A Susceptible Man

Ian Sansom

  • Living in Time: The Poetry of C. Day Lewis by Albert Gelpi
    Oxford, 246 pp, £30.00, March 1998, ISBN 0 19 509863 3

Always read the acknowledgments. These preliminary matters often say more about the real, sad, self-deluding and lonely life of the writer and scholar than any number of biographies: the long-suffering husbands and wives; the neglected children; the countless hours spent on research in libraries and archives; the pathetic gratitude to agents and outside research bodies; the sabbatical leave kindly granted; the endless discussions with brilliant and understanding friends or fellow Faculty, who nonetheless bear no responsibility for any errors that remain. And then there are all those others, the unacknowledged, too numerous and too mundane to mention: the Mister Kiplings, the Messrs Cadbury and McVitie, the Jack Daniels, the Sainsburys, the Guinnesses, the Marks and the Spencers, and of course dear old Mister Gordon and his fine distillery. These many named and unnamed of the acknowledgment pages are the foundations on which a book is built: they help to determine its size and shape, its character and its content, and they deserve our attention. When Helen Vendler begins her recent book on Seamus Heaney, for example, ‘I am grateful to Seamus Heaney, first and foremost, for all the invaluable poetry and prose that he has added to the store of literature in English,’ you can be fairly sure that she’s not about to set out on a careless demolition job, and when she then goes on to thank the stock-piling Heaney for personally checking her chronology and compiling the book’s discography, you know for certain that what you are about to witness is a bit of celebratory barn-raising. And quite right too: Vendler teaches at Harvard, and so does Heaney, and you don’t, as the saying goes, shit on your own doorstep.

It is, for this very reason, usually bad luck for a critic to meet an author: not because of the risks of obloquy, but because of the temptation to eulogise. It takes a certain amount of confidence for an author to resist the clamour and attentions of admiring scholars, and a certain amount of courage for the critic to resist the urge to please. Hugh Kenner, an adept in the art of winning friends and influencing people, recalls in his preface to The Invisible Poet: T.S. Eliot (1960) that ‘at my one meeting with Mr Eliot, I offered to complete a book on his literary career without pestering him.’ When Kenner did inevitably pester, Eliot proved himself rather more cautious than Kenner’s other famous friend, the eager and flesh-pressing Ezra Pound, and offered Kenner just three pieces of information: the first was ‘a summary of the contents of the Ur-Waste Land, so far as he could remember them’; the second was ‘a gloss on the word “lot” in “Whispers of Immortality” ’ (‘he said it meant “kind”, not “fate”, and conceded that it perhaps violated the diction of that particular poem’); ‘the third,’ Kenner reveals, ‘had reference to cheese.’ Hard Cheddar, perhaps?

The preliminary matters matter, then, but they are seldom simple; they are more often complex and occasionally bewildering in tone and intent, combining as they do effusive thanks and apologies, clawings, back-scratchings, denials, denunciations, and blank statements of disavowal (for all her acknowledgment of his generous behind the scenes fact-checking, Vendler is at pains to point out that Heaney had not read her manuscript). The American critic Albert Gelpi’s acknowledgments in his new book on C. Day Lewis are typically strange.

Gelpi has made his name writing about the history of 19th and 20th-century American poetry and poetics. For a critic whose most recent publications include an edition of Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose(1993), a book about Day Lewis does not seem to be an obvious next step; it’s as if an established British or Irish scholar who’d spent years carefully tracking and tracing the continuities between Hardy and Larkin and Geoffrey Hill, say, and producing learned monographs on the Movement or on Ted Hughes suddenly took the notion to write a book about Frederic Prokosch (a poet, like Day Lewis, who made most of his money from novels), or Archibald MacLeish (again, like Day Lewis, a career poet and professor).

There are in fact two versions of the story of the genesis of Gelpi’s book. In the first, more sober, account, contained in the acknowledgments to Living in Time – the P, or Priestly source, as it were – Gelpi explains that he first met Day Lewis at Harvard during the academic year 1964-65, when he was a young apprentice academic and Lewis was the visiting Charles Eliot Norton Professor:

the differences in age and culture and experience somehow worked to kindle the regard and friendship we instantly felt for each other and found in each other. I was beginning to study the American poetic tradition, and it was daunting and thrilling that he came to my lectures on American poets whenever he could. I was deeply moved when he told me that if I were ever to write about his poetry, he would be very pleased.

The second account – the J source – can be found in an article titled ‘Reading Day Lewis’, published in 1998 in PN Review. Gelpi’s tone here is rather more focused on the human story, more passionate, and much more full of pathos. In this later essay Gelpi admits, frankly, that he finds the continuing hostility in Britain towards Day Lewis’s poetry ‘hard to comprehend’, and he describes their meeting in Harvard rather differently from his account in the book: ‘We became immediate friends despite the 27 years between our ages; I am in fact one month older than his oldest son Sean’ (in the first text, the P text, Sean is described as ‘Day Lewis’s first child, born the same year as I and only a month later’). Gelpi combines here a straightforward claim to authority based on a personal relationship with a repeated suggestion of filiation (his twice-mentioned one-month advantage over Day Lewis’s son seems really to matter). Also, in the J text Day Lewis’s attendance at the young Gelpi’s lectures is no longer merely ‘daunting’ and vaguely ‘thrilling’, but vivid and inspirational, with the visiting Professor’s praeternatural features sharply remembered and delineated. ‘I know that the challenge of his presence – his noble, seamed face alight with response off on the far right of the student audience – made my lectures more focused and concentrated.’ The account of the crucial act of anointing is also handled in a different way. ‘His almost defensive modesty about his own achievement masked his pain about the neglect it suffered in Britain,’ Gelpi speculates, ‘and to my humbled astonishment he invited me to write about his poetry if I ever felt so inclined.’ Gelpi goes on, ‘I was deeply honoured by his trust, but I felt unable to assume the responsibility right away.’ In the P text Day Lewis merely suggests that if Gelpi should choose to write about him, he would be pleased; in the J text Day Lewis goes so far as to offer an invitation. In combination, these two accounts make it clear that Gelpi believes his book has been written not merely at his own volition but in obedience to Day Lewis’s stated wishes. Living in Time is not, then, merely a book of literary criticism: it is a discharging of a responsibility.

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