C. Day-Lewis: A Life 
by Peter Stanford.
Continuum, 368 pp., £25, May 2007, 978 0 8264 8603 5
Show More
Show More

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’.

The most important thing Day-Lewis did at Oxford was to meet Auden, three years his junior but already behaving like a fully-ordained hierophant. Together they edited Oxford Poetry 1927, and their poetic careers were to be closely linked for the next ten years, as much for the precocity of their success as for their shared commitment to left-wing ideals (Day-Lewis’s first Collected Poems came out from the Hogarth Press when he was 30). Both had spells of prep-school teaching after graduation, and then in 1935 Day-Lewis embarked on the endless round of anxiety and overproduction that is the lot of most freelance writers. Fortunately, he discovered in himself another talent, and under the pen-name of ‘Nicholas Blake’ published a series of commercially successful detective stories, the classic genteel-class literary genre of the interwar period.

At this point, Day-Lewis seemed even more of a whole-hogger for ‘the Revolution’ than Auden and Spender (MacNeice never subscribed to their Soviet enthusiasms), the peak of political commitment being reached in the years between the publication of his long sequence The Magnetic Mountain in 1933 and his editing of a once celebrated volume of essays on socialism and culture, The Mind in Chains, in 1937. The fact that the Hogarth Press published all his early volumes of poetry was a sign of his good connections, and the fact that Leonard Woolf arranged for the release of a limited, more luxurious edition of 100 copies of The Magnetic Mountain, signed by the author, indicates one of the ways in which political idealism and commercial shrewdness could promote each other in the publishing conditions of the time. Though still in his twenties, Day-Lewis could be marketed both as a commodity and as a collectible. According to the Partisan Review, perhaps swayed by partisan piety, The Magnetic Mountain had a claim to be ‘the most important revolutionary poem as yet written by an Englishman’ (the ‘as yet’ hitting the authentic note of 1930s progressive optimism). Other critics were more inclined to describe it as, in Stanford’s summary, ‘something that Auden might have written on an off-day’. There does now seem to be a rather dreary clunkiness about much of this manifesto in verse, apostrophising the ‘victims/Of a run-down machine’:

You shall be leaders when zero hour is signalled,
Wielders of power and welders of a new world

looking forward to

A day when power for all shall radiate
From the sovereign centres.

Throughout the 1930s, Day-Lewis’s work attracted the usual venom from Geoffrey Grigson and the usual unsparing criticism from F.R. Leavis, but his consecration in the eyes of a wider public had come with T.E. Lawrence’s judgment in conversation with Winston Churchill, as reported in the Evening Standard in 1934, that Day-Lewis was the one ‘great man’ in the country – ‘present company excepted’.

By the late 1930s, his radical ardour cooling, Day-Lewis began to tire of being in the spotlight, and in 1938 he ‘noiselessly slipped the painter’ of public life, as he put it, retreating to rural seclusion in a cottage in Devon, just inside the border with Dorset. By this point he had been married to his first wife, Mary, for ten years, had two small children, and was growing sexually restless. An energetic, carefree affair with a neighbour’s wife put a strain on his marriage that it seemed able to withstand, though it was a portent of greater strains to come. The affair, which stirred some of Day-Lewis’s gayest, most lyrical pieces, soon acquired the golden glow of a lost Eden, all the more irrecoverable once Hitler invaded Poland.

Day-Lewis had a good wartime, though not much war. At first, his contribution involved little more than drilling a handful of Dorset farm workers in the rituals of the Home Guard, while otherwise getting on with his writing. From 1941 he spent his weekdays in London, working at the Ministry of Information. ‘Of all the 1930s poets, he had shown the greatest capacity for producing propaganda,’ Stanford neutrally comments, ‘and propaganda was the business of the ministry.’ His main literary task in the opening years of the war was a translation of Virgil’s Georgics, a nostalgic celebration of the rhythms of farming and rural life in the first century BC. In Day-Lewis’s version, this became what Stanford calls ‘a rousing hymn of classless patriotism at a time of national emergency’. (Rebecca West commented more tartly that it was ‘the East Mediterranean edition of the Farmers’ Weekly … two thousand years out of date’.) The translation sold more than 11,000 copies, an index of the general appetite for reading-matter during the war as well as of Day-Lewis’s dexterity in recruiting Virgil to a Home Guard of the mind. He enjoyed similar success when his little collection Poems in Wartime appeared in 1941; indeed, the war years may have been the peak of his critical standing, as attested by the enthusiastic reviews for a Selected Poems, published in the same year, which was one of the first titles in John Lehmann’s ‘New Hogarth Library’ series.

