C. Day Lewis
C. Day Lewis; drawing by David Levine

The chaste green and purple cover (appropriately enough the colors of the Wimbledon tennis club) has inset on the back a modest-sized picture of the poet. He is posed by the photographer like an eighteenth-century author for his portrait—leather-bound books in the background; the right arm, in oxford shirt cuff and well-cut tweed, resting on another volume; the tie and waistcoat prosperously in place; curly hair copious, but well-brushed and cut; handsome cheeks creased in a leisurely smile. It is an infections grin really, making the beholder want to smile himself; for it so clearly if stealthily invites him to see the cocky little boy dressed up as the poet who has more than made it; who has become an advertisement for the graciousness of culture, and its mandarin-tycoon.

The poet, like his picture, was endearing; and all the more so today when the image of poets and poetry, and of culture itself, has so drastically and it seems irrevocably changed, not necessarily for the better. Cecil Day Lewis was once thought of as one of the forward-looking poets of the urgent Thirties, a comrade in verse and in politics of Auden, Spender, MacNeice… “the Macspaundays,” as they had been scornfully but perhaps enviously christened by the reactionary South African poet Roy Campbell. In the same age group, they seemed peers and equals, their talents committed to the same causes. So in a sense they were, because the spirit of the times required it of them, but in reality they were wholly different from one another; and the era of “the young poets exploding like bombs” and dashing forward “like hussars,” as Auden referred to it, was soon to be over. They settled down then to cultivate their separate talents: Auden the true genius; MacNeice the scholarly poet, full of unexpected originalities; Day Lewis the debonair craftsman. He could produce glittering pastiche, from homely Hardy to Frost or Browning or Hopkins, turn out elegant detective novels, sing madrigals, recite verse incomparably well, and chair with charm any metropolitan literary gathering.

None of the “Macspaundays” went mad, or died in a garret or on the battlefields of Spain or of Hitler’s war. All were in fact decidedly successful in a worldly way. The age in which Day Lewis had imagined himself singing “on a tilting deck,” with the sea about to destroy him, turned out in the end unexpectedly benevolent to poetry and to poets. They became privileged academics, jet setters, pickers-up of bursaries and international awards; and the less the citizens read them the more publicity they got from university departments and the cultural journalists. They even started to get a good living from teaching the young to write poetry, an occupation that would have aroused scornful amazement in Dr. Johnson, but would have been thoroughly understood and accepted among the scalds of Viking society or in the lodges of the Trobrianders. Day Lewis was the kind of poet who would have been perfectly at home in such a society, and eminently useful.

For he could write in any sort of style. Since the Romantic movement we have been so conditioned to the poet who finds and speaks in his own voice that we forget the larger and more ancient tradition of a poetry that is still practiced by skill alone. Of course Catullus had his own voice, but it came from studying the Hellenic poets of the Greek Anthology, all of whom were writing in the same spirit and with the same conventions. The workshop or campus poets of today would probably do best to stop trying to speak in individual tones, which in practice merge into involuntary unison: but in spite of T.S. Eliot’s efforts to promote a doctrine of impersonality, that choice is not really open to the poets of our self-conscious age and society. Nor does Day Lewis’s poetry strike the reader today as attempting unavailingly to find its own voice. On the contrary: the still lively fascination of his verse seems to depend on the variety of tones he could pick up, change, and discard at will. Pushkin well understood the charms of such a virtuoso performance, presenting in his poem “Egyptian Nights” an improviser who can take up any topic an audience suggests and compose on it instantly, as if possessed by its appropriate and tutelary spirit.

And so the “Complete” Poems (an adjective more effective in its context than “Collected” would be) are uniformly full of a poetry to please and be admired. Day Lewis was well aware of what he could do and how to set about doing it, never staying long in the same place.

Tenure is not for me
I want to be able to drop out of my head,
or off my rock and swim to another, ringed with a roundelay of sirens

In 1940 he translated Virgil’s Georgics—exceedingly well. A few years before he made a spirited compound of elegy and epic, “A Time to Dance,” commemorating the death of a teacher colleague, “a brilliant cricketer and amateur actor,” as his widow Jill Balcon notes, and also celebrating the flight home after the First War of two Australian airmen in a battered DH9. Often anthologized, this remains a brilliantly satisfying performance, drawing its strength from the whole surge of the narrative, like all good verse of the kind, but lively enough to be quoted in part.


Baghdad renewed a propeller damaged in desert. Arid
Baluchistan spared them that brought down and spoiled with thirst
Armies of Alexander. To Karachi they were carried
On cloud-back: fragile as tinder their plane, but the winds were tender
Now to their need, and nursed
Them along till teeming India made room for them to alight.
Wilting her wings, the sweltering suns had moulted her bright
Plumage, rotten with rain
The fabric: but they packed her with iron washers and tacked her
Together, good for an hour, and took the air again.

