Requiem for the Living
The Place’s Fault, and Other Poems
In the 1930s, Mr. Day Lewis used always to be grouped along with Auden, MacNeice, and Spender: the listing would end, slightly invidiously, “and Day Lewis,” He has always been a poet with a fine sense of structure, a various command of rhythms, but with a thinnish feeling for texture and with a tendency to stretch the surface of a poem too thinly, also, over a predetermined framework. The fairies who presided at his birth made him both ingenious and copious, gave him a craftsman’s conscience also, but an uninvited and malicious fairy added: “You will be able to catch almost exactly the note of any poet you admire!” Through his poems of the 1930s, one hears again and again the voices of Yeats and of Auden. As with a very skillful verse translator, one feels: “Yes: but after all it is better in the original!” With the outbreak of the Second World War, Day Lewis commenced a slow mutation of his poetic character from radical rational Utopian to conservative sentimental Arcadian. He turned his admirably conscientious craftsmanship to versions of Virgil and Valéry which are, ironically, among his most truly original works. He wrote a long poem, An Italian Journey, in which, using Clough and Browning and Hardy, he turned the bad fairy’s gift into a blessing: producing not diluted imitation, but admiring parody or critical pastiche. Two ways of thinking of him would be as the hermit-crab, needing some tougher dead creature’s shell to tuck its tail into; or as the poet as role-player. Hardy and Browning preside over this present volume. He can reproduce Hardy’s halting exactitude:
It was as though her room, her world
Had blurred with fog, and she
Was feeling her way from chair to clock,
From vase to mahogany table, less
By sight than by memory.
In a poem on the Glasgow genteel murderess, Madeleine Smith, who died in 1928 in the United States seventy-one years after a “Not Proven” verdict (she had poisoned her lover with arsenic in cocoa) had left her legally free but socially and morally ostracised, he catches the sharpness of the English of the Lowland Scot as expertly as Browning might have done:
Sir, I am dying. Let the douce young medico Syrup his verdict, I am not deceived.
It is a pretty problem for the critic: if the two poems I have quoted were by Hardy or Browning, one would place either of them in the high middle reaches though not at the top of the Hardy or Browning canon. But they aren’t, they are by Mr. Day Lewis, and somehow the backward-looking, benign, wistfully agnostic, country-loving Tory of the 1960s doesn’t ring quite true any more than the up-boys-and-at-‘em assistant pack-leader to Auden rang quite true in the 1930s either. The bad fairy is still around. I have a feeling in reading Day Lewis—occasionally there are lines, stanzas, cadences that move me very simply and directly—that there …