Lewis Critical Essays


(Poetry Criticism)

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."