Poem of the Day

He was a talented leftist radical who weathered a sensational love scandal to become Poet Laureate. Yet now, 100 years since his birth, Cecil Day Lewis is an oddly neglected hero. Here, his widow, the actress Jill Balcon, tells Peter Stanford why he deserves a revival - and a place in Westminster Abbey

Sunday 27 June 2004 00:00 BST

Jill Balcon first saw Cecil Day Lewis in 1937 when he came to adjudicate a verse-speaking competition at her boarding school. She was 12 and had been considered too young to enter. At 33, he was already a national figure, acclaimed with his contemporaries Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender and WH Auden - collectively satirised as "MacSpaunday" - as a leading light in the new generation of leftist British poets. "I can still see it so clearly," she says. "I was at the back of the school hall with the shrimps and there he was, this very tall, very handsome, very talented creature."

It was the last of these three that mattered most to her, for from her earliest days, Balcon was passionate about poetry. Today, at 79, that ardour is undiminished. "I have spent my entire life," she reflects, looking back on her six decades as an actress, "trying to interest people in poetry." Central to that mission has been the poetry of C Day Lewis, as he liked to be called on book jackets (he disliked the name Cecil). So it is fitting that in this centenary year of his birth, Balcon will be taking to the road to visit festivals and events with her one-woman show based on his work.

"Show" is perhaps the wrong word and Balcon is, she admits, both a stickler for accuracy and a lover of language. "I suppose you'd call it an evening's entertainment," she says. "At least I hope it's entertaining. I've compiled it from poems of his that should have some immediate response from an audience. There's nothing obscure about them. What I do is to put in a little mortar in between. I don't give a lecture, but I say enough to give the audience some idea about the provenance of the pieces and about him."

It is a subject on which she is, of course, uniquely qualified. They finally met face-to-face in 1947 and, in 1951, Balcon married the man she had admired from afar as a schoolgirl. They had 21 years together and two children - Daniel, the actor, and the food writer Tamasin - before Day Lewis, by then Poet Laureate, died of pancreatic cancer in 1972.

"It was like a fairy story," she says. "I never dreamed it was even possible, that I had a chance with him, and now because he has * been dead for so long, I sometimes find myself wondering, 'Did it really happen?'" she says.

Jill is a young person's name and there is something decidedly youthful about Balcon. She doesn't walk like a 79-year-old, I notice, as she shows me the dappled secret garden that rolls down the hill behind her chocolate-box thatched cottage in Hampshire. Her strong, expressive face also retains a girlishness. Most of all, unlike many theatre folk who feel that great age permits them to talk grandly and at length about their achievements, her reflex is to deflect questions back to me as we settle to talk in her music-room. It is not false modesty but an instinct for looking outwards and forwards that has evidently been, in her case, life enhancing.

Jill Balcon was a rising young actress (alongside Sybil Thorndike and Stanley Holloway, she had made an eye-catching screen debut as Madeleine Bray in the 1947 adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby) when her and Day Lewis's paths crossed again. Inevitably, their meeting was at a poetry reading. "We were both put in a BBC radio programme called Time for Verse. It went out at 10.38 - I remember the time exactly - on Sunday night when most of the world had already gone to bed. It was live and I wanted so much to impress him."

They met again later the same year, 1948 - at a poetry festival - and romance followed. When they married, her father, Sir Michael Balcon, then head of Ealing Studios, was so appalled that he refused to attend the wedding. Her mother came, but afterwards could only see her daughter at clandestine meetings in Hyde Park. Not only was Day Lewis 21 years Balcon's senior, he had divorced his wife, Mary, with whom he had two sons, and Balcon was named as co-respondent. His remarriage also marked the end of his nine-year affair with Rosamond Lehmann, author of 1920s and 1930s bestsellers Dusty Answer and Invitation to the Waltz.

"Nowadays," Balcon reflects, "divorce is just accepted. People can't imagine the drama that Rosamond made and the difficulties." Her voice - an expressive, finely modulated instrument that remains much in demand on audio books and for radio drama - trails off and her eyes glaze over as she rocks back in her chair.

The publication last year of Selina Hastings's definitive biography of Lehmann - who died in 1990 - has seen the episode once more picked over in public. In 2002, there was also a film adaptation of Lehmann's novel The Echoing Grove (retitled The Heart of Me and starring Helena Bonham Carter, Olivia Williams and Paul Bettany), written after Day Lewis left her and containing a central, duplicitous male character said to be based on him. Lehmann, it is suggested, was never reconciled to what happened. When she encountered Day Lewis at a party in 1955, she physically assaulted him.

"It is painful, of course it is," Balcon says. "One has to be reproached totally by Rosamond, but on the other hand, I know the other side of the story, how she drove him to the brink. Read his poem called 'The Neurotic' - which he wasn't, but he was pretty well at the cliff's edge. You can't be wholly uncritical of someone who was leading a double-life, of course you can't, but he had to get away."

