Cecil Day Lewis Day Lewis, C(ecil) (Vol. 6) - Essay

Day Lewis, C(ecil) (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Day Lewis, C(ecil) 1904–1972 (Nicholas Blake)

An Irish-born English poet and Poet Laureate of England for the last ten years of his life, Day Lewis was linked from the beginning of his literary career with Auden and Spender, with whom he associated at Oxford during his university years. In addition to the poetry, Day Lewis wrote two dozen superb mystery novels (in which the English gentleman sleuth Nigel Strangeways accompanies the solution of heinous crimes with cynical social commentary and literary allusion), several collections of literary criticism (of which A Hope for Poetry is considered one of the best analyses of contemporary poetry in existence), numerous verse translations, books for children, three novels, an autobiography, and several anthologies of verse. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 33-36.)

I found [Pegasus and Other Poems] a disappointment. In virtuosity, polish, and technical skill [Day Lewis] is if anything more able and dazzling than ever, while the range of his repertoire—the narrative, the lyric, the elegiac, the occasional, and the meditative poem—is hardly diminished. Yet one is never allowed to see Day Lewis steadily or to see him whole but must watch instead a quick-change impersonator doing brilliant pastiches of other people's acts. Even when his poems are on the most personal of themes the voice heard is so often someone else's, generally Thomas Hardy's…. It is in the four narrative poems, all retellings of classical Greek myths, which open his collection that Day Lewis is most himself and consequently at his best. (pp. 314-15)

David Wright, in Poetry (© 1958 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), August, 1958.

The Buried Day is a subtly written, precise account of the growth of imagination. All things conspired to make an artist; the tempestuous, lonely father, the long, sensuous summers in the garden of Monart rectory; the beauty of landscape and the inhumanity of boy to boy at Sherborne, the public school of which another memorable account has been given by John Cowper Powys. Auden drove iron into Day Lewis's art, but he did not alter its essentially private, nearly pastoral quality.

It is this quality that gives Day Lewis his special place in the famous triad of "Marxist" poets—Auden-Day Lewis-Spender. Though he was a member of the Communist Party and jeopardized his teaching career in order to express his radical sentiments, he continued to live in the country, a jealous guardian of private feeling. His politically inspired verse has in it an odd tolerance and coolness of vision, as if the cycle of the seasons and the sensuous reality of landscape had always been to the poet more vital than the claims of political crisis….

[He has written] a complete version of the Georgics and [also] of the Aeneid. The latter is nowhere near as well known as it should be. Yet it is the finest verse translation ever made of Virgil in the English language.

Day Lewis is still a relatively young man and there is something perverse about the serene roundness of his self-portrait. But one can only be grateful that he should have assumed an old man's privilege, for whether or not The Buried Day anticipates future biography, it is in itself consummate art. (p. 63)

George Steiner, in The Reporter (copyright © 1960 by The Reporter Magazine Co.), October 27, 1960.

In the 1930s, Mr. Day Lewis used always to be grouped along with Auden, MacNeice, and Spender: the listing would end, slightly invidiously, "and Day Lewis." He has always been a poet with 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. The fairies who presided at his birth made him both ingenious and copious, gave him a craftsman's conscience also, but an uninvited and malicious fairy added: "You will be able to catch almost exactly the note of any poet you admire!" Through his poems of the 1930s, one hears again and again the voices of Yeats and of Auden. As with a very skillful verse translator, one feels: "Yes: but after all it is better in the original!" With the outbreak of the Second World War, Day Lewis commenced a slow mutation of his poetic character from radical rational Utopian to conservative sentimental Arcadian. He turned his admirably conscientious craftsmanship to versions of Virgil and Valéry which are, ironically, among his most truly original works. He wrote a long poem, An Italian Journey, in which, using Clough and Browning and Hardy, he turned the bad fairy's gift into a blessing: producing not diluted imitation, but admiring parody or critical pastiche. Two ways of thinking of him would be as the hermit-crab, needing some tougher dead creature's shell to tuck its tail into; or as the poet as role-player….

