Cecil Day Lewis (1905-72)

[C. Day Lewis; bapt. Day-Lewis; pseud. “Nicholas Blake”]; b. 24 April, Ballintubbert House, Ballintober, Co. Laois, son of Frank Day-Lewis, an Anglican minster who came to Ballintubbert House as rector in 1902, bringing his newly-wed wife Kathleen; not registered for six months, and recorded as Cecil Day by way of Christian name; spent 18 months in Ballintubbert and left for Worcestershire in pursuit of clerical career; death of Kathleen, 1908; ed. Sherbourne and Wadham College (Oxon.); m. Mary King, 1928, mother of Sean and David; taught at Cheltenham Junior School, 1930-35; wrote proto-agrarian poetry in the 1930s;
moved to Devon, 1936; joined British Communist Party, 1937; ed. The Mind in Chains (1937), left-wing symposium; brought to Jonathan Cape, publisher, by Rupert Hard-Davis; by his horatory ode ‘On the Twentieth Anniversary of Soviet Power’, hailing Lenin as ‘loved by the people’; with Auden, Spender, and MacNeice, called ‘MacSpaunday’ by satirist Roy Campbell; Ministry of Information, 1939-45; collaborated with L. A. G. Strong on a New Anthology of Modern Verse (1940), for Methuen; winner of Roger Casement Prize of Irish Academy of Arts and Letters (IAL), 1940 - the last presentation of the award; issued wartime translation of Virgil’s Georgics; Clark lectures, Cambridge 1946, resulted in The Poetic Image (1946);
reader for Chatto & Windus; Oxford Prof. of Poetry, 1951-1956; Vice-Pres. Royal Society of Literature, and Arts Council member; decade-long relationship with Rosamund Lehmann; m. actor Jill Balcon, 1951, with whom a son, the actor Daniel Day-Lewis ((b. 29 April 1957; m. Rebecca Miller,film-maker and writer); succeeded John Masefield as Poet Laureate, 1968; issued Poems 1943-1947 (1948), showing influence of Hardy and Edward Thomas; wrote successful detective novels as ‘Nicholas Blake’, trans. Aeneid, and publ. poetry incl. Italian Visit (1953); Collected Poems (1954); Requiem for the Living (1964); The Room and other Poems (1965), autobiography, Buried Day (1960);
gave Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard, 1964 (The Poetic Impulse, 1965); his detective fiction as Nicholas Blake includes The Private Wound (1958), set in West of Ireland; d. Herts; his eldest son Sean Day-Lewis wrote a biography (1980); the Complete Poems were edited by Balcon in 1992; his birthplace was subsequently owned by the actor John Hurt and resold in 1996; a plaque commemorates the planting of lime trees by local writers on the poet’s birthday in 1985. DIL DIW OCEL HAM OCIL

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  • Beechen Vigil (1925), pamph.;
  • Country Comets (1928), pamph.;
  • Transitional Poems (1929);
  • From Feathers to Iron (1931);
  • The Magnetic Mountain (1933);
  • A Time to Dance (1935);
  • Noah and the Waters (1936);
  • Overtures to Death (London: Jonathan Cape 1938; rep. 1946);
  • Word Over All (1943);
  • Poems 1943-47 (1948);
  • An Italian Visit (1953) [lyrical narrative];
  • Pegasus (1957);
  • The Gate (1962);
  • The Room (1965);
  • The Whispering Roots (1970).
Collected & Selected
  • Collected Poems, 1954 (London: Jonathan Cape & Hogarth 1954);
  • Selected Poems (NY: Harper & Row 1967);
  • Jill Balcon, ed., The Complete Poems of C. Day-Lewis (London: Sinclair-Stevenson 1992), 745pp. [pbk].

“Where are the War Poets”] in The Penguin New Writing, ed. John Lehmann (Feb. 1941), pp.114 [infra]; ‘Two Songs’ [“Love was Once Light as Air”, and “Oh Light was My Head” - as infra] in Do., No. 27 (April 1946), pp.68-71 [music and accomp. on facing pages; airs respectively “Dermott” and “St. Patrick’s Day”].

