Simon Turner reviews
Cecil Day-Lewis: A Life
by Peter Stanford
There are too few reviewers out there willing to admit to their own shortcomings, the gaps in their literary knowledge. I want to buck that particular trend by admitting to an almost total ignorance of Cecil Day-Lewis – both of his life and of his work – before embarking upon Peter Stanford’s new biography of the poet. I was aware that he had been Poet Laureate, though I could not have confidently placed him within a chronology, but beyond that, I knew little aside from the fact of his siring a certain celebrated actor and part-time cobbler.
Why should Day-Lewis have fallen so comprehensively off the literary radar, when the other poets of the ‘MacSpaunday’ gestalt – Auden, MacNeice, Spender – remain fixtures in the 20th century literary firmament? Ian Hamilton, in Against Oblivion, suggests that Day-Lewis’ day in the sun was chiefly a matter of moving among the right literary circles, and whilst this is true to a certain extent – Auden (more on Wystan later) looms large in ‘Red Cecil’s’ life, and Day-Lewis made friendships and associations with a number of leading lights of his day (which included having a passionate extra-marital affair with the novelist Rosamond Lehmann) – this theory tends to downplay the quality of Day-Lewis’s verse.
For if Day-Lewis is not quite the equal of Auden in matters of technical range and complexity – and let’s face it, who is? – his work is consistently heartfelt (too heartfelt, in some regards), where Auden’s poetry, at its most formally accomplished, tends towards an epigrammatic irony which all too easily slides into somewhat glib and detached formulations. Spender, meanwhile, is by no means the technical equal of Day-Lewis, and his reputation rests mostly on the prose works he published later on in life: the autobiography World Within World, and the fascinating Journals (fascinating as much as for what they tell us about other people as for what they teach us about Spender himself). All of which points to a single, undeniable fact: that, whatever his shortcomings, Day-Lewis has been unfairly neglected by the critical establishment, and by the general poetry readership, although the latter, already a chimera, has been dwindling steadily for some years now. Standford’s remit, then, is not simply to write a biography of Day-Lewis, but to rescue him from the ignominious oblivion that literary history seemed to have cast him into.
If nothing else, Day-Lewis’s life and work offer fascinating cautionary tales as to what can happen when a poet allows the wider forces of his historical situation to overtake his aesthetic considerations as a writer. Indeed, the most gripping segments of Stanford’s book concern Day-Lewis’s association with the Communist Party in the 1930s, and his often anguished efforts to match his output to some putative notion of ‘political’ poetry which might do some kind of good in the public arena. The watchword in this period is ‘synthesis’ – synthesis of modern and traditional components in poetry; synthesis of the political and the personal; synthesis of ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ poetry elements into a unified whole that would address the issues of the day in new and innovative ways, but which would, nonetheless, also be written in such a way as to avoid alienating the common reader.
A tall order by anyone’s standards, and Day-Lewis’s work, more often than not, failed to live up to these high ideals, lapsing at its worst – as in his polemical modern mystery play Noah and the Waters (1936) – into a dogmatic reassertion of Comintern rhetoric, rather than adhering to the stricter standards of poetry. Stanford, in his consideration of Day-Lewis’s poetic output in this period, paints a compelling picture of a man struggling to come to terms with the essential contradiction between his political commitment on the one hand, and his commitment to his art on the other.
Struggling, too, with the figure of Auden, which brings me to one of the central flaws of the biography – a flaw which, I should point out, is by no means of Stanford’s own making. As I noted above, the book is at its most compelling in relation to the political and aesthetic debates of the 1930’s, a period in which Auden loomed large. All of the MacSpaunday poets struggled to escape from under his shadow, though it is Day-Lewis who has perhaps suffered most in this regard. The problem is that, without Auden, and the political and aesthetic debates which he embodies, much of the drama would be absent from Day-Lewis’s biography. Fascinating as his personal life is – a childhood dominated by figures of almost fairy-tale proportions (his mother died young, his father was over-bearing and unpredictable, his step-mother was loathed), a tempestuous domestic situation (tempestuous because of Cecil’s tendency to stray outside of marriage) – it is at those moments when the outside world, in the form of Communism, the Spanish Civil War, and the seriousness of World War Two, impinge upon the personal sphere that Stanford’s book is at its most gripping and vivid. A drawback is, of course, that many of these events, from Day-Lewis’s perspective, also revolve around his relationship with Auden. If Day-Lewis struggled to get out of the shadow of Auden, then this is a problem that the biographer of Day-Lewis must contend with too.
Another drawback is that Day-Lewis’s second career as a mystery writer, under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake, is given relatively short shrift. Of course, the primary remit of Stanford’s biography is to rescue the reputation of Day-Lewis as a poet first and foremost, but there is a sense that a certain hierarchical thinking – high versus low literature – is creeping into proceedings. Perhaps a biography is not really a place for such considerations, but I would like to have seen the Nicholas Blake books considered as literature, pure and simple, to a greater extent than they were. Stanford notes that Day-Lewis saw his mystery novels as a means of reaching a greater readership than his poetry afforded, so it is a shame that he sidelines the novels in favour of the poetry, rather than considering the various ways in which their concerns and approaches might have intersected. As it stands, the mysteries are treated chiefly in terms of the autobiographical material which went into their production, and their commercial prospects. Stanford’s close critical reading is good in all cases, but it would have been interesting to see something more done with them.
These are, however, minor quibbles. This is an excellent biography, which succeeds in getting the balancing act between a consideration of the writer as a man and as an artist just about right. Moreover, it succeeds too in its underlying aim: to rescue Day-Lewis from obscurity, and to place his poetry back in the public and critical eye. Stanford’s primary achievement is to create a compelling narrative of aesthetic development, as Day-Lewis’s work runs from late-Georgian lyricism, through a politicised modernity in the shadow of Auden, and out into the plainer diction of his mature work. That this final triumphant stage in Day-Lewis’s career also represents, at least in part, a Bloomian overthrowing of Wystan, and an escape from his perceived influence on his own work, is no coincidence.
Simon Turner's first collection, You Are Here, was published by Heaventree in 2007. He co-edits the blogzine Gists and Piths. He lives in Warwickshire, and is currently at work on his second collection. His own blog is Difficult Second Album.
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