A Susceptible Man
- 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.
Having waited nearly thirty years to assume and discharge this responsibility, Gelpi takes the task extremely seriously: Day Lewis’s poetry may have ‘fallen from notice or discussion’, but Gelpi is confident that his reassessment of his work, ‘will confirm his place as one of the major British poets of this century’. From the outset, readers of the book are left in little doubt that they are privileged to be witnessing a redemption, a reversal of Day Lewis’s unfortunate fall, with Gelpi casting himself in the role of saviour. Living in Time in fact resembles nothing so much as a spiritual biography, with Gelpi retelling the story of Day Lewis’s life and work as one long frustrated search for wisdom, from which others may seek to learn (indeed, the book ends with the imperative, ‘READ HIM’, which is Gelpi quoting Pound on Eliot, and echoing the voice of God in Saint Augustine: Tolle lege, tolle lege). He describes Day Lewis’s quest as ‘the never-satisfied need of the “Churchy agnostic” ... to reach bedrock, to press toward realising (in the double sense of comprehending and fulfilling) human limits and human possibilities.’ Day Lewis, according to Gelpi, plumbs great depths.
Despite its uniquely complicated motives and its unusually frank statements of intent, living in Time is in fact the logical outcome of Gelpi’s methods and beliefs, already demonstrated and outlined in his two important books on the American poetic tradition, The Tenth Muse (1975) and A Coherent Splendour (1987). In the introduction to A Coherent Splendour, his history and interpretation of what he calls ‘The American Poetic Renaissance, 1910-50’, Gelpi claimed that
I have no naive illusions about the psychological and moral superiority of poets, but their power of articulation invests poetry with a special psychological and moral function: psychological in that it brings us to fuller, deeper consciousness of ourselves and our private and social lives, moral because that comprehension can then inform the discriminations and choices by which we sustain and determine our lives, individually and collectively.
In his preface to The Tenth Muse (1975), his book about ‘The Psyche of the American Poet’, Gelpi allows poetry not merely a psychological and moral function but a political function also: ‘For Americans, too, the study of our poetry remains crucial, as we move from a youthful period of exuberant, often ruthless (we thought), endless expansion into the disturbing self-doubts of the present time, when we must search ourselves if we are to mature, even survive, as a people.’ Morally, psychologically and politically nourishing: aside from stating outright that poems can actually save you, it’s difficult to imagine a critic holding poetry in any higher esteem. In Living in Time Day Lewis becomes the humble English embodiment of this great sustaining tradition:
Living within the bounded flux of time required a quiet heroism, which refused a solipsistic and incapacitating retreat into reverie for the lost or unattainable, and instead focused whatever could be reclaimed from memory of the past on the lifetime of the moment, wherein on certain happy occasions we lose and find ourselves in fleeting, transfiguring oneness with the frail existences we love.
Whatever the truth or otherwise of his grand claims about the power of poetry, Gelpi is correct in at least one of his foundational beliefs about the poetry of C. Day Lewis: it has, up until now, had a pretty rough ride from the critics. Indeed one sometimes wonders how Day Lewis managed to keep at it for so long. The reviews of his later work in particular were dismissive and occasionally brutal: The Gate (1962), according to one critic, was full of ‘bland sermonising’; of the collection The Whispering Roots(1970), wrote another, ‘the emotional pressure is remarkably low.’ In An Italian Visit (1953), ‘there are absolutely no surprises beyond those of achievement in a familiar idiom.’ Poems: 1943-47 (1948) shows that ‘he has little gift for descriptive writing’ and ‘his imagery is rather disappointing.’ The Room (1965) ‘reveals little but a habit of composition’. He may have been, according to A. Alvarez, ‘a professional patrician’, but he was also, according to Martin Dodsworth, guilty of ‘artistic parasitism’. In his capacity as Poet Laureate, according to Julian Symons, even ‘the task of producing semiofficial occasional poems that were also of poetic interest defeated him.’ The Times obituary summed him up in a phrase more appropriate for lamenting the death of a loyal and energetic dog than for the loss of the nation’s Poet Laureate: ‘dedicated and copious’. Even Charles Causley’s poem in memoriam, ‘A Momentary Death’, comes to praise, and buries:
For fifty years, across the changing bay
He sailed his patient, scribbled boats away
From a strong tower of breath and country clay.