The style is wholly nonpersonal, cunningly constructed, like the airplane itself, from the flimsy but graceful stuff of tradition, given a more modern edge by the echoes from Hopkins’s “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” and from Auden’s use of Old English alliteration. The effect is a dazzling composite, replete with appropriate emotion and salutation: to courage, grit, endurance—all the qualities supposed to be inculcated by the English public school values which these poets (they had all been school-masters) had outwardly repudiated. The same goes for “The Nabara,” an epical account of a sea fight in the Spanish civil war between Basque republican ships and Franco forces. It adopts every metrical and rhetorical strategem that Tennyson had made memorable in “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and “The Last Fight of the Revenge,” and at the time it was urgent with what seemed the best propaganda for the best sort of cause. Those “men of the Basque country, the Mar Cantabrico” were Stakhanovites, heroes of the future, whose deeds should not go unsung.

But the future has already dated. The battle of Madrid was not being won on the playing fields of Oxford and Cambridge, as Day Lewis’s poems cannot, with hindsight, help giving that impression. Like other long poems, by Stephen Vincent Benét or Edgar Lee Masters or Vachel Lindsay, which rely on bringing traditional materials up to date, Day Lewis’s poetry of the period seems to have entered that “World of Lost Things” visited in the Orlando Furioso, which Anthony Powell movingly brings in to the last section of A Dance to the Music of Time. But the fact remains that the lost things of such a world are often worth resurrecting, and always worth investigation. They are, and should be, a subject of true academic study, and in the case of poems their publication by a distinguished academic press is a gain for scholarship as well as for poetry.

It has to be said, however, that the true Lost Things in their peculiar world never thought they would be lost—their assumption of permanence is a part of their pathos and their attraction. Day Lewis had no such illusions. His modesty was genuine and profound, giving his verse texture its winning versatility, its air that “tenure is not for me.” Another poetic charmer, Walter de la Mare, whose long career overlapped with Day Lewis’s, can leave the same impression; but de la Mare was one of those fortunate poets who produced a few undoubted masterpieces among a great many inferior journeyman poems, while nothing that Day Lewis wrote is lacking its own sort of ephemeral though rediscoverable effectiveness. He was well aware of this, and it was a part of his modesty, as Jill Balcon points out in her thoughtful and sensitive introduction. Like Edna St. Vincent Millay, who is also being rediscovered today, he was, as Jill Balcon suggests, a particularly honest kind of hero-worshiper. He wrote revealingly about this himself, observing that he had been “enabled to clarify my thoughts, by such diverse poets as Yeats, Wordsworth, Robert Frost, Virgil, Valéry, Auden and Hardy. They suggested to me ways of saying what I had to say. Any given poem thus influenced is not necessarily secondhand.” A reader might find, he adds, “as much difference as similarity between a poem of mine, influenced by him, and one of Hardy’s own.”

There is a certain pathos but also a subtle self-amusement in that—not for nothing was Day Lewis’s provenance an Anglo-Irish one—as well as a sound critical point. It is quite true that there is a difference between a poem of Hardy’s or Frost’s and a related one by Day Lewis; and the latter’s poetry can throw a searching light on the inwardness of the verse it hero-worships. This is especially true in the case of Frost. No one—certainly no critic—has as it were “got” Frost more exactly than Day Lewis did in some of his own poems, most notably of course in their concluding lines. It is a nice point whether the upshot is not to diminish the Frost poem rather than to elevate the Day Lewis; but in any case the contact is so persuasive that a new and fascinating sort of effect is, as R.P. Blackmur would have said, added to the sum of poetic reality.


In 1957, when Frost was on a visit to London, the poets spent an afternoon together at sheepdog trials in Hyde Park and composed an exercise in friendly competition on the event. Like dissimilar twins, the product of what Day Lewis referred to as a “stylised game” in “intuitive wit” compels a particularly droll form of attention on the reader’s part. The sheepdog is like the poet, “for a kind of / Controlled woolgathering is my work too.”

When Day Lewis held the Charles Eliot Norton chair at Harvard in 1964–1965 he pulled off another Frost, one of his own favorites, in the poem “On Not Saying Everything.” As a variation on the woolgathering process the last line deftly tucks home the point that a poem must be in one sense self-limiting, finding its clue “from the not saying everything.” An earlier stanza, as sometimes happens too in Frost’s own poems, foretells the apt conclusion.

A poem, settling to its form,
Finds there’s no jailer, but a norm
Of conduct, and a fitting sphere
Which stops it wandering every- where.

A poem by Hardy or Philip Larkin, no less than one by Wallace Stevens or Emily Dickinson, does indeed wander everywhere, through the mysterious implications of its own exactness. The craftsmanlike precision of Frost and Day Lewis belongs to an older tradition—Georgian, even Augustan—when poetic diction was not afraid to have certain worldly triumphalism about it, even though the self-congratulation of their own speech is hidden beneath unpretentious homeliness.

The incorrigibly public nature of Frost’s diction—always “scoring” but finally self-limiting—is revealed in Day Lewis’s most touchingly domestic poems, like the well-known “Walking Away,” written for his eldest son, Sean, who had just come of an age to go to school on his own, and to play football. The small “hesitant figure,” seen off by dad, “has something I never quite grasp to convey / About nature’s give-and-take.”