The exceptional circumstances of the war not only contributed to Day-Lewis’s literary success; they provided the enabling conditions for his most significant love affair. The novelist Rosamond Lehmann reviewed Poems in Wartime in the New Statesman: Day-Lewis, she proclaimed, was ‘a writer with a profound and happy experience of love’. Day-Lewis responded to the review by inviting her to dinner, as one would. By this point, Lehmann herself had had considerable experience of both love and its absence, and her experience had been far from happy. She was 40, he 37: their passionate and very public relationship was to last nine years, initially pursued through the falling bombs in a number of London flats, later taking on a more settled domestic rhythm when he spent part of each week at Lehmann’s house in Berkshire, returning no less regularly to his wife and children in Devon. It is always something of a surprise to be reminded how much of the conventional literary round of launches and parties continued in wartime London, and Lehmann and Day-Lewis’s life of snatched nights and appearances together at such gatherings reflected an atmosphere that was both nerve-twangingly on edge and sexually relaxed.

This mixture of heightened emotions seems to have elicited some of his best poems, several of which are to be found in his 1943 volume Word Over All, another commercial success, going through five impressions by 1946. His renunciation of the ‘pylon poetry’ and political sloganeering of his youth was now complete: this was the poet Doing His Bit. For example, ‘The Stand-To’, evoking his time with his little platoon of Home Guardsmen, repudiated ‘Destiny, History’ and similar rhetorical abstractions as ‘the words of the politicians’, and more humbly asks the autumn wind to ‘sing through me for the lives that are worth a song’ – an exercise in mock humility, since he is still taking bardic responsibility upon himself. This sinking of political energy into the common enterprise was caught in perhaps his most quoted quatrain:

It is the logic of our times,
No subject for immortal verse –
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse.

Little actual defending had been called for in the lanes and fields of Dorset in 1940 and 1941, but the lines hit the right note for the time. Stanford suggests that Day-Lewis was here taking his cue from Yeats in ‘On Being Asked for a War Poem’:

I think it better that in times like these
A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right.

But arguably Day-Lewis wasn’t discarding his hierophant’s robes so much as shifting the register of his address; indeed, something similar was, arguably, true of Yeats as well. In times of public clamour, neither poet was naturally given to silence.

War and war’s alarms furnished Day-Lewis with a theme adequate to his high conception of the poet’s place in society. In ‘Ode to Fear’, from the same collection, the sky is filled with ‘a throbbing cello-drone of planes’, that familiar wartime sound,

When Fear puts unexpected questions
And makes the heroic body freeze like a beast surprised.

Such fear may in time serve ‘cleansing’ functions, but meanwhile the scribe goes about his modest business:

Today, I can but record
In truth and patience
This high delirium of nations
And hold to it the reflecting, fragile word.

Day-Lewis’s habitual self-consciousness about the poet’s role finds another voice here. For all its parade of weakness, the poem actually suggests a continuing confidence that ‘the reflecting, fragile word’ will prove adequate when faced with the ‘delirium of nations’.

In the second half of the 1940s, Day-Lewis took on more and more of those roles that successful poets undertake in the hours when they are not writing poetry. Stanford observes that Day-Lewis had ‘refined his position of the 1930s into a broader support for the public role of poetry’. ‘Refined’ rather slides over the evident discontinuities between his pre- and postwar personae, but the concern with the ‘role’ of poetry was indeed a constant. One sign of his standing was the invitation to give the Clark Lectures at Cambridge, published in 1947 as The Poetic Image, one of his several attempts to lay down the law about the lawless nature of poetry. He and Lehmann tried their hand at founding a new literary journal, a fever that comes over so many writers at some point in their careers: Orion folded after four, irregular numbers. In 1949, the BBC commissioned him, for a sum equivalent to a year’s salary, to translate Virgil’s Aeneid. It was broadcast in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain, and published, to considerable acclaim, the following year. This was an important and effective way of maintaining poetry’s high office at a time when the proportion of the reading public that had been classically educated to some level was not negligible and when classics still enjoyed a wider cultural deference. His success in these roles was signalled by the award of a CBE in 1950, and in 1951 by his election as professor of poetry at Oxford, the first lecture of his tenure being broadcast on the Third Programme. In the same year a selection of his work appeared as a volume in the ‘Penguin Poets’ series – at that point the only other living poet to have received that accolade was Eliot.