The poet wrote until his dying day.
The final nail in the coffin came from Stephen Spender, Day Lewis’s old friend and longest surviving hydra head of Roy Campbell’s monstrous ‘MacSpaunday’, who admitted, writing in 1992 at the time of the long-awaited publication of Day Lewis’s Complete Poems, that while he admired the poet’s persistence, he felt on occasion that Day Lewis seemed ‘to be writing more for the beautiful speaking voice than out of the inward voice, the hidden persona which is the touchstone of poetry’.
This is all rather dispiriting, and Day Lewis did indeed become dispirited. In a passage that might make even the hardest-hearted of critics think twice before loading their ink with ire, Day Lewis’s second wife Jill Balcon claims of Geoffrey Grigson’s savaging of The Whispering Roots that ‘it was the last piece that Cecil ever read about his work before he died. It was a cruel blow to one who was always magnanimous, and had spent years of his life helping other writers.’ As Gelpi rightly points out, Day Lewis did always have his defenders. Early on, Michael Roberts claimed that From Feathers to Iron (1931) was ‘a landmark, in the sense in which Leaves of Grass, A Shropshire Lad, Des Imagistes and The Waste Land were landmarks’. And on the occasion of his death, Kingsley Amis declared that Day Lewis, ‘less clever than Auden, less ebullient than MacNeice ... may well turn out to be more durably satisfying than either’. This was, perhaps, just coffin-smoothing on Amis’s part, an expression of hope rather than expectation: Gelpi, however, attempts to make it so.
He discerns in Day Lewis’s work three permanent concerns – ‘politics, eros and thanatos’ – whose relative importance corresponded roughly to the duration of his relationships with three different women: his first wife, Mary King, whom Day Lewis married in 1928 (politics); his lover, Rosamond Lehmann, with whom he began an affair in 1941 (eros); and his second wife, Jill Balcon, who he married in 1951, six days after divorcing Mary (thanatos). It is undoubtedly a beautiful theory; so is Gelpi’s vision of the three women in question: Mary King is ‘lovely’, Lehmann is ‘ravishing, Mona Lisa-like’, and Jill Balcon possessed of a ‘dark-haired and luminous beauty’; all seem to be offered as evidence of Day Lewis’s continuing and consistent good taste. Occasionally Gelpi’s schema strays into the realms of fiction, ornamentation and myth-making: describing Day Lewis’s meeting with Rosamond Lehmann during the Blitz, he writes of ‘the unanticipated renewal of their acquaintance under the rain of enemy bombs’; Lehmann herself is described as ‘a glamorous and shimmering figure in the literary and social scene’ (a phrase available only to someone who believes in the existence of such evanescent ‘scenes’); elsewhere he muses that ‘because the constellation of Mars and Venus presided over his life and his world in the early Forties, the war poems are surrounded by and intermingled with poems recounting the poet’s re-encounter with eros’. On the whole, though, his arguments in support of his theories are more clean-cut and compelling, though not nearly as compelling as his often vigorous and impassioned explications of Day Lewis’s poems.
For whatever else he claims to be doing, Gelpi successfully and strenuously does with Day Lewis what others have been doing with Auden and MacNeice for years: he engages him in close reading. His approach is free of obscurantism and skilfully combines biographical information with commentary on themes, sources, rhymes, syntax, metrical structure and metaphors. But, in spite of his entreaties and assiduities, the poems evade and defeat Gelpi. Having first been seduced by them (on page 691 of the Collected Poems there lies, most seductive of all, the warbling and blowsy ‘A Marriage Song’, Day Lewis’s timely epithalamium for Gelpi and his wife Barbara, first published in The Whispering Roots), he energetically strips them down, but in the end asks just too much of them. For all his attentions and fondnesses, and for all that Day Lewis’s was undoubtedly an extraordinary and passionate life, Gelpi cannot convince us that he is one of the 20th century’s great poets, because he did not write any of the 20th century’s great poems. In his unreasonable demands, Gelpi takes for granted several of Day Lewis’s more commonplace virtues, overlooking his flaws.
