The Complete Poems
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.