Lewis Essay - Critical Essays



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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works


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

The Friendly Tree (novel) 1936

Starting Point (novel) 1937

Child of Misfortune (novel) 1939

Malice in Wonderland [as Nicholas Blake] (novel) 1940; also published as Summer Camp Mystery, 1940

The Case of the Abominable Snowman [as Nicholas Blake] (novel) 1941; also published as Corpse in the Snowman 1941

Minute for Murder [as Nicholas Blake] (novel) 1947

The Poetic Image (criticism) 1947

The Poet's Task (lectures) 1951

A Tangled Web [as Nicholas Blake] (novel) 1956; also published as Death and Daisy Bland, 1960

The Buried Day (autobiography) 1960

The Deadly Joker [as Nicholas Blake] (novel) 1963

The Lyric Impulse (criticism) 1965

A Need for Poetry? (lectures) 1968

The Private Wound [as Nicholas Blake] (novel) 1968

On Translating Poetry (treatise) 1970


David Daiches (essay date 1940)

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...

(The entire section is 5589 words.)

Francis Scarfe (essay date 1942)

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...

(The entire section is 2453 words.)

Raymond Tschumi (essay date 1951)

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.]

Transitional Poem

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...

(The entire section is 12814 words.)

L. A. G. Strong (essay date 1953)

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...

(The entire section is 1597 words.)

Thomas Blackburn (essay date 1961)

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...

(The entire section is 1049 words.)

D. E. S. Maxwell (essay date 1969)

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,...

(The entire section is 2995 words.)

Further Reading


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.,...

(The entire section is 295 words.)