Hierophants

Stefan Collini

  • C. Day-Lewis: A Life by Peter Stanford
    Continuum, 368 pp, £25.00, May 2007, ISBN 978 0 8264 8603 5

What are poets good for? Are all attempts to speak of ‘the function of poetry’, with that reductive definite article, doomed to pompous failure? In response to these questions, the sentence which precedes Shelley’s over-quoted dictum that ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ is rarely cited, and one can see why. ‘Poets,’ he writes, ‘are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves.’ It’s a daunting job description. But although it may not have been common in the past century or so for poets to speak of themselves as ‘hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration’, the idea of a special bardic role didn’t disappear in the post-Romantic generations. It was still present, in suitably modern dress, in the 1930s, particularly in the actions and pronouncements of the poets of the ‘Auden generation’, who did indeed see themselves as ‘the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present’. Their writing assumed that there was a large public which expected poets, above all others, to take the pulse of the age. The 1930s, as Chris Baldick observed in his excellent recent volume in the Oxford English Literary History, 1910-40: The Modern Movement, were ‘the last years in which that assumption was widely shared’.

Quite how widely is hard to say, of course, just as it would be rash to assume that it has altogether died out even now. But it’s true that a small group of poets do dominate popular conceptions of ‘the Thirties’ as a literary period, above all the four roped together in Roy Campbell’s spiteful caricature ‘MacSpaunday’ (MacNeice, Spender, Auden and Day-Lewis), a composite creature marked by its blend of glib Marxism, shameless self-advertising and large quantities of indifferent verse. As the popular label for the period suggests, Auden was from the start the dominating presence, and poetically he increasingly came to be seen as being in a class of his own. MacNeice was, in truth, always an awkward recruit to this team, both poetically and politically, and he has enjoyed a revived standing in his own right in recent decades thanks to the attention of a later generation of Ulster-born poets and critics. Getting attention had rarely been Spender’s problem, but even before his death in 1995, column inches had long ceased to be matched by critical esteem. Still, all three of these poets have in recent years been the subject of very full critical biographies, exhumations that have helped rescue their individuality from the homogenising group identity.

In the 1930s, that identity seemed to be incarnated in its purest form in Cecil Day-Lewis (as an author, he used only his initial, and for a while he experimented, driven by self-consciousness about class, with omitting the hyphen). Of the four, it was Day-Lewis who came closest to fulfilling the ancient bardic role of recording in verse the major collective experiences of his tribe. This may, in turn, have contributed to his having suffered the most dramatic decline in poetic reputation among the quartet (Spender runs him close here); the fact that no full-scale biography of him had been attempted in the three decades following his death in 1972 also meant he was less likely than his contemporaries to be seen in his full complexity and thereby reassessed. Peter Stanford, prompted and supported by Day-Lewis’s widow, the actress Jill Balcon, has now undertaken the work of recovery, and he makes clear that he believes this biography should provide the occasion for a major reassessment of his subject’s standing as a poet.

Having just read a lot of the poetry, I have to say that I find it hard to imagine Day-Lewis’s reputation being swept to new heights by a surge of critical acclaim. From this distance, his career as a poet seems of greater interest than the poetry itself, providing a revealing illustration of several of the major features of the sociology of literary life in mid-20th-century Britain: the smallness and relative social homogeneity of the dominant literary circles in the 1930s; the peculiar circumstances of the book-starved, reading-hungry 1940s; the importance of radio as a patron of new writing in the 1940s and 1950s; and, from beginning to end, the partly successful attempts to keep alive a traditional idea of the cultural centrality of poetry and the public role of the poet.

There is, of course, nothing novel in noting that ‘the Auden gang’ (in Scrutiny’s hostile idiom) all came from families which, while neither rich nor titled, were well established in the ranks of the genteel professional class. Both of Auden’s grandfathers were clergymen and his father a doctor, eventually a medical professor; MacNeice’s father was a clergyman, ending up as a Church of Ireland bishop; Spender’s father was a well-known and well-connected Liberal journalist and man of letters. Day-Lewis’s father was also a clergyman: his promising ecclesiastical career was initially blighted by the death of his first wife when his son was only four, but eventually he was appointed to a living in Edwinstowe in Nottinghamshire and later married a comparatively wealthy woman. Cecil Day-Lewis grew up, therefore, as a ‘gentleman’ in a society in which that was still an instantly recognisable, and hugely consequential, social identity; even when he was struggling to live on his clerical stipend at the beginning of the 1920s, his father maintained ‘the household staff of a gardener and two maids that he felt a man in his position required’. For his son, public school, at Sherborne, was followed by four years reading, or more often not reading, classics at Oxford from 1923 to 1927. Friendships formed at Oxford in the 1920s seem so pervasive in the literary life of interwar Britain that we may be in danger of forgetting how small the actual numbers were: Day-Lewis was one of just over a thousand undergraduates coming up to Oxford that year, at a time when the total student population in the country was still well under fifty thousand. The social confidence derived from belonging to this tiny gentlemanly elite was extremely important in sustaining the personally not very confident young Day-Lewis as he took his first steps towards his chosen career of being ‘a poet’.

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