|Cecil Day-Lewis photographed by Irving Penn for Vogue in 1951|
By Bernard O’Donoghue
Cecil Day Lewis was one of the major figures in twentieth-century English poetry by any public measure. He was Poet Laureate; Oxford Professor of Poetry; a Companion of the Royal Society of Literature. He was universally recognized as one of the leading figures in English poetry across five decades, from the 1930s to the 1970s, as well as a ‘great translator’, to borrow Deschamps’s praise of Chaucer: certainly the one of the best translators into English poetry of his century.
So why on earth was he denied his place of honour in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey? I think I know the answer; but I will work round to it by degrees. To begin with, my title comes from one of Day Lewis’s most admired anthology-pieces (included for example by Philip Larkin in his Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse), the poem called ‘Where Are the War Poets?’
They who in folly or mere greed
Enslaved religion, market, 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.
‘Where are the War Poets?’ from Word Over All (1943)
In this short poem, written at the height of the Second World War, Day Lewis takes his cue from a poet who often inspired him and provided his models, W.B.Yeats, who wrote at the height of the First World War I in 1915 ‘On Being Asked For A War Poem’:
I think it better that in times like these
A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of meddling who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter’s night.
In the event, of course, Yeats was to write a decidedly opinionated war poem in response to the Dublin rising of ‘Easter 1916’ the following year. But a comparison of the two poems I have quoted is instructive. Yeats says the poet is at liberty to confine himself to meddling with girls and old men if he wants; there is no obligation of public statement or involvement.
By contrast, although it is clear throughout his life that Day Lewis would have dearly liked to allow himself such poetic exemption, he never did. It was a constant theme of his that poetry had to dirty its hands, so to speak: ‘pure poetry’ was a tempting ideal, but it was an undeniable moral obligation to take public responsibility seriously. In the brilliantly Yeatsian line that clinches his poem – ‘defend the bad against the worse’ – Day Lewis expresses perfectly how unglamorous involvement in public events is likely to be. It is not, to borrow from Yeats on 1916, ‘a terrible beauty’ but a mundane resistance to ‘the worse’. The answer to the question in the poem’s title is: ‘the war poets are here, obliged to keep their nerve and their principle in the thankless cause of public duty’.
So who exactly was C Day Lewis (he dropped the Cecil and the hyphen from his writing name at the earliest opportunity), this successor of Yeats who took the moral duties of the poet so seriously and of whom T.E.Lawrence said to Winston Churchill in 1934 that he had ‘discovered one great man in these islands. His name is Cecil Day Lewis’? He was born in Ballintubbert, Co Laois 1904, son of Frank Day-Lewis (double-barrelled to register two family backgrounds, Lewis and Day), a Church of Ireland clergyman (as Anglican vicars in Ireland are still somewhat bizarrely called). His father moved to a parish at Malvern,Worcestershire in 1905, so the poet moved ‘From Ireland at the close of my second year’ (‘The Whispering Roots’ - incidentally this fine poem on the stresses of being Anglo-Irish invites comparison with masterpieces of that poetic world such as ‘The Colony’ by John Hewitt. This is high praise, drawing attention to one of the many categories in which Day Lewis has been under-examined - as an Anglo-Irish poet). Day Lewis’s father moved to a parish at Ealing, West London 1908, in the same year that his mother died, when the future poet was four.