I have a feeling in reading Day Lewis—occasionally there are lines, stanzas, cadences that move me very simply and directly—that there is a wistful, sad, true, basically simple-hearted poet (a Gravesian poet, let us say) waiting in the wings for his cue: but he rarely gets it: the wings are blocked by Day Lewis the political idealist, Day Lewis the connoisseur of Victorian literature, Day Lewis the public figure, about to address us on behalf of some good cause in a few well-chosen words. There could be no better choice, when dear old Mr. Masefield dies at last, for the next English Poet Laureate. (p. 14)

G. S. Fraser, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1964 NYREV, Inc.), June 25, 1964.

[In] the case of Day Lewis the puzzle is to decide what gave him the idea of writing poetry in the first place; he seems to have so little natural impulse towards it; except for that brief flowering in Word Over All (1943), everything he writes gives the impression of having been imitated from some other poet.

The early poems, of course, come out of Auden, and one reason why they are unsatisfactory is that it is a marriage of incompatibles. Auden, with his showy energy, his try-anything-once cockiness, was a wonderfully stimulating young poet, whereas Day Lewis' natural tone is quiet and rather mournful. The jamming-together of the two is disastrous, and it is not much better when Day Lewis decides for a change to write like MacNeice (as in "Newsreel" of [Selected Poems]. These poets could get away with verbal smartness; Day Lewis couldn't, and when he tried he produced mixed metaphors that tangled each other and fell with a thud…. This kind of thing went on until the early forties, when Mr. Day Lewis, with a sudden leap, emancipated himself and produced a genuinely interesting and original collection, Word Over All. Apart from the title, which is a quotation from Whitman, there is very little sign in this volume of dependence on other poets; the manner is still recognizably that of the thirties, but—in such poems as "Departure in the Dark"—it is deeper and stronger, and above all it is individual. (pp. 22-3)

After this brief flowering, autumn set in at once. Whatever was the source of the brief flash of energy that had enabled Mr. Day Lewis to find his own voice and to send some kind of energy flowing through his rhythms, it dried up immediately. The next phase, which turned out to be the longest of all, was the Hardy phase. Once completed, this change was signaled by Mr. Day Lewis in a lecture, "The Lyrical Poetry of Thomas Hardy," delivered to the British Academy in 1951. It was a sound, competent lecture, and a transfer of interest to the poetry of Hardy was a sound, competent step for Mr. Day Lewis to take. The rushing, expansive manner of the thirties was now an extinct volcano. It had, in fact, become extinct on the day when Auden decided to move to America and renounce his British nationality. The movement had been of a kind that needs a leader, and now the leader had gone. Louis MacNeice was strong enough to pursue an independent line; so, after some preliminary staggering, was Stephen Spender; but Mr. Day Lewis was not. He could not, as these poets did, find a way forward which would move away from his earlier manner while retaining some elements from it. Word Over All had represented a brief moment of glorious liberation, when he managed to write poetry without writing it in someone else's manner. But the rocket fell to earth, the search for a model was on again, and in retrospect one can see that Hardy was the best choice. (pp. 23-4)

"Modern" poetry had … never been very congenial to him. He is a quiet writer, with a preference for ordered syntax and regular form, who likes to brood rather than to exclaim. The élan of modern poetry, the violent juxtapositions, the self-consciously anti-poetic imagery, are found in his early verse, but only because they are imitated from other people. Victorian, and Georgian, models really suited him much better.

And so the Hardy period began. Reading through this book, one can put one's finger on the exact point at which Hardy's voice begins to speak through Mr. Day Lewis' verse: it is on page 72, in "A Failure."… Mr. Day Lewis' later poems are better than his earlier, because in Hardy he has found a mould into which he can pour his work without spilling its best ingredients. He is still an imitative poet, but even imitative poetry can be worth writing; if this were not true, there would be no justification for nine-tenths of the poetry that has been written through the ages. His work of the last twenty years, as represented in [Selected Poems], is level, craftsmanlike, civilized; except at moments when Mr. Day Lewis gets tired of Hardy and decides to thumb a lift from someone else for a change (e.g. from Frost in "Derelict"), the imitativeness is kept within decent bounds and does not intrude. It is only when we, the readers, suddenly find ourselves yearning to hear the voice behind the voice, to have a real, first hand experience, when we close our Day Lewis and open our Hardy or even our Auden or MacNeice, that we realize how badly wrong something has gone. (p. 24)

John Wain, "Mr. Day Lewis' Pale Fire," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1967 by The New Republic, Inc.), June 24, 1967, pp. 21-4.

