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’.

Given the time that Day-Lewis spent on all these literary tasks, how much could he have had left to spend on his true vocation? Not much. Perhaps no poet actually spends much time being a poet, perhaps poetry is like love – for which Forster reckoned two hours a day was a handsome allowance. But there must have been many days when Day-Lewis didn’t have two hours, or even two minutes, to devote to his own poetry. He was aware of this fact, and was defensive about it, as in a letter that he wrote to his son from a Canadian lecture tour in 1954: ‘I suppose I seem to live in “a whirl of social activity”; I wish I had less of it: but we don’t really go to or have so many parties as you might think, and I keep my working days pretty intact: also, I have many years of solitude – as a boy and young man – to draw upon like capital ... ’ He understood well enough that creation is a solitary business. And surely he also knew that that final evasion wouldn’t do: that solitude isn’t something you can bank, to draw upon later when you need it.

To be available for public duty meant, among other things, to be ready to write when a public occasion required a poetical response. Whether the occasion was the death of Dylan Thomas or the 85th birthday of Vaughan Williams, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament or the opening of Queen Elizabeth Hall, Day-Lewis obliged with an appropriate verse. These public poems are not very good: Day-Lewis was not by nature a rhetorician, and his public poetic voice was at best unconvincing, and at worst embarrassingly false (as in his unfortunate poem about Winston Churchill, ‘Who goes home?’). But the very fact that he wrote them must have made his claim to the laureateship seem overwhelmingly strong when the time came. For what is a laureate but a poet available for public duty?

That remark is not intended as a sneer, either at the office or at Day-Lewis’s conduct of it. I don’t see why the Queen shouldn’t have a poet-in-ordinary if she wants one, or why a poet shouldn’t accept the job if it’s offered (though I concede that the opinion of an American is not to be taken seriously in such matters). Day-Lewis’s laureate poems were, like his earlier public poems, undistinguished; nonetheless he was an effective, one might even say a distinguished laureate. He brought to the office something more important than the poems he wrote for it: he brought an image of the poet as decent, dignified and altogether English. His public presence assured the public that literature in England was still a serious and respectable calling – that one might be a poet and yet remain a gentleman. No doubt he would have been surprised, back in his revolutionary youth, to be told that he would grow in time into such an Establishment figure, but he did. And that he did so was, I think, a good thing for English literature: at least one might argue that it retarded the separation of English poetry from its general English audience.

To a sharp eye – to Geoffrey Grigson’s, for instance – the burial of the private Day-Lewis was already in progress in the Thirties, when the avant-garde poet became also Nicholas Blake the detective novelist, and Day-Lewis the Communist joined the selection committee of the Book Society. To Grigson these roles were necessarily in conflict, and Day-Lewis was either very muddle-headed, or very corrupt, or possibly both. Grigson therefore initiated a series of violent attacks in the pages of New Verse: Day-Lewis was ‘a thriller writer on the literary make’, a bad poet whose work was respectable, bourgeois, ordinary and unrevolutionary; he was, said Grigson in a memorable image, ‘the grease in the sink-pipe of letters’. The attacks were coarse and violent, and it is tedious to recount them now, but they did make a point. There was a contradiction between Day-Lewis’s lyric gift, which was certainly respectable and unrevolutionary, and the political posture that he thought history required of him. There was also a contradiction between the romantic ideal of a poet, which Day-Lewis clearly shared with Grigson, and the commercial writing that he did. But how could he not have contradicted himself, how could he not have buried his real gift, given his nature and the time’s?

Day-Lewis’s public life is the story of an increasingly public, increasingly Establishment literary career. Like most such evidently successful careers, it does not make a very exciting life, and one can understand why reviewers of The Buried Day complained that it was ‘uneventful’. It could, of course, have been otherwise, for Day-Lewis’s lifetime certainly offered opportunities for engagement in events. He might, for example, have gone to fight with the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War; other Communist writers did, and lived highly eventful, though mostly very brief, lives. But he didn’t – though he felt guilt about not going. Or he might have volunteered, or at least allowed himself to be drafted, into the 1939-45 war. But there, too, he declined: not only declined, but used every influence, including his mistress’s influence, to stay out of it. He spent the war instead as a civil servant in London, writing pamphlets about other people fighting.

Such failures of courage are not exceptional: many men did what he did. But perhaps his decision not to take chances with his life reflects something in his nature that affected his literary life, too – a willingness to live a safe life removed from the central struggle, to be the public image of a poet rather than the writer of poetry. This is a point rather different from Grigson’s: it’s not that he should have behaved differently, but that he couldn’t; and that inability is a limitation, in the man and in the work.

That story, the story of the buried life and what buried it, is the interesting one, and Sean Day-Lewis tells it with skill and an extraordinary sensitivity. It is more than the story of a poetic gift: it is the story of the private sources and distortions of that gift, in personal unhappiness, in conflicting needs, and in losses and regrets. It begins with a childhood that sounds the classic case of young loneliness and misery: a mother who died when her only child was four years old, a remote, demanding, unloving clergyman father who moved his son from Ireland, where he was born, to London, where he was timid and unhappy among strangers, and who then, when the war came, departed for service as a chaplain, leaving his son with an aunt, and who on returning from the war married a woman as unloving as himself. It was the sort of childhood for which, if you fancy psychological explanations for imaginative gifts, fantasy-making and eventually the formal fantasies of literature are compensations.

