Cecil Day Lewis Day Lewis, C(ecil) (Vol. 10) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 history. Their ideal past, unlike Eliot's, was not the tradition as embodied in the venerable institutions—of Church, Crown, literature—but a time that, figuratively at least, antedates history and its time-haunted systems. They sought a time of some pastoral ideal, in which man's elementary relations to others and to nature were realized in coherent communities. Thus the Marxist future, with its ideal of a retrieved unity, became for them a kind of pastoral vision—the past recoverable in the future: Their occasional return to archaic form (the ballad and its recall of the oral tradition; Anglo-Saxon patterns) suggests the essentially counterrevolutionary thrust of a poetry that seeks to transcend the history of progress and its progressive dualisms. (p. 21)

In the Preface to Oxford Poetry, 1927, written in collaboration with Auden, and then in Transitional Poem, some of which had appeared in the earlier anthology, Day Lewis first revealed the analytical spirit which later manifested itself in dialectical poetics. Nature, in these poems, lost her magic and became the self's nonhuman antithesis but remained the immediate ground of being. The perennial philosophical question of mind's relation to matter was easily extended into that of the poet's relation to society. The departure from his adolescent Georgian world was socially analogous to the metaphysical death of God; all coherence disappeared with it, leaving mind rootless, a nothingness, disembodied. Thus, the divided self….

It is indicative that his first major poem emerged from his investigations of what role the poet might, and must, play in the modern world; for Day Lewis' immediate heritage from the past was an image of disorder. The question was whether the poet could, or must, manage a new synthesis—or build a new "system" out of the fragments of old ones—since synthesis, rather than analysis, was the poet's traditional function. The new synthesis, whatever else it might be, must incorporate the old order, and hence be true to tradition and its language. Or better, the deconstruction of an old system can only be made in the language of that system, since the new world and its language do not exist. The poet like the synthetic philosopher is dedicated to building his new world out of the fragments of the old one. In this sense alone could the "tetragonal/Pure symmetry of brain" … be a manifestation not of the private will but of the "collective consciousness," and the poet be both the agent and the instrument of the dialectical will of history. (p. 27)

In The Buried Day, Day Lewis has remarked how Lawrence "got mixed into my Marxism" because each indicted a "system" (capitalism) which prevented the "full flowering of individual personality" and hence "affected the relationship between man and woman, poisoning it with false idealism that encouraged only the self-conscious and cerebral sides of our nature."… The impact of economic turbulence on individual relationships was the subject of Day Lewis' three legitimate novels written in the mid-1930's, though in them he could follow neither the strict Marxian nor the rigid Lawrencean line; and the blurring of the two only reflected the hopeless mixture of two irreconcilable philosophies. The full flowering of the individual personality implied for Day Lewis the submission of the private will to the wholeness of the love relationship and thus an escape from the "negative inversion" of the will. (p. 28)

Auden's intellectualism had its ambiguous impact on Day Lewis' style. Auden's poetry moves from idea to reality—or it moves from an experience that is largely intellectual to a contemplation of ideas which admits their rich and often comic impingements upon life. Life renders the idea problematic, throwing it into comic relief. For Auden language is a human mean, and logos an illusion. Day Lewis' natural mode was lyrical; his primary thematic concerns are with the harmony of the emotional life. His attempt in Transitional Poem not only to impose the "tetragonal / Pure symmetry of brain" on modern chaos but to contemplate the implications of that urgent necessity (in a poem presumably both analytic and synthetic) had stylistic consequences that set his art in conflict with his sensibility. His development in the 1930's and early 1940's can be said, in effect, to have altered the ratio of idea to experience in his poetry but not to have changed his basic theme: the divided self, in which emotion and reason are at odds. Even as he moved more and more toward a public and a committed poetry, he was moved, as he later acknowledged, not by intellectual but by emotional convictions. (pp. 29-30)

In contrast to Auden, the distracting quality of Day Lewis' work throughout the 1930's is its schizophrenic dedication now to social change, now to emotional conservatism, which manifests itself in poems like From Feathers to Iron in a technological language used to evoke basic emotional responses to change and death….