Of the several young poets who began from Oxford and who, during the thirties, more or less recognized Auden as literary shepherd, C. Day Lewis has seemed in his poetry the most anonymous…. Reading Lewis's Selected Poems, which is only 160 pages, one is often aware of moral character behind the lines—more rarely of a clearly legible personality.

Critics unsympathetic to the group of which Lewis formed a part in the thirties have accused him of having no rhythm, indeed of not being a poet at all. Lewis is manifestly a poet even though his performance in that role is often unexcitingly mild. Here and there one may find a short passage that is poetry mainly by grace of the typography, but his verse unmistakably has the movement of poetry (it is not a question of metre) rather than of prose. (pp. 506-07)

Marius Bewley, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1967 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XX, No. 3, Autumn, 1967.

Blake's stature among mystery novelists is at least as high as that of Day Lewis among poets; he has excelled both in the straight detective puzzle and in the broader study of crime and character, as well as in happy blends of the two methods. And it seems particularly fitting that he should celebrate his laurels by publishing his best novel in a dozen years [The Private Wound]….

The narrator, an Anglo-Irish novelist visiting County Clare in the disturbed year of 1939, says that his story "began as an idyll, continued into low comedy, and ended in tragedy." It is an intensely penetrating study of sexual passion (and, incidentally, a model of how to write sexy without writing dirty). It is also a powerful story of murder and its aftermath, strengthened by a subplot of Irish politics, and constantly illuminated by the author's lightning flashes of insight into the peculiar relation between the Irish and the English (he himself is both) and the even more incredible relation between man and woman, which few male novelists have understood so well. (p. 20)

Anthony Boucher, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 7, 1968.

Precise, accomplished writing, and a fresh, pawky energy of the old kind, occasionally flash out in The Whispering Roots. And as always in his recent work, C. Day Lewis adapts the themes and manner of his admired Hardy to his own purposes in a graceful way. But nostalgia (instead of exuberance) and moralising were always his weakest cards, and he is playing them only too often. The Irish poems, gentle, reflective and lucid, recall the later MacNeice but don't have the fine, worldly sadness and haunting ingenuity. He shows a few original turns with conventional imagery but lingers out ideas too long and explores some themes (see 'Philosophy Lectures') he has done better elsewhere in recent books. The technical finish is, nevertheless, as consummate and appealing as ever. (p. 632)

Alan Brownjohn, in New Statesman (© 1970 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), May 1, 1970.

[Day Lewis, the] new poet laureate of England must surely be one of the most prolific of the species to come along. Works stream from his pen, and if a fair number of these have the appearance of what he once referred to as mere phrasemaking, others have extraordinary power and beauty. It's true, of course, that the majority of the poems are incurably old-fashioned; they scan nicely, and as often as not they rhyme. There are among them charming little things about terns, squirrels, moths, country weddings, and such. Yet if the poems of [The Whispering Roots and Other Poems]—a not inconsiderable number—can be disregarded, what remains is enough to ensure the poet a place among the most accomplished and forward-looking of his fellows.

Throughout his long career, Day Lewis has derided his "too meticulous words," and has disclaimed for his works that "divine incontinence" which he considers an essential element in good poetry. He obviously admires the roistering, Dylan-like figure in "The Widow Interviewed," but cannot emulate him. Wild singing is not for Day Lewis. On the other hand, his temperateness and steadiness of outlook sometimes invest his poems with a glossy perfection that is rarely seen elsewhere. (p. 3785)

Peter Gellatly, in Library Journal (reprinted from the November 1, 1970 issue of Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1970 by Xerox Corporation), November 1, 1970.

