|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’.
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
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.