C Day-Lewis and the Fickle Business of Literary Reputation

The car is coming slowly and cautiously down the steep hill from the Iron Age fort into Musbury on a sunny winter’s morning. The narrow lane is lined with high green hedges which direct the eyes forward to the Axe Valley, spread out before us, and beyond it the blue of the sea. Sean Day-Lewis, retired newspaperman, is at the wheel, pointing out the landmarks of his father’s – and his own - life.

We stop on a bend. Just ahead of us is the house his parents called Brimclose when they bought it in 1938. Soon after his father died, Sean’s mother, Mary, sold up, finally knowing that there was no longer even the remotest chance of her ex-husband coming home to her. The new owners renamed it Woodhayes and have since extended it and painted it sky blue and white, remodelling over the years the garden Mary spent 35 years tending.

The details have changed but the landscape that so inspired Day-Lewis has not. To our right, Sean points out a wooden bench, concreted in position and with a plaque recording Mary Day-Lewis’s life and death, from cancer, in 1975. To our left is the wood that lay between Brimclose and Bullmoor Farm, where his father and Billie Currall would meet in those heady pre-war days.

Of his departure from this spot in 1950, Day-Lewis later wrote: ‘Self-exiled, I left what seems in retrospect a little Paradise. But, as Proust so wonderfully showed, for certain temperaments the only Paradise is Paradise Lost’. He had lived, Day-Lewis wrote in 1965 in ‘St Anthony’s Shirt’ in nine houses. As a poet Day-Lewis had a great capacity to respond to new places and new landscapes – Ireland, Dorset, Tuscany all inspired him. And to human beauty. Some of the women he fell in love with were famed for their good looks. But he never truly settled, physically or emotionally, however much part of him yearned for it. Each paradise was always, as he admitted, lost, often through his own actions. One side of him remained forever the traveller of his poems.

There is not, then, a single landscape where you have the sense of walking in his footsteps. In Musbury that day, with his eldest son at my side, he felt as close as he ever would as Sean mapped out the minutiae of their sparse domestic life in the early 1940s in a cottage that is now comfortably refurbished. I could almost hear the cricket ball being whacked around the weedy tennis court as Day-Lewis and Rex Warner fought it out. But later, when I returned without Sean to the cottage to recapture once again that connection with my subject, Day-Lewis was gone.

The obvious place to look for him is in his poetry. And there, warts and all, he most certainly is. Day-Lewis was the most autobiographical of poets. As I have included stanzas in the preceding chapters to reflect his state of mind at the various crossroads in his life, I have been acutely aware that making such a direct link would be dangerous and even impossible with most writers. With Day-Lewis, it feels the natural and right thing to do. There is, of course, a degree of licence – there were, for example, more than nine houses - but there too, more often, is an almost painful honesty about the important things. Yet even as he opens his heart in poetry, seeks to understand not to be understood as he put it himself, confides as he did nowhere else, he is also simultaneously holding himself apart, observing, suspecting, judging himself and his readers.

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