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  • Georgics (1940);
  • The Aeneid of Virgil (Hogarth Press 1952), 288pp. [155 signed copies];
  • Eclogues (1963);
  • Le Cimetière Marin (1946), after Valéry.
  • The Friendly Tree (1936);
  • Starting Point (1937);
  • and Child of Misfortune (1939);
  • Whisper in the Gloom (1954);
  • The Private Wound (London: Collins 1958);
  • [... &c.]
Detective novels [as Nicholas Blake]
  • A Question of Proof (1935; rep. 1990);
  • The Beast Must Die (1938; rep. 1989);
  • The Smiler with the Knife (1938; rep. 1985);
  • The Case of the Abominable Snowman (1941; rep. 1980);
  • Minute for Murder (Collins 1947);
  • Head of a Traveller (1948; rep. 1986);
  • A Tangled Web (1956; rep. 1991);
  • End of Chapter (Collins 1957);
  • The Private Wound (Collins 1958) [with reprints by Atlantic Large Print Books; Hogarth; Ulverscroft Large Print Books; Dent.]
  • A Hope for Poetry (1934);
  • The Poetic Image (1947);
  • The Poetic Impulse (1965).
  • The Buried Day (1960).
  • with L. A. G. Strong, ed., New Anthology of Modern Verse (London: Methuen 1940).
  • ‘Dreams and Destinations: C. Day Lewis Reads his Poems ’ [BBC3 1972]; re-broadcast in Peter Porter, ed. Selected Poems (Sun. 31 Feb. 1992).
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  • Geoffrey Handley-Taylor & Timothy d’Arch Smith, C. Day-Lewis - the Poet Laureate: A Bibliography (Chicago/London: St James 1968);
  • Joseph N. C. Riddell, C. Day Lewis (NY: Twayne 1971);
  • Ian Parson, Poems of C. Day Lewis 1925-1972 (1977);
  • Sean Day-Lewis, C. Day Lewis: An English Literary Life (1980);
  • Albert Gelpi, Living in Time: The Poetry of C. Day Lewis (OUP 1998), 240pp.
  • Peter Stanford, C. Day-Lewis (London: Continuum 2007), 384pp.

See also Michael O’Neill & Gareth Reeeves, Auden, MacNeice, Spender (1992); Julian Symons, The Art of Murder, Stories of Crime and Detection. A Select Bibliography (London: British Council 1992)

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Michael Walters, review of Jill Balcon, ed., The Complete Poems of C. Day Lewis (London: Sinclair-Stevenson 1992), and Michael O’Neill & Gareth Reeves, Auden, MacNeice, Spender, The Thirties Poetry (London: Macmillan [1992]), 254pp., in Times Literary Supplement ( 28 Aug. 1992), p.10: In 1940, C. Day Lewis collaborated with L. A. G. Strong on a New Anthology of Modern Verse (Methuen 1940). The anthology includes a conversation between the editors about poetry, in a dialogue which forms the preface. It omits Robert Graves from the number of its poets. Collections by Lewis cited are, From Feathers to Iron (1931); The Magnetic Mountain (1933); A Hope for Poetry (1934); An Italian Visit (1953). The reviewer speaks of Lewis’s accommodation to ‘a more socially adjusted afflatus’, ‘the Complete Poems helps to clarify [...] how the apparatus of the 1920s poet - late Georgian modulations of Keats, fitfully infused with a Yeatsian vigour - came to be adapted to the exigencies of the frontier-conscious new decade’, choosing an as an instance lines which occasion the remark, ‘Doing Florence in different voices, Day Lewis finds the calculated bathhos inherent in high Yeatsian rhetoric apprpriate to Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes, ‘And presently/matching deceit with bitterer deceit,/She had struck off that tipsy captain’s head/Upon the still untousled bed,/and borne it homeward in a bag of meat.’ Walters comments of such ventriloquy, ‘like all the best pastice, they read as incisive criticism’.

Patrick Ramsay, review of Patrick Crotty, Contemporary Irish Poetry (1995), in Fortnight (Jan. 1996): ‘Cecil Day Lewis, that most awkward reminder for an uncertain Free State aesthetic of the interrelatedness of the Irish and the English Muse’ (p.33).

David Lloyd & Paul Thomas, in Culture and the State (London: Routledge 1998) - ‘Epilogue: Raymond Williams and George Orwell’, speak of Cecil Day-Lewis’s symposium The Mind in Chains, along with Christopher Caudwell’s Studies in a Dying Culture, as representing the reductionist-Marxist school most noticeably (and almost entirely). (p.182.)

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“Where are the War Poets?”

They who in panic or mere greed
Enslaved religion, markets, laws,
Borrow our language now and bid
Us to speak up in freedom’s cause.

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.

—printed in The Penguin New Writing, ed. John Lehmann (Feb. 1941), p.114.

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“Oh, Light Was My Head” (Air: St. Patrick’s Day)

Oh, light was my head as the seed of a thistle
And light as the mistletoe mooning an oak,
I spoke with the triton, I skimmed with the nautilus,
Dawn was immortal as love awoke.
  But when a storm began to blow.
  My thistle was dashed, my tree laid low,
  My folk of the wave went down to their deep, so I
Frown on a thistledown floating capriciously,
Scorn as mere fishes the folk of the sea,
Agree the renowned golden bough is a parasite,
Love but a gallons-eyed ghost for me.