The end of the 1940s saw the end of his increasingly fractious relationship with Lehmann, as well as, in a gesture of fresh starts and new springs, his divorce from Mary. The immediate stimulus for this unusual decisiveness in matters of the heart was meeting Jill Balcon, 21 years his junior, with whom he fell urgently in love after the briefest acquaintance, and whom he married in 1951. (It is a pity his courage didn’t extend to telling the distraught Lehmann to her face that their relationship was over, rather than resorting to the cowardly medium of a letter.) There were one or two sexual forays still to come – he was, all reports concur, extremely attractive to women, and old habits are hard to lose – but it seems to have been a happy marriage, producing two children, the younger of whom is the actor Daniel Day-Lewis.

The end of the 1940s also saw the end of his best poetry. The speaking engagements and committee memberships that increasingly took up the last two decades of his life may have been, in their way, expressions of what Stanford calls ‘his continuing belief that the poet had a public, civic role’, but from the 1950s onwards the public seemed less disposed to recognise that role, or at least to find him a compelling occupant of it. For his part, he continued to repudiate the fashionable cultivation of difficulty and the deliberate address to a minority audience. As he put it in his Norton Lectures at Harvard in 1964, ‘we are so inured nowadays to accepting poetry as an art for the minority that it is difficult to put ourselves in the minds of the people who knew it as a popular art.’ It was part of both his achievement and his failing that he wrote as though poetry were still a popular art, even though it mostly wasn’t. His practice was informed by a neo-Wordsworthian commitment to simplicity, sincerity, purity, ‘complete truth to feeling’, and by the attempt, as he put it, ‘to discover images and rhythms which convey the elemental states of mind a man shares with all other living men and has in common with his remotest ancestors’.

Day-Lewis’s reputation might have been higher in his final decades, and since his death, had he published less. However, not only was he a professional writer with a living to make, but to the writer’s ingrained habit of turning experience into words was joined a striking (perhaps class-based) confidence that the world was waiting for those words. In the 1960s, Day-Lewis increasingly acted as unofficial deputy to John Masefield, the elderly poet laureate, giving, for instance, the address in Westminster Abbey to mark Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary. When Masefield finally died in 1967, Day-Lewis was appointed to succeed him. Letters of congratulation even included an effusion from his bank manager (‘The whole Midland is rejoicing with you’). Others reflected that the laureateship is more often the kiss of poetic death. Day-Lewis seems to have recognised that much of what he turned out in this capacity was hack work, but his defence was consistent with the conception he had had of his role from the outset: ‘The important thing is to keep the idea of poetry before the public eye.’ One response to this might be to think that he was better at the idea of poetry than at the thing itself; another that it would be more appropriate to aim for the public ear. And in a sense he managed that: his memorial service from St Martin’s-in-the-Fields in October 1972 was broadcast live on BBC radio.

Day-Lewis is presumably doomed to be forever cast as ‘a poet of the 1930s’, but if period labels are needed it seems to me more illuminating to consider him as ‘a poet of the 1940s’. That decade not only saw much of his best work and the high-point of his popularity, but its peculiar circumstances nurtured both a sense of civic responsibility and an appetite for difficult, consoling reading that suited Day-Lewis’s old-fashioned sense of poetry’s rightful presence in society. It was also the decade in which radio enjoyed a more important role in British life than it ever had before or, possibly, has since. Day-Lewis wrote well for radio, though not as well and certainly not as much as MacNeice, who was employed by the BBC for most of the 1940s and 1950s. MacNeice’s judgment (quoted in Jon Stallworthy’s fine biography) that BBC radio was ‘one of the least interfering patrons there have ever been’ seems borne out by Day-Lewis’s experiences, and it is worth remembering how much of this enlightened and imaginative commissioning predated the founding of the Third Programme in 1946 and was continued by the Home Service thereafter.