His search for a myth or a "system" by which to order experience and to make history coherent was, as it developed, his way of escaping from the labyrinth of his own internal conflict—of turning his inner life outward into the social sphere. His was an attempt to escape the romantic will, to transcend the self in impersonality; but he did so by asserting that man's only method of self-transcendence lay in creation—begetting the children, new societies, or poems—and thereby in sacrificing the private self to the future of community and order. (p. 30)

The revolutionary poets of the 1930's … found the kind of philosophical and meditative paralysis that afflicted their great predecessors, Yeats and Eliot, impossible. Having to take sides, they had to assume the role of actor, both in history and against history. Even in surrendering the individual self to the revolutionary will and process, they participated as a force in history. And their radical poems, especially Day Lewis' apparently political poems, are really about that role: the paradox of creating that which subsumes the creator. The lack of focus in those poems—their dependence on traditional forms or "moulds," yet their impatient search for a modern language; their often artless attempt to employ deeply personal experience as a metaphor or archetype for prescribed social changes, as in the incessant journeys—is in effect a blurring of the poet's role. They are poems intent on projecting the vision of a future, but their primary function is the deconstruction of a moribund present.

The real subject of these poems is themselves—the poet taking a double look at his role as at once the maker and the victim of history. The struggle toward impersonality—which manifests itself technically in a thoroughly metaphorical poetry wherein all analogies are horizontal and thrust themselves toward an ever receding future—only serves to call attention to the poet's self-transcending act in assuming his role. When he sacrifices his individual self to the role of poet and also to the inspirational force which not only preserves the immutable forms of the past but provokes changes of heart, he becomes more than a person. He becomes a part of the human will for rebirth, incarnating itself in the vision of a new society. But it is a society he can never realize actually, except that he possesses it in his own dream of self-transcendence manifest most intensely in the conditions of love. (pp. 34-5)

To celebrate the creative self is to celebrate the superhuman; and, as Day Lewis would claim in his later books of criticism, long after the need to reconcile his poetics with Marxism and revolution had passed, every poem strives to confirm man's superhumanity. The poem, that is, is a reaching toward wholeness; hence it reaches beyond the individual to the "communal experience."…

After 1938, Day Lewis' poetry seems to become … more his own: it is less ambitious, more introspective, inevitably less topical, and more nostalgic. But the old preoccupations remain; indeed, their implications are even more apparent. Day Lewis' search in the 1930's for a tradition and a language—a "system" which preceded the self and confirmed it—was destined to fail because it was based on historical nostalgia. The collapse of the last ultimate "system" forced him to revaluate the tradition within which the poet works. And what he discovered was that tradition is the "illusion" of wholeness the poet holds to as he lives in the present and points himself toward the future. Tradition is a myth or totalization that attempts to answer man's desire; thus, poetry would become his myth. (pp. 36-7)

As he has failed to be an original poet (he was that, perhaps, only for a brief time), he has found the true necessity of his vocation: poetry is a spiritual exercise in self-renewal and in self-transcendence, the method whereby the individual self survives in a world from which all systems had defected and only love was cohesive. In the illusory wholeness of the poem man possesses himself as timeless, at "home," and thus located in the interstices rather than the flow of history. (p. 37)

Dualism (the divided self) remained his theme. It translates itself into a variety of schisms, which provide Day Lewis with his own creative dialectic: the discontinuity of past and present, which is manifest in the alienation of the present generation; the schism of language, reflected everywhere in its connotative and denotative functions; the divided self, whose unconscious is at war with its conscious; the self's sense of its fall from wholeness into desire which was both creative and destructive. (pp. 37-8)

Day Lewis may serve us today as a relevant example of the poet-in-history as opposed to the poet-on-Parnassus. He is one of the few instances we have of an artist whose work was catalyzed by ideology into being better than it might otherwise have been. But, if this is the case, it is so only because that ideology spoke emphatically to emotional truths he already held and enforced them as historically objective…. Today...

(The entire section is 4763 words.)

Samuel Hynes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 1963 words.)

Samuel Hynes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3378 words.)