C. Day Lewis Poetry: British Analysis
During his Oxford years and the period of his preparatory school teaching, Cecil Day Lewis published his first volumes of poetry: Beechen Vigil, and Other Poems, followed by Country Comets. Both constitute a high level of juvenile verse, the products of a student who had studied much about poets and poetry but who had learned little about life and had experienced even less. The two books demonstrate, however, that, prior to the age of twenty-five, Day Lewis had essentially mastered the craft of poetry. Further, the two volumes established that for him, a book of verse would emerge as a unified, thematic whole rather than merely as a collection of miscellaneous pieces.
The poet’s earliest conflicts arose out of his inability to distinguish clearly the old values of his present and past worlds from the newly emerging ones of the present and the future. In two poems, for example, “Juvenilia” and “Sketches for a Portrait,” the young man of privileged and comfortably secure economic class confronts a fundamental social problem: whether to continue to accept without question the comfortable conventions of his class, or to look beyond both the class and the comforts in an attempt to understand and then to identify with the problems of people who exist totally outside his sphere of experience and values. Day Lewis inserts into the poetic environment high garden walls that protect the young man’s neatly manicured lawn from the grime of the outside, but, certainly, the day must come when the dirt will filter through the wall and smudge the laurel. Then what?
The answers to that question did not come quickly or easily. Instead, in three separate volumes, Day Lewis portrayed the complexity of human experience as it unfolded in several stages. The first, titled Transitional Poem, represents a form of self-analysis wherein the poet initially rejected the romantic nature worship of the preceding century as no solution to what he perceived as the mind’s “own forked speculation.” At the age of twenty-five, Day Lewis had little or no sympathy for those among his contemporaries who appeared as “intellectual Quixotes,” propagandizing abstract values and superficial critical criteria. As a poet he sought, instead, to harness the chaos of a disordered world and beget a new age built upon the “crest of things,” upon the commonplace “household stuff, stone walls, mountains and trees/ [that] Placard the day with certainties.” Further, the word of the artist, of the twentieth century poet, cannot be allowed, like the Word of God, to stand remote and free from actuality. Instead, poetry must return to life: “Wrenching a stony song from a scant acre/ The Word still justifies its Maker.”
From Feathers to Iron
Two years later, in 1931, Day Lewis continued his spiritual self-analysis in From Feathers to Iron. The title of the piece came from an observation by John Keats: “We take but three steps from feathers to iron,” in reference to the maturation process from a theoretical perception of life to an actual understanding of human existence. In this series of lyric poems, Day Lewis considered the theme of experience within the context of marriage and parenthood. Love, he maintained, cannot endure without the presence of children; two years seems the limit for the love of husband and wife to be “marooned on self-sufficiency,” and thus new dimensions must be added to the union. The poems in the volume concern fertility, the passion and the pain involved with the anguish of birth, and the hope that fatherhood may end what the poet terms the “indeterminate quarrel between a fevered head and a cold heart.” The narrator of the volume occupies the long period of expectation with poems to both mother and child, while the final days seem to him “numb with crisis, cramped with waiting”; after man and wife have, together, explored the extremes of pain and fear, deliverance finally arrives and the multifaceted experience draws to a close. Day Lewis may well have been the first to attempt, in verse, a serious analysis of marriage as it relates to birth and parenthood, placing it squarely within the context of the modern world, in the midst of its complexities and technological by-products.
The Magnetic Mountain
Careful readers may sense, in the last of the three works—The Magnetic Mountain—the influences of Gerard Manley Hopkins and W. H. Auden. Day Lewis divided the piece into four major sections, the beginning being especially reminiscent of Hopkins’s “The Windhover.” The poet invokes a “kestrel joy, O hoverer in wind,” as he searches “beyond the railheads of reason” for a “magnetic mountain,” for truth. He proposes to follow his friends—Auden and Rex Warner—along the political path toward truth, where, in the second section, he surveys some politically reactionary types: a clinging mother, a conventional schoolmaster, a priest, and a “domestic” man. Then, in the third section, Day Lewis exposes what he believes to be the real enemies of progress: the flattering spell of love, popular education and information, the “religion” of science, and false romantic ideals. The poem ends with a series of lyrics extolling a social effort governed by the duality of twentieth century man—as soarer (“windhover”) and as an earthbound creature. Criticism of The Magnetic Mountain focuses upon the issue of influence; some critics maintain that it contains too...
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