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This article is taken from PN Review 121, Volume 24 Number 5, May - June 1998.A Lyric Voice at Bay
Critics work in a text. Biographers work in the foreground and the background. And the critic's work is made much harder when the background has been overwritten by events, interpretations and frank and forgetful prejudice. At that point the critic has to do some double-jobbing in order to rescue the text from the biographical background and the reader's resistance.
Albert Gelpi has set himself a hard task.1 Cecil Day Lewis, at least at first glance, is a decidedly awkward subject. Before reading this book I would have said Day Lewis was a refugee from the 1930s: and Anglo-Irish Georgian, who admired Tom Moore and consorted with Auden. A gentlemanly Communist. A hopelessly lyric inhabitant of a hard-driving decade. A poet who didn't so much lose his identity as have it handed to him in fragments: national, poetic, political. I suspect I shared my lack of real knowledge with other poetry readers: Day Lewis, I am reluctant to admit, had fallen so far below the horizon of my interest that I had ceased to enquire too much whether my views were based on instinct or just a blunt lack of reading.
And yet I should have enquired. Apart from anything else - and in a very slight way I was acquainted with him: he came to Dublin at the end of the 1960s and I interviewed him. Without having the exact words, I sensed both the grace and malaise behind the courteous, epigrammatic façade. The interview was in a hotel on Dawson Street. We drank coffee. He spoke fluently, modestly, anecdotally into a tape recorder. And, in some elusive way, he seemed to suit this environment; to fit into this remnant of the garrison city which Louis MacNeice had chastized in 'Autumn Journal': 'Nelson on his pillar / Watching his world collapse'. In conversation about himself, Day Lewis was a charming, selfcaricaturing man. He spoke in a club-room British accent. He was self-deprecating and funny. But in his invisible, and obdurate resistance to anything of high seriousness - especially a view of poetry - it was just possible to detect his own private, and perhaps painful, collapsing world. I came away interested, charmed and puzzled. This was not exactly the poet of his poetry: this gracious, displaced intelligence. Or was it? It seemed more edgy, more articulate. Lacking the information to answer the question, I lost the interest. Now here is the information, and suddenly the questions seem fascinating again.
In his introduction, Albert Gelpi sets out to address the prejudices of his readers even before they happen:
This revisionary study of Day-Lewis's poetry seeks to distinguish his voice within 'MacSpaunday' during the thirties and then follow its development in the remaining thirty years of his career, and it seeks to accomplish this large task with something still of the coherence and integrity of a long essay.
A close reading will show that, striking as Day Lewis's work from the thirties remains, much of his best work came later, especially during and after the war in the forties, and in his last years. As often happens, since his death in 1972, Day Lewis's poetry has largely fallen from notice or discussion, and a combination of factors - the vocal opposition of enemies he made during the Thirties and after, the aura of faded respectability that the laureateship rightly or wrongly brings with it, the snotty ideological opposition of contemporary Poststructuralists to structured form and the lyric speaker in poetry - has contributed to the recent neglect of his work. However the publication of the Complete Poems, edited by Jill Balcon, the poet's widow, in Britain and the United States in 1992 has provided the occasion and impetus for me to undertake a reassessment that will confirm his place as one of the major British poets of the century.
This is a forceful claim. Did I come away persuaded? Not completely. Even after reading the book, Day Lewis still seems to me too uneven, too fractured in diction, style, formal control - flaws that suggest a deeper imaginative indecision - to bear the full weight of this assessment. But my sense of his journey as a poet has radically changed from reading this. My sense of sequences like 'The Magnetic - Mountain' - a beautiful, commanding series - is entirely altered. I also came away convinced that a poet like Day Lewis is a crucial part of the story of poetry in this century: a figure around which some of the most poignant conflicts of voice, form and stance all swirled.
But it needs to be said at once here that the power and distinction of this book are not conditional on the reader's acceptance of this view. Not at all. Albert Gelpi has written extensively on American poetry across a wider register of style and purpose - perhaps with a colder eye - and he is a true authority on the romantic stance and the lyric voice. His commentary on Day Lewis is as shrewd and fascinating a study of a lyric voice at bay as any I have read. The enduring value of this book is that it opens up a dialogue about poetry in this century which goes well beyond its subject and enters volatile areas of the poet's identity and the poetic voice.