And for which marriage is also a kind of compensation, or an escape. Sean Day-Lewis ventures the theory that in his first marriage Day-Lewis ‘in psychological terms married his mother’, and that may be true; in any case, it was an unhappy marriage, though it produced two sons (one the author of this book), and lasted, in a legal sense, for more than twenty years. But from early on there were other women in Day-Lewis’s life, including one who bore him a child, and eventually, after struggles and evasions so protracted that one suffers for everyone concerned, he left his wife and moved in with Rosamund Lehmann, with whom he had a long, intense, and by the sound of it happy affair. Then in the Fifties he left Miss Lehmann, was divorced by his wife, and married the actress Jill Balcon, with whom he started a second family.

So you could say that he abandoned three women. Not out of callousness, one feels – he wasn’t a rake – but simply out of confusion, out of a desire for something that neither marriage nor extra-marriage gave him permanently. His own account of this conflict is in his poem, ‘Ideal Home’:

Switch love, move house – you will soon be
           back where you started,
On the same ground,
With a replica of the old romantic phantom
That will confound
Your need for roots with a craving to be unrooted.

Sean Day-Lewis tends to treat this rooted/unrooted conflict as though it pointed to something unusual in his father’s nature, a unique bump in the psychological profile. But who knows a married man who hasn’t felt it? And the value of the poem is in that fact – that it tells a plain truth about all men.

But what do Day-Lewis’s troubles with women have to do with his poetry? He, at least, thought they had a lot to do with it. Some poems, he told a (female) friend, were ‘a sort of consummation, as when two bodies (not in the legal sense but in the sense of for the first time working perfectly together) reach a point which can never be excelled, only echoed. And then again it is also true that poets do tend to fall in love with a woman (sometimes consciously even) in order to beget a poem upon her; and when that’s done, gradually withdraw.’ I said Day-Lewis wasn’t a rake, but that is certainly the voice of the seducer, not the voice of the poet, speaking. Yet he does seem to have believed that his creative impulse required him to be for ever falling in love, that his muse was always the next woman.

As a theory of poetry this is adolescent and romantic rubbish: still, there is one true point buried in it. Day-Lewis recognised that the source of his best poems was in personal feelings, that he really didn’t have anything to say about the world in general, that he had no philosophy to speak of, and no general ideas, and that when he tried to write as though he had any of those gifts he simply added to the pile that buried the gift that he did have. He seems to have realised this truth most clearly in his last years, and to have engaged in a kind of disinterment of his lyric talent, casting off inappropriate roles to rediscover the life beneath – which by this time was a matter not so much of immediate feelings as of remembered feelings (most obviously in the first half of his last volume of poems, Whispering Roots, but in poems in the preceding volumes too). No doubt this process was begun, or at least accelerated, by the writing of The Buried Day in 1959. But it surely would have happened anyway: Day-Lewis must always have known that he had no genuine poetic source but his own private past.

Put this way, the poetic life seems a sad one – the prime years largely wasted, the private gift choked by a vain public life, in which he stood for poetry while other men wrote it. But isn’t that a romantic, sentimental way to look at a useful ‘English literary life’? Day-Lewis was a serviceable laureate, an entertaining crime writer, a capable translator, a trustworthy committee man. If he was also a minor poet who often wrote inauthentically, against his gift, would he have been a better poet if he had written only poetry? Auden ends his elegy for Louis MacNeice with some lines about poetic careers that, if true, would be too devastating for any poet to read:

     God may reduce you
on Judgment Day
     to tears of shame,
reciting by heart
     the poems you would
have written, had
     your life been good.

Would Day-Lewis have written other, better poems if his life had been better: if it had contained fewer mistresses, fewer Nicholas Blakes, fewer committee meetings, and had been more sternly devoted to Art? I doubt it. Surely poets write the poems that they can write. The same nature that made him a man of letters and kept him safe from even the just wars allowed him to write a lot of poems that will have no life, because they have never had any. But only the crudest of critics will suggest that the bad poems pollute the good ones: poetry doesn’t work that way.

In his early days, Day-Lewis had a confident sense of his future place among English poets. In 1927, he and Auden drew up a list of all the English poets they could remember, in three columns: those they already excelled, those they would excel some day, and those they had little hope of ever equalling; the last column was very short. In the Thirties, as their first books appeared, he recognised that he was not Auden’s equal, but he still believed that he ran a close second: ‘I shall chase him home,’ he wrote to Grigson, ‘you can rely on that.’ But by the end of his life he knew that that was not true, and had never been true, and he doubted, in his gloomiest moments, whether anything that he had written would survive; he had, he confessed, only ‘a B + brain with a B + + talent for writing verse’. There is something profoundly depressing in the thought of a man at his life’s end grading himself that way: still, the judgment seems about right, though I would add that the B + + talent did not always find B + + expression.

And is the uneventful life of a B + worth writing? Surely it is. It is, for one thing, more likely to be representative than the life of an A + will be: Day Lewis’s career tells us more about English literary life in the middle third of this century than Auden’s will, even when it is properly written, and literary historians must be grateful to Sean Day-Lewis for having made his account of that life so full and so exact. But as I said, it is the other life that is really the interesting one, and not because it is representative, but because it isn’t. It demonstrates, with admirable tact, the relations between the private mess that Day-Lewis’s life mostly was, and the poems that came out of it – poems that were still private, but were no longer messy. In that sense, it is ‘an English literary life’ that sometimes, only sometimes, became ‘a poet’s life’. To see how and when and why that happened is to learn something worth knowing about poetry, and perhaps also about life.