Ah, fooled by the cock at the cool of the morning
And fooled by the fawning mirage of the day,
I say that I’m truly well rid of this featherwit -
Reason has tethered it down in clay.
  But when the light begins to go,
  When shadows are marching heel and toe,
  When day is a heap of ashes, I know that I’ll
Ride to love’s beam like a barque at her anchorage,
Glide on the languorous airs of the past,
For fast as the pride of our reason is waning, old
Follies returning grow wise at last.

—‘Two Songs’ [“Love was Once Light as Air”, and “Oh Light was My Head”] printed in The Penguin New Writing, ed. John Lehmann (April 1946), p.70.

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“You That Love England”

You that love England, who have an ear for her music,
The slow movement of clouds in benediction,
Clear arias of light thrilling over her uplands,
Over the chords of summer sustained peacefully;
Ceaseless the leaves’ counterpoint in a west wind lively,
Blossom and river rippling loveliest allegro,
And the storms of wood strings brass at year’s finale:
Listen. Can you not hear the entrance of a new theme?

You who go out alone, on tandem or on pillion,
Down arterial roads riding in April,
Or sad besides lakes where hill-slopes are reflected
Making fires of leaves, your high hopes fallen:
Cyclists and hikers in company, day excursionists,
Refugees from cursed towns and devastated areas;
Know you seek a new world, a saviour to establish
Long-lost kinship and restore the blood’s fulfilment.

You who like peace, good sticks, happy in a small way
Watching birds or playing cricket with schoolboys,
Who pay for drinks all round, whom disaster chose not;
Yet passing derelict mills and barns roof-rent
Where despair has burnt itself out – hearts at a standstill,
Who suffer loss, aware of lowered vitality;
We can tell you a secret, offer a tonic; only
Submit to the visiting angel, the strange new healer.

You above all who have come to the far end, victims
Of a run-down machine, who can bear it no longer;
Whether in easy chairs chafing at impotence
Or against hunger, bullies and spies preserving
The nerve for action, the spark of indignation -
Need fight in the dark no more, you know your enemies.
You shall be leaders when zero hour is signalled,
Wielders of power and welders of a new world.


—Given on Facebook by Tom Deveson (1 May 2017); also available at Backwatersman blog (23.04.2011)- online; accessed 01.05.2017.

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Margaret Drabble, ed., Oxford Companion of English Literature (OUP 1985); bio-dates, 1904-72; son of Church of Ireland minister; moved England 1905; ed. Oxford Poetry with Auden, 1927; adopted pseud. ‘Nicolas Blake’ in the 1930s; autobiog. The Buried Day (1960), a searching account of his father’s ‘divided heart’ and search for identity much amplified by Sean Day-Lewis (1980).

Robert Hogan, Dictionary of Irish Literature (Greenwood/Gill & Macmillan 1979), incls. remarks: ‘[Cecil Day-Lewis] never forgot his Irish connection [...] related to Goldsmith [...] English poet’; cites poems, “The House Where I was Born”; “Fishguard to Rosslare”; “My Mother’s Sisters”; and “Remembering Con Markievicz”; also detective novel, The Private Wound (1958), set in West of Ireland.

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In the House Where I Was Born”: 50 years after, Day-Lewis wrote: ‘No one is left alive to tell me / In which of these rooms I was born. / Or what my mother could see, looking out one April / Morning, her agony done, / Or if there were pigeons to answer my cooings / From the tree to the left of the lawn.’ . (See John MacKenna, “Literary Landmarks”, in The Irish Times, 8 Sept. 2001, Weekend, p.10.)

T. R. Henn, The Lonely Tower: Studies in the Poetry of W. B. Yeats (London: Methuen 1950; 2nd edn. 1965): ‘Mr Day is wrong, I think, when he suggest that Yeats belonged as of right to this [Anglo-Irish] aristocracy, or was accepted by it until be was “taken up” by Lady Gregory. There was a vast gap between the “squirearchy” to which he refers and the great houses.’ (Vide “Yeats and the Aristocratic Tradition”, inScattering Branches, ed. Stepen Gwynn, pp.162, 193, 166; Henn, op. cit., p.12, n1.)

The Battle of Aughrim by Richard Murphy was broadcast by BBC in 1968, with Ted Hughes and Cecil Day-Lewis among the readers.

Kith & Kin [1]: F. Lewis Day [or Day Lewis] is the author of Pattern Design: A Book for Students Treating in a practical Way of the Anatomy, Planning and Evolution of Repeated Ornament (London: B. T. Batsford 1903), xx, 267pp. with 285 ills. (See Peter Ellis, Cat. 2004.)

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Kith & Kin [2]: His son is the actor Daniel Day-Lewis (My Left Foot, Last of the Mohicans, The Name of the Father [dir. Jim Sheridan], &c.

Portrait: There is a photo-portrait of Cecil Day Lewis by Tangye Lean in The Penguin New Writing, ed. John Lehmann (Oct.-Dec. 1944), facing p.64.

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