Cecil Day Lewis was born in County Laois in 1904 when it was still Queen's County. He grew up in the ambiguity and shelter of an Anglo-Irish identity. But only just. His father was a Church of Ireland clergyman. His grandfather, more interestingly, had been in the soap business: the adopted son of a Dublin merchant. His roots therefore were in the instability of the Irish garrison class: a caste whose loyalty to another culture was painfully offset by its tendency to internalize the local one.
My own mother, who once met Day Lewis in a London house, told me how extravagantly he had admired Tom Moore in conversation. It's a small anecdote, but revealing. Tom Moore - the musical, heartless charlatan who fled Ireland at the end of the eighteenth century, only to adorn and lament it in British drawing rooms for the rest of his life, who did indeed write poems which were a breviary of his disaffection and regret. A template of complex and hurtful identities?
This book follows a critical-biographical route through the poems, the letters, the life. Valuable new information is noted in the acknowledgements, where Sean Day Lewis is credited as having 'generously made available to me all the unpublished papers and manuscripts in his possession'. The student life at Oxford, the literary life in London, the visits to Ireland and abroad are all chronicled. Including Day Lewis's year as Charles Eliot Norton lecturer at Harvard in 1964, which is where Albert Gelpi first met him when he was an assistant professor. 'The differences in age and culture and experience somehow worked to kindle the regard and friendship we instantly felt for each other and found for each other.' This generous and essential book has it origins in that meeting.
In the first chapters, Albert Gelpi briskly takes up the story of Day Lewis's first years at Oxford, his private printing of Beechen Vigil and Other Poems in 1925, and his meeting with Auden when both were about twenty one. It is an important story. The decade of the Thirties lay ahead. The political urgency was not yet manifest. Nevertheless, British poetry was at a strange crossroads of styles and choices which are just about visible now, but which this book restores to a fuller context.
In 1927 Auden and Day Lewis jointly edited Oxford Poetry 1927. Their preface, poised between manifesto and braggadocio, spoke of 'a progression towards a new synthesis'. 'Day Lewis and Auden,' writes Gelpi, 'acknowledged the need to implicate the artwork in actual social "conditions", however violent, even at the risk of the poem's urnlike, jarlike integrity, because "Pure Art", were such a thing possible, would constitute an unethical and irresponsible aestheticism.'
His further emphasis here is on the forms they chose. In an interesting statement, and one at the heart of the argument in this book, he writes: 'British poets continue to have the sense of predecessors and peers and audience that American poets have never enjoyed. So instead of violating grammatical and metrical coherence as Pound, Stein and Williams seemed to be doing, they set out - as Day Lewis does in this first section of Transitional Poem - to charge sentences with fresh diction and charge metres with fresh rhythms.'
But Day Lewis and Auden were not just formal mediators. They were also witnesses to an extraordinary disintegration: the Georgian vision had failed, and with it the reach and confidence of the English pastoral. The two young men who met in 1924 were only a decade away from the carnage of the Second World War. Auden understood this particularly well. He understood that an England had died at the Somme and Ypres which could never be resuscitated. He understood that the vision of that England was impaired beyond nostalgia or lyricism. He understood, when he wrote 'Consider this and in our time / As the hawk sees it or the helmeted airman', that he was writing a new and more sinister - and finally more sustaining - British nature poem. He understood that British poetry, from then on, would be a post-imperial poetry, with all the pain and darkness consequent on that.
What did Day Lewis understand? A more melancholy, and far less ironic sensibility than Auden, he may have understood something entirely different. I am not even sure he could have availed of the same acute sense of loss which Auden did. Throughout his life, the displacement Day Lewis struggled with in his poetry was not England's, and not mankind's, but his own. This Irish-born Romantic, lost in the age he inherited, lost in the modernist idioms around him - as Auden certainly was not - faltered in his attempts to locate himself. His first struggle with his isolation involved him in the determined effort to end it.
Hence the 1930s and 'social change' and the Communist party. All this makes for wonderful reading. Albert Gelpi's sympathetic and enlightening study of the poetry Day Lewis wrote during the thirties turns up some fascinating results. After From Feathers to Iron, The Hogarth Press published The Magnetic Mountain in 1933. It is a sequence of thirty-six lyrics, and just about all of Gelpi's strongest advocacy seems justified here. These are crisp quatrains, perfectly cut off, the diction salty and true, the language economic and the volume turned up just right on the rhymes. For doubters like me, these are wonderful lines to recover:
Somewhere beyond the railheads
Of reason, south or north,
Lies a magnetic mountain
Riveting sky to earth.
No line is laid so far.
Ties rusting in a stack
And sleepers - dead men's bones -
Mark a defeated track.