It is a critical commonplace to diagnose the chief weakness of much 1930s poetry, particularly that of the Auden gang, as arising from its subordination to political ideology, as though it merely provided rhyming programme notes for a performance starring History, Class, Dialectic and similar abstractions. There is something to this charge, but even in Day-Lewis’s case – he is usually singled out as the most doctrinaire and consequently the most poetically flawed – it could only be said of a small proportion of his work, and anyway it isn’t clear that his poetry didn’t gain as well as suffer from its political ambitions if one takes a wider view of the things poetry might try to do. I wonder whether the complaint that some of what he wrote was ‘oratory, not poetry’ (in this case the words are Virginia Woolf’s) isn’t what we should expect from critics, who are, after all, usually acting as prosecuting counsel in the case of Art v. Social Purpose. According to the Aestheticist creed, it is not only better to write one immortal line than to rally the troops, but all attempts at the latter goal are bound to produce merely shallow, drum-banging, formulaic stuff, not the charged intensity of ‘felt experience’. Well maybe, but maybe there is also something to be said for the idea of trying to use verse to rally the troops in the first place: for believing that different types of poetry might perform different types of function, and that there is something admirable in the idea of wanting it to be just as normal to use verse as to use prose in order to address fellow-citizens about matters of shared public interest. In the same period one can see a parallel ambition in the attempts by Eliot and Christopher Fry to write verse drama – not altogether encouraging examples, to be sure, but animated by a similar desire to see poetry as a recognised, familiar medium for communal as well as private experience.

In the 1930s, Day-Lewis and his friends had wanted to write poetry that was modern but not Modernist. As his programmatic commitment to the future softened, sloughing off the association with technology and shiny novelty in general, his distance from Modernism’s formal experimentation became more evident. He acknowledged the element of ‘pastiche Auden’ in his early work, but it became clearer in the 1940s that his real poetic masters were Hardy and, more indirectly, Wordsworth. By the 1950s this could have made for recognition of unobvious continuities with the disciplined mundanity of a younger poet such as Larkin rather than with either the metaphysical disjunctions of post-Eliot Modernists or the cascading syllables of Dylan Thomas’s New Romanticism, but Movement writers such as Larkin were allergic to the whiff of self-importance they detected in poets at ease on public platforms. When Day-Lewis’s final Collected Poems was published in 1954, it met with a muted reception. George Fraser confined his praise to the ‘dexterity’ and the ‘many skilfully absorbed influences’ visible in the work. As Day-Lewis became more and more of a panjandrum (he chaired the Arts Council’s literature panel in the 1960s), younger poets became more dismissive. They are still: Eavan Boland has mocked his ‘cool, dejected, rosewater poems, with their flowery symbols of transience’. That doesn’t seem quite right: yearning, and its bafflement, is far more present than dejection, and there are echoes of Robert Frost in the ways his conversational prosiness rises to its own kind of lyricism. But, poetry and prose taken together, he does now seem very much of his period, standing for a kind of Reithian ideal of poetry that would inform, educate and entertain. Like so much of the literary and intellectual life of the 1940s and 1950s, he was part of an old-fashioned social elite that profited from cultural deference while taking advantage of new ways to reach wider publics. He outlived the days when poets could still hope to be treated as hierophants or unacknowledged legislators, but in his way he tried to embody the ‘public service’ ideal, contributing to the cultural aims of the welfare state by becoming the Virgil of the Third Programme.

Stanford does a decent job of narrating the life, and he resists the elephantiasis that infects so much contemporary literary biography. But the endnotes to the book are a shocking example of a trade publisher’s condescending attitudes to its readers. First, the ‘references’ lack page numbers and are, besides, so scarce and brief that they provide no help in tracing any particular quotation or piece of information. Worse, a large number of these ‘notes’ are not references at all, but minimal identifications of some of the famous names mentioned in passing in the text. For example, in the chapter on Day-Lewis’s schooldays at Sherborne we are told that the boy showed little interest in the countryside, but later ‘he was to grow passionate about Dorset, and especially about Thomas Hardy.’ That, as the attached note will tell you (if you can find it) is ‘Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)’. And that is all it will tell you. Similarly, we are told that the headmaster, Nowell Smith, was ‘a distinguished Wordsworth scholar’. An endnote number attached to the poet’s name has us again turning to the back of the book where, after some rummaging (there are not even any running heads with page numbers to make the hunt easier), we find the note: ‘William Wordsworth (1770-1850), poet laureate from 1843’. It is almost impossible to reconstruct the conception of readers and their needs that can have led to the insertion of these ‘references’. The irritatingness is compounded at moments of emotional drama, such as this early encounter with Jill Balcon: ‘He walked Balcon home past what had once been George Eliot’s house in Chelsea’s Cheyne Walk. They carved their initials in the tree outside. That night they became lovers.’ A superscripted number hovers officiously around the famous name, simply so that we can break off to discover among the endnotes ‘George Eliot (1819-80)’, and nothing more – not that she was a novelist, not even what her real name was. What possible justification can there be for this inane mixture of intrusiveness and uninformativeness? Both Stanford and Day-Lewis deserve better, and so do the rest of us.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences