human aspirations."]
Like Auden, Day Lewis is a deceptive poet, with a great deal of irrelevance in his work, but beneath it some solid virtues. He has sometimes been described as a Georgian gone wrong, and it is certain that in spirit he does not quite belong to the Auden group with which he has been associated. But he is a Georgian with a difference, a Georgian who has read Eliot, Hopkins and Marx—and that means a great deal.
Lewis has been a slow developer as a poet, and it is hard, at the present time, when comparing his later with his earlier work, to understand why his Transitional Poem and From Feathers to Iron were so wildly acclaimed ten years ago. It was, I think, because he came forward at the right time with a concrete enthusiasm, with an overwhelming desire to create and defend something constructive. This was a new note after the decade of despondency which had followed on The Waste Land.
Transitional Poem (1929) was anything but a flying start. At that time all...
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SOURCE: "The Philosophical Element in C. Day Lewis's Poetry," in Thought in Twentieth-Century English Poetry, Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd, 1951, pp. 196-249.
[In the excerpt below, Swiss educator, author, poet and critic Tschumi analyzes various aspects of Day Lewis's major poetical works, pondering the author's endeavor to incorporate metaphysical elements and social concerns into his verse.]
Lewis writes, in his first period, poems of sustained unity, but with an analytical structure. Because of his discursive manner of composing, we have to respect the chronological order and to avoid a general discussion which would prevent us from taking any of the three poems as a whole.
The first of the long poems is Transitional Poem. Notes to Transitional Poem, written in January 1929, may serve as an introduction to the poem. Their first part indicates Lewis's purpose:
The central theme of this poem is the single mind. The poem is divided into four parts, which essentially represent four phases of personal experience in the pursuit of single-mindedness: it will be seen that a transition is intended from one part to the next such as implies a certain spiritual progress and a consequent shifting of aspect. As far as any definitions can be attached to these aspects, they may be termed (1) metaphysical,...
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SOURCE: "Notes on Four Contemporary Writers: I. Cecil Day Lewis," in Personal Remarks, Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1953, pp. 193-97.
[Calling Day Lewis "a poet of the first importance," Strong opines in the following essay that, while Day Lewis's "phase of intense political consciousness" produced some forceful writing, "he was obeying his conscience, not his genius."]
I want first of all to make clear the position from which I start. It is that Cecil Day Lewis is a poet of the first importance. To me, his work says more than that of any poet since Yeats. What he has accomplished is remarkable, and, to judge from his latest work, he promises even better things to come.
First of all, a very brief sketch of his development. It brings us at once to what I feel to be the cardinal fact about his work. He uses his whole life in his poetry. J. M. Synge said in one of his prefaces that in the great ages of poetry men made it from the whole of their personal life, and what they wrote was 'read by strong men and thieves and deacons, not by little cliques only'. The poets of the period in which Day Lewis began to write believed in bringing poetry back to the common life of the people, but few knew how. They acted on a social theory: and this for a time threatened to deflect Day Lewis from his true course. Not for long, because he knew how to bring poetry and life together; but he could not...
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SOURCE: "Stephen Spender—Cecil Day Lewis—Louis MacNiece," in The Price of an Eye, William Morrow and Company, 1961, pp. 99-110.
[Here, English scholar and accomplished poet Blackburn maintains that the principal theme in Day Lewis's poetry is the intense significance—despite its mutability—of human life.]
Although he has an unfortunate tendency to write really appalling, keepsake verses for public occasions such as Royal Birthdays—this seems a kind of nervous tick—Cecil Day Lewis (b. 1904) is usually an honest poet. He does not versify ideas or luxuriate in images for their own sake, since his gift seems dovetailed to his personal experience and he uses it to serve certain conceptions which are his poetic life.
To understand this truthfulness of Day Lewis one must take his work as a whole. The principal theme which runs through it is that of duality, the opposition between life and death, with which every human being is concerned.
There is a dark room,
The locked and shuttered tomb,
Where negative's made positive.
Another dark room,
The blind and bolted tomb,
Where positives change to negative.
We may not undo
That or escape this, who
Have birth and death coiled in our bones.
Nothing we can do
Will sweeten the real rue,
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SOURCE: "C. Day Lewis: Between Two Worlds," in Poets of the Thirties, 1969. Reprint by Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1971, pp. 83-126.
[In the following excerpt, Irish educator and author Maxwell explores the poetic theories presented in Day Lewis's essay collection Revolution in Writing, particularly noting Marxist influences evident in Day Lewis's aesthetic]
[C] Day Lewis wrote Transitional Poem before his introduction to marxism. When he did turn to it, it offered him, because it appeared to grow from obvious facts, a system of ideas that he could use. In it, idea and fact seemed to be identified. On the one hand, deserted factories, slums, unemployed workers, low prices; on the other, the Materialist Dialectic, the Revolutionary Proletariat, Surplus Value. Far from distracting one from sensuous observation, the doctrine positively demanded it; and it had a place for anything that, in the light of the doctrine, one saw. Having made him suspicious of 'self-expression', the period also made him aware of, and gave its sanction to, a philosophy which in the England of the thirties precisely suited his cast of mind.
From 1918 to 1937 Day Lewis's father held a living in Edwinstowe, a Nottinghamshire colliery village. Among its slag heaps, its industrial ugliness, the daily perils of its miners, Lewis's social conscience was born. This was in the early and mid-twenties....
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Handley-Taylor, Geoffrey, and D'Arch Smith, Timothy. C. Day Lewis, The Poet Laureate: A Bibliography. Chicago: St. James Press, 1968, 42 p.
Bibliography with introductory letter by W. H. Auden.
Riddel, Joseph N. C. Day Lewis. New York: Twayne, 1971, 162 p.
Combines critical study of Day Lewis's work with biographical information. Contains a selected bibliography.
Dyment, Clifford. C. Day Lewis. Revised edition. London: longmans, Green & Co., 1969, 45 p.
Overview of Day Lewis's poetry.
Hynes, Samuel. "The Recovery of Privacy." Times Literary Supplement, No. 3908 (4 February 1977): 129-30.
Surveys Day Lewis's poetical achievements, calling the writer "a decent minor poet." Hynes also points out the various influences on Day Lewis's work.
Mahon, Derek. "All You Need Is Love." New Statesman 93, No. 2394 (4 February 1977): 158.
Provides commentary on Day Lewis's poetic style and a general assessment of his career.
McCabe, Bernard. "'Necessary Murder':...
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