Writing about Day Lewis’s work of the Thirties, Gelpi says several times that he was a more ‘serious’ political poet than Auden or Spender or MacNeice because he took various left-wing doctrines of the day more seriously. Gelpi seems to admire extremism: he writes of Day Lewis in his PN Review essay that ‘it is to his credit that instead of shilly-shallying in bourgeois-liberal ambivalences, he set himself, more resolutely than Auden or Spender, to test out the role of the left-wing poet with all the will and resources at his command.’ If by shilly-shallying Gelpi means circumspection and the exercise of judgment, and if by testing out the role of the left-wing poet he means the determined courting of half-truths and the cultivation of blind spots, then he’s clearly correct. If, on the other hand, one believes that falsehood is the necessary outcome of ideology, then Day Lewis’s poetry written under the sway of ideology – The Magnetic Mountain (1933), for instance, and Noah and the Waters (1936) – is necessarily false. In any case the poems are palpable failures, even as propaganda. Even at its most excitedly committed, Day Lewis’s poetry cannot escape from its characteristic – and admirable – quality of reverie. In Transitional Poem (1929), for example, the book which he later claimed ‘is the first of mine that I can own to without embarrassment’, he is tempted by slogans, but ends in mysticism. He attempts to proclaim, but palpates:
For individual truth must lie
Under the skin all creatures are one race,
Proved integers but by their face.
When he attempted to pour pure politics into his writing Day Lewis found that he had to dilute it, that he could not take it neat, and despite Gelpi’s insistence, he was probably never an inspired and intoxicating polemicist. (Gelpi may be correct that by the mid-Thirties Day Lewis ‘was increasingly visible as organiser and speaker at public demonstrations and rallies’, but the content of his rallying speeches probably left something to be desired. ‘One evening in the spring of 1935,’ Day Lewis himself recalled, ‘I gave a talk to the local branch of the Friends of the Soviet Union on collective farming – a subject I had mugged up from books.’) And sometimes he just got things wholly out of proportion. Writing in his autobiography, The Buried Day (1960), about an impending punishment from a boy whom he had offended when both were pupils at Sherborne, he says: ‘For ten Sunday afternoons I waited in my study, as all over Europe unluckier folk would soon be waiting, for a knock on the door.’ As a comment about the fear of brutality this is almost as stupid as Auden’s aphorism (‘The best reason I have for opposing Fascism,’ he wrote in an essay published in 1934, ‘is that at school I lived in a Fascist state’), but without the saving grace of having been made before the full facts of Nazism were known. To write about public school fascism in the half-light of 1934 is one thing; it’s surely quite another to do so with hindsight, in the Fifties.
Gelpi sets great store by Day Lewis’s political acuity and commitment during the Thirties, but Day Lewis himself eventually came to realise that he’d never really had any talent for or insight into politics. ‘It is significant,’ he wrote in retrospect, ‘that the only two political poems of any value which I wrote – “The Conflict” and “In Me TWo Worlds” – though they end with a confident statement of the choice made, are poems of the divided mind, while the shrill, schoolboyish derisiveness which served for satire in other political verse of mine demonstrates the unnatural effort I had to make in order to avoid seeing both sides.’ Despite Day Lewis’s disavowals, Gelpi continues to praise Day Lewis’s naive Marxism, claiming, for example, that ‘The Magnetic Mountain has the virtue of being a more coherent and effective poetic statement than Auden’s quirky mélange of things in The Orators.’ Coherence can be overrated – you can be coherent and mad, like Mrs Thatcher, or coherent and boring, like a student essay – and you only have to set the two poems together, side by side, to realise that what Gelpi must really mean by ‘effective poetic statement’ is in fact ‘effective political statement’, in which case The Magnetic Mountain is anyway only about as ‘effective’ as Auden’s The Orators, which is to say, hardly effective at all: it made nothing happen.
