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This article is taken from PN Review 161, Volume 31 Number 3, January - February 2005.

'Where are the War Poets' Bernard O'Donoghue

The year just ended was the centenary of the birth of Cecil Day Lewis, 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 recognised 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 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, C. ...

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