Throughout his career, in his writings as well as in his personal life, Cecil Day Lewis revealed himself only selectively and even then only reluctantly. In part, this stemmed from a conviction he shared with W. H. Auden, his fellow student at the University of Oxford, that a poet’s voice should be universal and disembodied from any persona. Day Lewis shared Auden’s righteous indignation when their colleague Stephen Spender published his autobiography World Within World (1951) to popular acclaim. Part of Day Lewis’ reticence, however, also must have arisen from an awareness that his fame, and indeed his notoriety as well, came from involvements other than the composing of verse. It was as Nicholas Blake that Day Lewis wrote the detective novels that freed him from prep school teaching after 1935 and allowed him to become a full-time writer. His own autobiography, The Buried Day (1960), is a rejoinder to Spender, both in the wordplay of its title and in the similarity of its purpose: the search for the hidden self.
Even so, the autobiographies of both Day Lewis and Spender obscure much more than they reveal. Day Lewis, for example, says next to nothing about the failure of his idyllically described marriage to Mary King and nothing at all of his second, to Jill Balcon, who edited (without credit on the title page) this complete collection of poems. Day Lewis is similarly chary about the reasons for his estrangement from his father, an Anglican curate. Indeed, Day Lewis says nothing in The Buried Day of events between 1945 and 1960, the year of the book’s publication. In this respect as well, its title proves appropriate.
One can infer that Day Lewis’ proclaimed agnosticism and his membership in the Communist Party of Great Britain did not draw his father closer to him. Day Lewis includes these facts in The Buried Day, and though he does not see them as such, they clearly were reasons for his departure from teaching and important motives for his verse from 1931 through at least 1943. Like many intellectuals who reached their maturity in the 1930’s, Day Lewis was drawn to Communism for essentially altruistic reasons; nevertheless, the Marxist line of From Feathers to Iron (1931), The Magnetic Mountain (1933), A Time to Dance and Other Poems (1935), and Noah and the Waters (1936) gashes across the development of a distinctive poetic voice. Overtures to Death and Other Poems (1938) anticipates World War II, and once the war begins, Day Lewis finds himself with precious little in his poetic corpus between his Oxford juvenilia Beechen Vigil and Other Poems (1925) and Country Comets (1928), both of which are classically inspired collections recalling Theocritus, Vergil, Horace, and Catullus, and his dreary homage to Marxist ideology. This is the essential tragedy of Day Lewis as a poet, that the admittedly derivative but bright promise of Beechen Vigil and Country Comets should be effaced by any ideology.
It is tempting to infer that Day Lewis desired this effacement. Just as he made his reputation among general readers by writing detective novels under one of his mother’s family names, he became known to classicists not through scholarly publications but through his masterful translation of Vergil’s Georgics, which he began at the onset of World War II in 1939. Vergil’s respect for the life of the farmer and the dignity of manual work held special meaning for this idealist intellectual who had little firsthand experience of either beyond clearing the garden of a neglected estate he had just purchased at Mumsbury, Devon. After the war, Day Lewis’ reputation as a translator would grow with his verse editions of Vergil’s Aeneid (1952), the Roman national epic that notably acknowledges the futility of war as much as it does the desirability of patriotism, and Vergil’s Eclogues (1962), a collection of ten pastorals modeled on Theocritus but with decidedly Roman settings and motifs.
Here then, in essence, is the real Day Lewis: a gifted poet of Anglo-Irish stock who hated his first name and never used it; who dropped the hyphen in his last name because it appeared too aristocratic, yet continued to call himself Day Lewis; who made his living under a pseudonym drawn from his mother’s name; who became known in the academic world as a translator rather than as an original poet; who became a commun- ist out of personal conviction, but to the detriment of his own development as a poet; and who accepted both the chair of poetry at Oxford and the position of poet laureate despite the demands that both of these honors made on his independence as a poet.
Twelve years before his death, while writing his...
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