There is a point in any book about a poet who happened to be writing in Britain during the Thirties at which the Auden question inevitably arises. Gelpi is right to question the extent of Day Lewis’s indebtedness to Auden, but his over-estimation of Day Lewis’s originating powers blinds him to the poet’s extraordinary emulative abilities (although Gelpi does acknowledge that the young Day Lewis ‘played off’ not just against Auden, but also against Donne, George Herbert, Hopkins, Yeats, Hardy, Matthew Arnold and Frost). You might think of this as a talent for adaptability. In The Buried Day Day Lewis is frank about the ‘incipient hero-worship’ of his youth, and recalls that ‘I possessed certain qualities which would make it fairly easy for me to adapt myself to school life – physical energy, for instance, and a potential capacity for running with the herd, and competitiveness.’ These three rather ordinary qualities – energy, a strong herd-instinct and competitiveness – are as important to an understanding of his achievements as Gelpi’s looming ‘politics, eros and thanatos’.
The energy is undoubted: as well as the poetry there were 20 detective novels published under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake, three ‘straight’ novels, the adventure stories for boys, the four books of criticism – A Hope for Poetry (1934), Poetry for You (1944), The Poetic Image (1947) and The Lyric Impulse (1965) – and the various Virgil translations; the herd-instinct is apparent in the inconspicuous goodness and success of all these books. And it was clearly in relation to Auden that Day Lewis’s other distinguishing characteristic, his fierce competitive streak, came to the fore. The Auden influence is most evident in Day Lewis’s poems in From Feathers to Iron, and in the character of Nigel Strangeways in the detective novels (the appropriately named Strangeways is, as Sean Day-Lewis puts it, ‘every inch W.H. Auden’ – a ‘nordic type’ who ‘can’t sleep unless he has an enormous weight on his bed’). Whatever his early debt to Auden, Day Lewis never ceased to compare the development of his own career with that of his old friend and rival, who, he noted with unburied satisfaction in The Buried Day, ‘was to succeed me as English master at Larchfield, as he did in the Oxford Chair of Poetry’. He may well have attempted to absorb Auden’s influence, as Gelpi claims, but Auden does seem to have stuck in his throat.
It is much easier to swallow Gelpi’s claims about eros and thanatos than his ideas about Day Lewis’s politics. But Gelpi’s topiaried schema obscures the persistent and interlinked themes of love and death that emerge in the work. From the very first, the poetry smells rank and autumnal: there is a Georgian dampness about it. His first collection, Beechen Vigil (1925), is luxuriant and luscious. The first poem begins ‘Poet, sink the shining net/In ebb and flow’, and expresses the hope that ‘one lasting gleam shalt add/To loveliness.’ This hope is justified: the book is absolutely drenched in loveliness; there is a ‘rune miraculous’ (‘Beechen Vigil’), a ‘joyance of dew’ (‘A Creation’); there is brimming, gleaming, wonder, goldenness, ‘crisp-limbed shepherd boys’ and ‘honey-sweet sheep bells’ (‘Once in Arcady’), even, in ‘A Rune for Anthony John’, ‘Poecil carpets’. In ‘Sanctuary’, the narrator commands of the flowers, ‘Lie so. Be beautiful’, and they lie so even throughout Day Lewis’s next collection, Country Comets (1928), which is filled with ever more intimations of what, in ‘Magicians in Dorset’, he calls ‘earth-magic’.
Everything changes, of course, in Transitional Poem (1929), which exhibits in its very first stanza an extraordinary darkening of colour, as if the sugar had been heated on the spoon:
Now I have come to reason
And cast my schoolboy clout,
Disorder I see is without,
And the mind must sweat a poison
Keener than Thessaly’s brew;
A pus that, discharged not thence,
Gangrenes the vital sense
And makes disorder true.
It is certain we shall attain
No life till we stamp on all
Life the tetragonal
Pure symmetry of brain.
Stamping sense on life, Day Lewis expresses for the first time the desire to escape the garden of his own making:
Since my material
Has chosen to rebel,
It were most politic –
Ere I also fall sick –
To escape this Eden.
Indeed there has been no peace
For any garden
Or for any trees
Since Priapus died,
And lust can no more ride
Over self-love and pride.
