Poet-in-Ordinary

Samuel Hynes

  • C. Day-Lewis: An English Literary Life by Sean Day-Lewis
    Weidenfeld, 333 pp, £12.50, March 1980, ISBN 0 297 77745 9

One doesn’t ordinarily expect a son to be a trustworthy recorder of his father’s life: if he isn’t paying off the old gentleman for remembered slights, like Shakespeare’s Edmund, he’ll be praising him for unremembered virtues, like Hamlet. So the first thing to be said about Sean Day-Lewis’s biography of his father is that he is neither an Edmund nor a Hamlet. He has written a calm and generous book, free of either rancour or special pleading, a book that carries a convincing sense of objectivity.

The book does two things that a good biography should do: it gives a shape to its subject’s life; but it also offers enough detail so that the reader may, if he wishes, construct a different, alternative shape. Day-Lewis senior seems to have thought a good deal about the shape of his own life, and in his writings suggested two possible patterns. Looking back over his work in 1951, in the preface to the Penguin selection of his poems, he wrote that ‘there runs through it all an unbroken thread, the search for personal identity, the poet’s relentless compulsion to know himself’. Sean Day-Lewis takes up this theme in his preface, and reverts to it from time to time in the course of his book: but not, I think, very usefully. The trouble with this notion is that it doesn’t distinguish his father’s life from anyone else’s. There may have been a time when The Search for Identity seemed a profound idea, but it has become what I think it always really was – a psychological cliche, no more than a fancy synonym for ordinary human confusions. Certainly Day-Lewis had his share of those during his life, but they don’t compose a significant pattern.

A different shape is suggested by another phrase from Day-Lewis’s writings. In the preface to his Collected Poems 1954 he expressed surprise at hearing in his poems ‘a buried self speaking, now and then, with such urgency’. And he liked that image so well that he later titled his autobiography, in a regrettable pun, The Buried Day. This implied division of the poet’s life into a surface self and a buried self is the essential shape of the son’s book, and it seems to me the right view of the father’s case. Day-Lewis’s private self emerges clearly – a shy and insecure poet with a conservative lyrical gift; the public self wears a series of masks according to the time – the Communist intellectual, the wartime civil servant, the Establishment man of letters, and eventually the Poet Laureate. As the public self grows and flourishes, it buries the private one; though the buried self, like little Hugh of Lincoln, manages to sing on, now and then, from under the dust-heap of publicity.

Sean Day-Lewis’s subtitle, ‘An English Literary Life’, refers to only one of these selves, the public one. For that self it is precisely accurate: for it was a literary life that his father lived rather than a poet’s life. In the more than forty years between his first published poem and his death, Day-Lewis turned his hand to many literary tasks: he wrote 20 Nicholas Blake crime novels, three not very good ‘serious’ novels, and two boys’ adventure stories (one of which sold a quarter of a million copies): he translated Virgil (his Aeneid sold 400,000 copies in the United States alone): he gave lectures and poetry recitals; he read, sang, and even acted on the BBC; he was a publisher’s reader, much admired by his colleagues for his skill in writing blurbs. From 1949 he was also increasingly a literary committee-man, serving on the Arts Council, helping to distribute grants, and defending Council decisions against criticisms. He had become, as his son puts it, ‘available for public duty’.

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