Cecil Day Lewis began writing poetry at Oxford along with his literary friends, W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Louis MacNeice, but his early work shows little resemblance to that of his contemporaries. His first well-known work, TRANSITIONAL POEM, was a long, Whitmanesque, searching work containing different styles and verse forms and filled with classical allusions. Although a few of its sections satirized contemporary life, it was generally diffuse and had little in common with the early sharp, ironic Auden or the early lyric MacNeice. It was followed by another long poem, FROM FEATHERS TO IRON. More carefully controlled and more somber in tone, this work displayed a shrewd observation of contemporary English life. In it, Day Lewis criticized the flat, industrial suburb and contrasted the hardness of the iron life of most men in modern society. The poet also praised the natural process of birth, pitting the idea of creation and the child against the overwhelming industrialism of the age. He felt that there was, however, some limited amount of space left for the natural and spiritual. In this early poem several characteristics of Day Lewis’ work are evident: his contemporary references and language and the loose, conversational quality of his style.
Day Lewis’ poetry became more like that of his contemporaries, at least in theme, with his next long poem, THE MAGNETIC MOUNTAIN. Here he attacks the complacent person who ignores social issues, the fool who does not see them, and the escapist who purposely avoids them. The poem satirizes the old English, public-school tradition, the tradition which assumes that invariable guides for conduct exist, formulas for meeting every problem of society. Day Lewis pleads for all who would reform society, who would fashion a world based on the heart of man, to join him in his journey to the “Magnetic Mountain.” The mountain symbolizes both the heart or faith of man and the enduring power or iron in his character, for iron is a magnetic and compelling substance. In his attack on the English colonizing and commercial past, Day Lewis calls for social action, for a “communal sense” in order that man may realize his full potentiality. His stinging reproach to the gray, gritty present and his great faith in the possibility of a new social order, as well as the qualities revealed in his earlier writing, are in evidence throughout this work. In this rhetorical declaration of faith, Day Lewis’ writing is loose and allusive, with none of the hard, cryptic quality of Auden’s work. Yet the looseness of Day Lewis’ structure is frequently, as in the above passage, balanced by unexpected, musical alliteration.
Day Lewis’ faith in the new social order began to wane in his next volume, A TIME TO DANCE AND OTHER POEMS, a volume including a number of shorter lyrics. Although his allegiances were still just as strong to the new social order, he began to demonstrate an awareness of some of the difficulties of bringing about a reformation....
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