I have had worse partings, but none that so
Gnaws at my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly
Saying what God alone could perfectly show—
How selfhood begins with a walk- ing away
And love is proved in the letting go.

The arresting nature of that seems to come from the invisible collision between a private and a public utterance, two conventions normally more distinguishable in the rhetoric of verse than in any other context. God, like love itself, has in this poem a stylized place as a poetic property: a property that belongs to the public rather than to the private sphere. Day Lewis never separated the two—perhaps did not want to—never quite managing to steer his course, as he ironically remarked of his Georgics translation, between “the twin vulgarities of flashy colloquialism and perfunctory grandiloquence.” He was more harsh in his own self-knowledge than was justified, because the division itself did endow him with his own unique sort of poetic personality. Yet the consciousness of it was a deep pain to him, as is shown in the collection’s most self-revealing poem, “Almost Human.”

The man you know, assured and kind,
Wearing fame like an old tweed suit
You would not think he has an incurable
Sickness upon his mind.

The tongue that “for the listening people / Articulates love, enlivens clay” is also disgusted with its own facilities. Yet in the man is something “that must for ever seek,”

To share the condition it glorifies,
To shed the skin that keeps it apart,
To bury its grace in a human bed
And it walks on knives, on knives.

The word “grace” located in so deadly a fashion in that last stanza is nonetheless justified in the dimension of the poems. Their historic interest is indeed poignant, for they show us a civilization that began to apologize for its own culture, its own sense of the beautiful. Day Lewis loved Italy and all its artifacts, pictures, and buildings; and his book of poems An Italian Visit (1953) significantly combines his love of what he saw—the fountains in the streets, the pictures in the galleries—with a series of graceful poems in the style of poets he loved: a tacit admission that “beauty” in the old sense, however exuberantly enjoyed and celebrated, had become an affair of imitation, of touristic culture.

But the pastiche poems—a Della Robbia in the manner of Hardy, a Donatello by Yeats, a superlative Leonardo Annunciation by Frost—justify and carry the whole scheme of such verse, which with its lengthy borrowing from the metrics of Clough’s Victorian “Amours de Voyage” might otherwise lose even the well-disposed reader’s attention. A note by Jill Balcon at the beginning of An Italian Visit records that the poem was written in 1948 and 1949, at the end of Day Lewis’s long liaison with the novelist Rosamond Lehmann, who asked him not to publish it for several years, a request which he loyally honored.

Personal guilt, and a more complex guilt about the nature of its poetic stance, are never far away in this poetry, and give its easy nature in the end a compelling resonance. A real love of art made Day Lewis always passionately wish to join in.

And if I miss that radiance where it flies,
Something is gained in the mere exercise
Of strenuous submission, the attempt
To lose and find oneself through others’ eyes.

It is these things, and the touch of unexpected obsession about them, which in the end win for the poetry a personality of its own. His grave in Stinsford churchyard in Dorset is close to Hardy’s, as he wished it to be; and he died as Poet Laureate, an honor Hardy would probably not have declined had it been offered him. In the few years left him he loved being Laureate, remarking with his usual charming grin that if he could produce appropriate verse for civic and municipal occasions, “I shall feel I’ve really achieved something.” He wrote the epitaph now carved on his gravestone not long before he died. Characteristically it carries echoes from Hardy, from Housman, and from Walter de la Mare; yet it is different from any of them, a difference expressed not so much in the song he composed and the verse he recited but in the nature of the “pleasing anxious being” behind them.

Shall I be gone long?
For ever and a day.
To whom there belong?
Ask the stone to say,
Ask my song…

It is not in the nature of stones, or of songs, to give such information, as the poem and the poet are well aware. Like a parting smile the irony shows how far the poetry had progressed since early days, when with The Magnetic Mountain in 1933 Day Lewis had leapt into action beside Auden (“Look west, Wystan, lone flyer, birdman, my bully boy!”), and what his poetry seemed to be up to; the result is a travesty which today sounds both absurd and touching.

And if our blood alone
Will melt this iron earth,
Take it. It is well spent
Easing a saviour’s birth.

Such a verse, whose metaphor is as unreal as its sentiment, really does belong to the world of “Lost Things,” of what Auden in “Spain” called “the ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting,” although it was published in the year Hitler came to power, and in celebration of the poet’s belief in the coming victory of communism, the new faith. Auden’s poetry drew its own mysterious inner strength from the time: Day Lewis’s tried loyally to make itself relevant and expedient to a history that has now discarded it. But poets’ developments remain unpredictable. Because he never cared about “tenure” but threw himself into whatever appealed at the time, Day Lewis’s poetry traveled in the end further than Auden’s, however unexpectedly: Auden, for all his different interests, was stuck with his inescapable persona: his admiring disciple was free to derive a poetic voice from anywhere he chose—from Italy to the English past, other voices and other rooms. For anyone who likes poetry there is real interest here in that complete record.

This Issue

January 14, 1993