But he never did escape his Eden. Throughout the Thirties, when it ‘were most politic’, he nonetheless tried to recreate – literally – what he called the ‘Marvellian garden’ at Monart Rectory in County Wexford (remembered in ‘Golden Age, Monart, Co. Wexford’, in The Whispering Roots), where he had often stayed during his childhood. Now he sequestered himself in the idyllic Box Cottage, near Charlton Kings, moving on to Brimclose, a house near Musbury in Devon, where he recalled ‘rooting up great patches of nettles, attacking overgrown hedges’. And he continued for years after to think and write about his life in terms of vegetable growth and decay. Even his desire attached itself to the natural world. He recalls in The Buried Day how as a young man his ‘erotic fantasies, nourished hitherto on Venus and Adonis and photographs of slightly undraped actresses in shiny magazines, now began to be sublimated into a chaste passion for trees’. Rex Warner’s inspired wedding present to Day Lewis in 1928 had been ‘the Oxford Donne and a load of dung for my garden’; of the two, the dung was probably the better fertiliser. He quoted with approval Michael Roberts’s assessment that Auden, Spender, MacNeice and he shared ‘the recognition that oneself is no more important than a flower in a field’. In the Forties, he described his ‘flowering in wider sympathies’. In the divided mind, he claimed, ‘an artist often discovers the richest soil’, though he admitted that there were ‘fallow times’. In The Poet’s Way of Knowledge (1957) he spoke of attempting ‘to define the field of poetry’, but he did not so much define it as become it: in ‘Sketches for a Self-Portrait’ (from Poems: 1943-47) he describes himself as a ‘Green boy’, interrogated by the refrain, ‘Green boy, green boy,/What did the lawn teach, what did Rip Van Winkle/Forest say, and the mellow South-West town?’ He was a poet who was happy to admit that ‘an overcast summer light is one to which I am always susceptible – and I am still haunted by the rainshine of orchards in the Vale of Evesham, where I used to walk when I was a young schoolmaster – the green grass, the white blossom streaming away on a gale, a picture that has the coolness and watery melancholy of woodwind: a symbol of transience.’
Day Lewis was above all, then, susceptible, and he continued to write cool, dejected rose-water poems, with their flowery symbols of transience, throughout his career – ‘Maple and Sumach’ from Overtures to Death (1938), ‘The Heartsease’ from Poems: 1943-47 (1948), ‘The Christmas Rose’ from The Gate (1962) – and on until his death, culminating in what is perhaps his only great poem, ‘At Lemmons’, whose last stanza is both balm and farewell:
Round me all is amenity, a bloom of
Magnolia uttering its requiems,
A climate of acceptance. Very well
I accept my weakness with my friends’
Good natures sweetening every day my sick room.
The bloom of flowers, the ‘climate of acceptance’ and the taste of sweetness all recall other memorable lines from the end of Part II of Transitional Poem:
Let logic analyse the hive,
Wisdom’s content to have the honey:
So I’ll go bite the crust of things and thrive
While hedgerows still are sunny.
The odd outstanding phrase – ‘I’ll go bite the crust of things and thrive’ – suggests perhaps another, less susceptible aspect of Day Lewis’s work: firm and resolved in the teeth of. But then again, there are crusts and there are crusts. In the third Nicholas Blake detective novel, There’s Trouble Brewing (1937), one of the crucial clues is the murderer’s set of false teeth, which he has cunningly swopped and placed in the mouth of his victim. Without his teeth the murderer has to survive on bread and cake, because he can only eat soft stuff. ‘What about the crusts of bread, then?’ an inquisitive character asks. ‘Crusts become soft if you mumble them in your mouth long enough,’ wise old Nigel Strangeways replies. This is it, or at least a way of putting it: Gelpi gets at the mumbled soft crust of Day Lewis’s poetry – one part crumbled politics to equal parts eros and thanatos – but there remains a romantic richness beneath, a good melancholy pastoral poetry, which he doesn’t touch.
The fact that Day Lewis is not ‘one of the major British poets of this century’, as Gelpi claims, does not mean that Gelpi’s book is no good: it simply means that he’s a little too close. Day Lewis’s son by his marriage to Jill Balcon, the actor Daniel, was closer still, but he saw an entirely different side to the great man: ‘he was tender, private, unerringly and when angered unnervingly polite (except when unnervingly impolite), funny (never more so than when impersonating a King Edward potato), beautiful, a little lost I think, bristly of the chin and tobaccoey when he kissed us goodnight.’ It’s the recognition here of the poet’s common or garden weaknesses and the touching detail that is missing from Gelpi’s account of Day Lewis’s life and work. He did a good impression of a poet but he was even better as a King Edward potato.