C Day-Lewis a Life by Peter Stanford

Published by Continuum £25.00

Review by Cameron Self

The press release which accompanies the book tells us that Peter Stanford’s aim in writing it was to ‘reassess the work of a poet lauded in his lifetime but whose literary reputation has latterly become a matter of controversy’. This may, in fact, be a masterly piece of understatement - as Day-Lewis' reputation seems to have undergone an almost unprecedented collapse. When John Betjeman succeeded him as Poet Laureate in 1972, he remarked with typical generosity that: ‘I am absolutely sure Cecil’s poetry is underrated. He persists in the mind. I only rattle on the ears.’ Thirty five years on, at a time when Betjeman has been elevated to the status of ‘national treasure’, Day-Lewis seems to have slipped off the scale altogether. To add insult to injury, the authorities at Westminster Abbey refused to allow him a plaque in Poets’ Corner. 

Peter Stanford’s biography is an attempt to rekindle interest in the Day-Lewis the poet - but he certainly has his work cut out. 

Most of us know that Day-Lewis was one quarter of the four-headed monster ‘MacSpaunday’ - a term coined by Roy Campbell to encompass that group of Oxford educated, left wing 1930s poets including: Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender and W. H. Auden. Later, Day-Lewis would become a pillar of the literary establishment - becoming both Poet Laureate and Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. Also, unbeknown to many, he was a writer of detective fiction (under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake) and a skilled translator

Stanford deals effectively with his formative years: his birth in Ballintubbert, Ireland, the death of his mother when he was four and what Day-Lewis called his father’s ‘smother love’. Stanford is also especially good on his relationship with Auden - how it helped to shape him as a poet - but also  how Auden was far more a competitor than the mentor we were previously led to believe.

However, the centre of the book is undoubtedly the poet’s personal life which, even by poetic standards, is messy. Stanford weaves his way tactfully through Day-Lewis’ myriad extra-marital relationships. Originally married to Mary King the daughter of a master at Sherborne, he had affairs with Billie Curran and Rosamond Lehmann. Even after his second marriage to the actress Jilll Balcon - 21 years his junior - he was still straying - notably with the model Elizabeth Jane Howard and the novelist A.S Byatt. Jane Howard said of Day-Lewis: ‘There is a very hard, selfish core to Cecil that was very much concealed behind the charm’ and this seems to sum him up rather well. Like some other poets Day-Lewis seemed to feel that ‘playing the field’ would help to preserve his poetic inspiration; it certainly made him a prolific poet - some would argue too prolific. However, unlike Robert Graves (who similarly courted the muse) he didn't leave behind a particularly inspiring collection of love poetry.

One of the main problems that Stanford has is actually convincing us that Day-Lewis’ poetry deserves to be re-valued at all. He was clearly one of those fortunate writers who happened to be in the right place at the right time and almost certainly achieved a degree of fame which was undeserved. That’s not to say that his work isn’t competent, well-crafted and credible; it just lacks that unique sound.

Stanford identifies how he suffered from being in Auden’s shadow and never truly found his own voice. Even in later life, when he had turned away from his earlier concern with politics, he again fell under the influence of other poets - this time Robert Frost, Edward Thomas and most notably Thomas Hardy. (In fact, he is buried next to him at Stinsford Churchyard in Dorset.)  

I have to admit that I did enjoy reading some of Day-Lewis' late Irish inspired poems such as Ass in Retirement and Ballintubbert House, Co. Laois which appeared in his final collection The Whispering Roots (1972). These are evocative and touching poems - yet there 's still a nagging feeling in the back of my mind that MacNeice could have written them better.

So, will this book kick start Day-Lewis’ flagging reputation? I doubt it. But it is certainly a detailed and sensitive account of a complex man and will hopefully spark debate. Success, as General Patton famously observed is:  ‘How high you bounce when you hit bottom.’ It remains to be seen whether Cecil will bounce. If he does, then future generations may yet give him a spot in Poets’ Corner.


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