The Blagger's Guide To: Cecil Day-Lewis

The Poet Laureate, political activist and Casanova

Sunday 04 November 2012 01:00

The papers of the former poet laureate Cecil Day-Lewis have been donated to the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The stash of some 54 boxes, containing essays, drafts of poems and letters from many eminent 20th-century figures, were presented to the university on Tuesday by his children, the actor Daniel and the cookery writer Tamasin. "If the manuscripts had ended up outside the country, it would have saddened us all as a family, as the poets who became papa's lifelong friends and peers all met up at Oxford as undergraduates," they said.

Day-Lewis was born in Ireland in 1904, the son of an Anglican vicar. The family moved to England the following year, but he would always consider himself Anglo-Irish, and Ireland is a recurring theme in his poems. After attending Sherborne School (with fellow Ireland-born poet Louis MacNeice), he read classics at Oxford, where he became a close friend of WH Auden, helping him to edit the 1927 edition of the literary magazine Oxford Poetry. With Stephen Spender, they would become known as the Thirties Poets, a group of politicised left-wing writers; rival poet Roy Campbell lumped them all together as MacSpaunday. Day-Lewis was a member of the Communist Party for three years and was the most politically active of the group.

In 1928, he married Constance Mary King, the daughter of a teacher at his old school. He had two children with her and worked as a schoolmaster. Tall and handsome, he was much sought after, and, during the 1940s, had an affair with the novelist Rosamond Lehmann. Torn between two women, he agonised over his double life in his poetry. In 1951, his first marriage dissolved, and he married the actress Jill Balcon, by whom he had Daniel and Tamasin.

In 1935, he wrote a crime novel under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake, to top up his income. It proved a hit, and he went on to write a further 19, most of them starring his gentleman detective, Nigel Strangeways.

After the war, when he worked for the Ministry of Information, he was asked to deliver the Clark lectures at Cambridge. In one, he pondered whether an advert for shoes qualified as poetic imagery: "Midsummer flooding the fields with flowers! Oh the bliss of the sun-filled hours when foot-forgotten in Panda shoe, you dream along under cloudless blue!" He concluded it didn't, as it had "no emotion, no passion".

From 1951, he taught poetry at Oxford; then, in 1962, moved to Harvard. In 1968, upon the death of John Masefield, he was appointed Poet Laureate, but he held the post for only four years. In 1972, he died of pancreatic cancer while staying with Kingsley Amis and Elizabeth Jane Howard at their home in Hertfordshire. She had also been his lover, once saying, "I would defy any woman to resist him."

Unusually, Day-Lewis is not commemorated in Poet's Corner at Westminster Abbey, an honour typically bestowed on the Poet Laureate. The reason is not clear, but abbey authorities at the time were thought to have disapproved of his highly political writings from the 1930s. Instead, he is buried in Stinsford, in the same churchyard as Thomas Hardy, whom he asked to lie as close as possible.

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