However, it is not Day Lewis's personal life, but his work that is to be the focus of the centenary celebrations. To mark the anniversary, there is to be a new collection of some of his best-loved poems, edited by Balcon, and a two-part radio production for Radio 4 of The Beast Must Die, one of Day Lewis's 20 crime novels, written under the pen name Nicholas Blake. Balcon has also agreed to do a reading at a lecture given by Paul Muldoon, the current Oxford Professor of Poetry - a post held by her husband from 1951 to 1956 - on the subject of Day Lewis, Seamus Heaney and Robert Graves.

She sees herself as the keeper of the flame. * "Cecil wrote a poem in his collection The Room called 'The Widow Interviewed' and sometimes I think, God, I have become that relic. People interested in Cecil come down here to catch my last breath before I disappear under the soil," she laughs. "But the truth is that I do recall the genesis of the poems, Cecil coming into the room holding the first draft. It was so exciting and I do miss it terribly. When you live with a poet, if you see that they are not really with you, that they are light years away, far from feeling - 'Oh goodness, he's not with me and we're having a dinner party tonight' - you know he is doing what is his vocation. There is no other word for it. I always got the poems hot off the typewriter, the new baby as it were."

So, when she performs his works this summer, the public and the private will inevitably mix. "I get an enormous number of letters about a poem called 'Walking Away' (see page 29). It is part of the show. A lot of people identify with it. It is about letting a child go. In this case it was his son, Sean, going off to school, but everybody who is a parent identifies with the moment when the children have to go. I wept when my son went to kindergarten for heaven's sake. He was only four, but I knew that forever and ever he would be going to school, to college, to marry and all the things they do."

She is careful, when inviting people into this private world - particularly since she is both the widow and the mother of famous men - to do so with professionalism. "I regard the speaking of a poem as being the instrument through which the poem has to speak, no showing myself off."

Day Lewis has, in comparison to his fellow radicals Auden, MacNeice and Spender, faded from people's memories. "I think he's still on the schools' curriculum, but he has come into some sort of obscurity that I cannot quite fathom."

There were those in his lifetime who decried his work - notably the poet and critic Geoffrey Grigson, who waged something of a vendetta against him. In a 1963 letter to Day Lewis, though, Auden wrote: "How delighted I was to find your later poetry so much finer than your earlier." And he went on: "The critics, of course, think our lot stopped writing 25 years ago. How silly they are going to look presently."

Balcon, in a sense, is still waiting for that day to dawn, but there remains an active interest. In 1998, Albert Gelpi, Professor of American Literature at Stanford University, published Living in Time a densely argued appeal for a reassessment of Day Lewis as an original and important 20th-century poet. And, last year, an audio version of Day Lewis's translation of the Aeneid was released on which Balcon performed with Paul Schofield and Toby Stephens. Yet, by a curious irony, the interest in his poetry is matched by that of filmmakers in his Blake crime novels, written as Balcon puts it, "as our bread and a little bit of butter".

With a new biography by John Sutherland of Stephen Spender just out - Balcon read several Spender poems at the launch at the Queen Elizabeth Hall - and a more general revival of interest in the writers of the 1930s, Day Lewis seems destined for a renaissance.

But for his widow the hardest thing to bear has been the refusal of Westminster Abbey to allow Day Lewis a place in Poets' Corner, even though he was Poet Laureate from 1968. It does not come automatically to Poets' Laureate - "though, I think, Cecil thought it did" - but has already been awarded to his successor Sir John Betjeman. Despite receiving a letter of protest, organised by the Royal Society of Literature and signed by 200 leading writers, the Abbey authorities have remained unmoved. "What is infuriating is that they will not say why," Balcon muses, "so I cannot engage with them. I do retain a faint hope that sometime during the centenary year they may relent." She accepts that a literary reputation is a fickle thing and ultimately posterity has to be left to make its judgement on his poetry. She only asks, she says, that his work is considered and heard.

After marrying, Balcon's own career took second place to her husband's and to her children. She carried on acting - "I had to. People equate fame with riches but we never had money" - but mostly opted for television work as it fitted in more easily with the school day. In her mature years, however, she has enjoyed a revival. She appeared in two Derek Jarman films - Edward II and Wittgenstein - and was in the 1999 Hollywood film An Ideal Husband alongside Rupert Everett. Radio remains her most enduring love and recently the BBC commissioned Juliet Ace to write a play for her to mark her 60th anniversary on radio. Deadheading the Roses, broadcast last Christmas, featured her son Daniel playing her character's acolyte.

In between jobs, Balcon works away in her study overlooking the garden. Above her shoulder, as she sits at her desk, is a framed copy of a first draft of a Wilfred Owen poem, given to Day Lewis by Owen's brother Harold.

"Selina Hastings, Rosamond's biographer, came to see for her book," she reflects, "and we got on like a house on fire. As we were having lunch she looked at me and said, 'You're not at all the Witch of Endor I was expecting.'"

Jill Balcon performs on 4 July at Ledbury Festival, tel: 08454 581 743; 31 July at Petworth Festival, tel: 01798 343 523; and 14 November at St Mary's at Bramber, West Sussex, tel: 01903 816 205

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