Kestrel who yearly changes
His tenement of space
At the last hovering
May signify that place.
Iron in the soul,
Spirit steeled in fire,
Needle trembling on truth -
These shall draw me there.
'The reader can see from the outside an honest relationship developing between biographer and subject.' This comment by Richard Holmes on the drama of biography is specially apt. As this book continues, it modulates subtly from the extended essay Albert Gelpi spoke of writing, to a critical portrait with the best qualities of traditional biography. In that late and lamented art - I mean biography - the critical and documentary aspects were not severed from each other. They remain one and the same here, as the book progresses from Day Lewis's engagement and disillusion with the Communist Party, his failing marriage, to his work in the 1940s and 1950s - Poems in Wartime and Word Over All, and his prose studies, including The Poetic Image. In the process, this also becomes an essay on poetry in our time: its themes and choices and quandaries.
Day Lewis's later years are at once the most interesting to read about and the least persuasive poetically. I find it hard, if not impossible, to share Albert Gelpi's opinion of the poetry of the 1940s and 1950s. I wanted to like these poems better than I did. While these later chapters uncover some fascinating details about a post-war British literary world, they also raise through many quotations more difficult and poignant questions about Day Lewis's technical command. This is a rich and formidable part of this book: the scholarship is deft and the glimpses of a life in its time - to paraphrase the title - makes for powerful reading. All this is information recovered for future scholarship which is truly invaluable. But the poems lag behind. Despite the formidable and graceful advocacy they receive, they never seem - unlike in the earlier sections - to emerge from the strange fracture between a talky off-balance tone, and an unearned transcendental lyricism.
Certainly, the advocacy is unswerving. And another reader may be less resistant. Gelpi follows Day Lewis's progress through a new marriage, through the opening up of different themes and the enrichment of an inner poise. He shadows him through the publication of such books as Pegasus and Other Poems in 1957 and the memoir The Buried Day and then The Room and Other Poems, right up to The Whispering Roots and Other Poems in 1970.
I was completely convinced about the Thirties: the shadow, finally, which hung over Day Lewis's work was not Auden's, nor the more corporate shadow of 'MacSpaunday' as Roy Campbell bitingly referred to it. The Thirties poets were those, in Campbell's words, who 'made the Mealy Mouth and Bulging Purse / The hallmark of Contemporary Verse'. Albert Gelpi is particularly shrewd in extricating Day Lewis from this muddle of associations and echoes. 'I don't think we were the same kind of poets,' said Day Lewis towards the end of his life.
The real shadow over Day Lewis - since it isn't the Thirties - is harder to estimate. But it lasted long past the Thirties. It shows in some of the unconvincing lyricism of the later work, like 'Saint Anthony's Shirt' quoted here. And indeed many of the later poems. What is the problem with them? To start with, there is the awkward half-formal, half-chatty type of lineation he used. The poet who plunged into the collectivist spirit of the Thirties, never quite extricated the confident, obsessive and solitary voice which Auden kept throughout. Auden developed a voice which could both subvert and travel with the line, toppling it into irony and recovering it for song.
But these I think are symptoms of a deeper disquiet. Having subsumed his painful conflicts of identity in the collective excitements and commitments of the Thirties, an uneasy and deeply displaced sensibility emerged from it. And a self-doubting one. The self-doubts were generous: they were poetic, not simply personal. The lyric shadow of De la Mare and Georgian England still unsettled Day Lewis. He lacked the sexual disaffection which made Auden towards the end of his life - in a contradictory and yet consistent way - a coterie poet. He lacked the irony which turned MacNeice into a cold and melodious dissident. His was a tender, unsavage, lyrical sensibility, stranded outside the courts and centuries and systems of faith where they might have prospered.
But enough of carping. This is a superb book. It will remain absolutely essential reading for anyone who wants to understand British poetry in this century. Although Albert Gelpi remains an unswerving advocate of Day Lewis's work throughout, and that is his self-chosen priority, he is also diligent as a Virgilian guide - sceptical and informative - through an underworld of twentieth century poetry. His comments on American poetry and its differences from the formal concerns of a British generation are particularly interesting. Above all, Albert Gelpi's humane and enlightening commentary serves as a reminder of something it is all too easy to lose sight of in the present climate: that the critic, scholar, reader of poems and lover of poetry can still be one and indivisible.
1 Albert Gelpi, Living in Time: The Poetry of C. Day Lewis (Oxford University Press)
This article is taken from PN Review 121, Volume 24 Number 5, May - June 1998.