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 is a wistful, sad, true, basically simple-hearted poet (a Gravesian poet, let us say) waiting in the wings for his cue: but he rarely gets it: the wings are blocked by Day Lewis the political idealist, Day Lewis the connoisseur of Victorian literature, Day Lewis the public figure, about to address us on behalf of some good cause in a few well-chosen words. There could be no better choice, when dear old Mr. Masefield dies at last, for the next English Poet Laureate.
Day Lewis is nothing if not professional. Stevie Smith is nothing if not deliberately scatty, the professional amateur. Her poems tend to begin in solmenity and collapse into giggles and pull themselves together in moral admonitions, about the wickedness of Christianity particularly. The little accompanying drawings, Edward Lear-like, seem to be making sad fun of the poems and to share with the poems a haunting childlike sly mischief and a ruthlessly heart-rending irresponsible pathos. The melodies and rhythms of hymns or of popular songs bob up underneath the words, bringing in often a feeling of shabby sacredness or muted rowdyism where it is least expected. Miss Smith is a one-woman show. Her effect depends on an exquisite sense of timing, and on a mixture of beauty and gaucheness, of malicious subtlety and poor-little-wide-eyed-meism, a style that suggests Beatrice Lillie. But if Miss Smith were an actress in a team, she would be the despair of any classical producer, for she depends on impulse rather than consolidating her gains, she mugs and fly-catches shamelessly, and she is shamelessly autistic—following her own selfpleasing rhythms, not freezing at, and underlining, the point that gets the laugh. She is something much more, however, than a straight comic poet. The comedy quite often fails, seems mere impulsive and perverse doodling: Then suddenly one is pierced by a shocking almost Blake-like moment of naked perception:
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
Mr. Hobsbaum is one of a set of young English poets who meet, when they can, every week to subject a set of poems by one of them to sober and serious criticism (coffee and biscuits, no booze till after the seminar) and who call themselves the Group. He studied at Cambridge under Leavis and at Sheffield under Empson. He has the typical contemporary “young England” social awareness of the thwarted and the grubby, the playground riots of the elementary school, the “draggled hair, stained sweater, rumpled slacks” of the angry, puzzled, provincial undergraduate. He is a sad, comic character in his own poems, a fiery spirit buried in mountains of fat, compulsively greedy: an astigmatic who falls down the stairs leading to the lavatory, mistaking the stairs for a flat grille: nagging, bitchy, disappointed, looking for slights, hardness of heart, and conspiracies everywhere, hooting and mumbling, but the total effect is of deep, wide, and real social compassion, and, when one reads the poems in a group, of a growly-bear good humor (and funniness) beneath all the bitching. If “social realistic” has a good sense, Mr. Hobsbaum exemplifies it; I hope he finds an American publisher.