[Now] that Mr. Day Lewis's Collected Poems 1954 have been republished in paperback [we have] a base of operations for looking backward to old work, and forward briefly to the Poet Laureate in new poems and in his relation to other poets, including his relation, as translator, to Virgil and Valéry.

A first and fair inference is that we are faced here with a poet who has changed from mask to mask, many kinds, some of them masks of a changing contemporaneity, others masks from the literary cupboard….

All the time, as one reads back into old familiar poems or collections, Transitional Poem, From Feathers to Iron, The Magnetic Mountain ("Look west, Wystan, lone flyer, birdman, my bully boy!"), and A Time to Dance

              I sang as one
              Who on a tilting deck sings

—then forward in direction of the translator and the Laureate, it is the attitudes that one observes, along with the many stylistic consequences of not becoming a genuine poetic self, not developing in other than negative qualities. One is impressed that this poet has willed himself adeptly into situations, modes and nuances, often with enthusiasm and good intentions….

The characteristics of the Day Lewis poem hardly ever contradict this assertion of the overplay both of the masks and the will. Frigidities predominate. Seldom does anything in a poem … seem a paradigm of "reality" or "truth". Everything gets itself spoken like speech in public assembly, in which words or images do no more than illustrate in the common manner….

Scarcely an image—this is a poet who talks much of, and via, images—withstands scrutiny….

Other characteristics of the verse of this educated man wearing his various masks include a kind of unwitty verbalism …; a repeated use of very old clothing …; much weak employment of the word "like" …; no subtle affectivity of cadence; and now and again a stunning vulgarity….

The faults and frigidities continue unabated and unabashed in [The Whispering Roots]…. Little has changed, except a slackening or thickening of the old fluidity, the old on-and-on-ness, which showed at least qualities of connexion and persistence.

Coming to translation, the Poet Laureate makes not unsensible remarks. "The translator"—the rare poet translator, he means—"must take his original as a series of experiences to be interpreted in the light of his own language, his own times. He has to melt down "and then to refashion", &c.

Yet in his own translations, in which he adopts, too, a literary mask (for the time being Valéry, for the time being Virgil, just as in his verse he is at various times masked in the manners of Lawrence, Auden, Hardy, Whitman, Meredith, Clough, Fitzgerald, Dylan Thomas), one discovers the same distorting mechanism between the thing and the expressed outcome….

"The Reformed Puritan: The Multiple Masks of the Poet Laureate," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1970; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), November 6, 1970, p. 1296.

I wish I could find exhilaration in The Whispering Roots. The book is full of good will, good intentions, but it never gets off the ground. A certain charm resides in its competence; Mr. Day Lewis can turn his hand to anything, a flair useful to poets laureate. A poet who can write a poem which includes the line, "I turn now to American university practice," cannot be said to lack courage; such a man can be entrusted with the job of composing memorial verses on the death of Winston Churchill or T. S. Eliot. But competence is not enough….

It seems to me that Mr. Day Lewis simply does not command a style of his own. What he does with Yeats's style is therefore inevitable. It is probably imprudent of any poet to write another poem called "All Souls Night," or another poem about Countess Markiewicz, unless he is determined to do better than Yeats in both cases.

Denis Donoghue, "Waiting for the End," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 6, 1971, pp. 27-31.

Cecil Day Lewis …, who began in 1935 to write detective stories under the name of Nicholas Blake, brought to the Golden Age detective story a distinctly literary tone, and also in his early books a Left Wing political attitude. Both of these things were unusual at the time. I can remember still the shock I felt when on the first page of Blake's first book, A Question of Proof (1935), T. S. Eliot's name was mentioned….

Strangeways was a real innovation, a truly literary detective rather than one of those given quotations to spout. The best of his prewar cases, and perhaps Blake's most successful book, is The Beast Must Die (1938), a clever variation of the Ackroyd trick.

Probably the most engaging thing about these early books of Blake's is their bubbling high spirits, the obvious pleasure he got from playing with detection.

Julian Symons, in his Mortal Consequences: A History—From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (copyright © 1972 by Julian Symons; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1972.