Lewis, Cecil Day (Nicholas Blake) (1904–72), poet, was born 27 April 1904 in Ballintubbert, Co. Laois, the only child of Frank Cecil Day-Lewis, Church of Ireland curate, and his wife, Kathleen Blake (née Squires), herself the youngest of the ten children of the director of the General Register Office, Dublin.
Origins His paternal grandmother was a Butler, leading Frank Day-Lewis to claim descent from the House of Ormonde and his son to think of himself as a possible relation of W. B. Yeats (qv). His maternal grandmother was a direct descendant of an uncle of Oliver Goldsmith (qv). In later life Day Lewis also liked to recall that he was descended from the Eyres of Eyrecourt, Co. Galway (it gave him particular pleasure that an ancestor in this line was called Jane).
The family name originated in 1863 when Day Lewis's paternal grandfather and a brother became the heirs of their childless uncle Frank Lewis – a wholesale perfumier – and added his surname to their own. Day Lewis came to dislike his conspicuously middle-class first name and never used it in public after 1927. At the same time he dropped the hyphen, which he regarded as a product of snobbery; this was a matter of usage and did not involve a legal name change. He is thus best known as C. Day Lewis, the form employed here. In the last decade of his life, Day Lewis, who described himself as too lazy for genealogical research, developed the mistaken belief – derived from his friend the Irish-American academic John Kelleher – that ‘Day’ was an anglicisation of the Gaelic Clare name Ó Deaghaidhe or O'Dea (the family was in fact of Kentish origin). He therefore resumed the ‘Day-Lewis’ form; his children have used both forms, but predominantly prefer ‘Day-Lewis’.
Youth and education The family moved to England when Cecil was aged eighteen months, apparently because his father thought his prospects would be brighter in the Church of England. Two years later Kathleen died of lymphoma, after which her sister Agnes Squires (nicknamed ‘Knos’) came over from Dublin to keep house for her widowed brother-in-law. There is some dispute about how far Day Lewis regarded Agnes as a substitute mother, but they retained a lifelong fondness for each other, and he saw her as having given up whatever chance she had of marriage and children to care for him. (There was no possibility that she might marry Frank; the anglican church forbade marriage to a deceased wife's sister.) Since the ambitious Rev. Day-Lewis consciously distanced himself from his own large extended family, Cecil's continuing contact with Ireland came through Knos. Every year between 1908 and 1914 Cecil and Knos spent summer holidays at Monart Rectory, near Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, where her unmarried brother William Squires was rector (1908–44); another sister, Alice, kept house for him. Day Lewis developed there a fondness for rural life and for music, and recalled it as foundational in his sensuous education. Knos was a trained singer with a liking for the Irish melodies of Thomas Moore (qv). Day Lewis always liked to sing Moore, and in January 1952 played him on a BBC radio docudrama, ‘Blame not the bard’; he also learned Irish patriotic ballads from a friendly gardener, and these frequently appear at incongruous points in his detective stories. Monart was vital to Day Lewis's sense of himself as Irish and his retention of an Irish accent, although his self-identification as Irish also reflected enthusiasm for Yeats and a lifelong need to see himself as an outsider; he wrote that he at once yearned for roots and dreaded them. This ambivalence had its basis in Day Lewis's relationship with his father, whom he initially hero-worshipped but later came to see as smothering.
As part of his adolescent self-definition the young Day Lewis expressed support for Sinn Féin during the War of Independence period (though he also described this as no more deeply thought through than his habitual support for the Irish rugby team in international matches). He retained a mild lifelong fascination with Michael Collins (qv), which may derive from newspaper coverage at this time.
In 1921 Knos returned to Ireland to keep house for William Squires after Alice died (partly as a result of the shock of an IRA arms raid on the rectory) and Rev. Day-Lewis remarried. In 1944 Knos and Rev. Squires retired to Monkstown, Co. Dublin, where the latter died in 1955. Day Lewis retained contact with Knos throughout her life; he paid occasional visits to Wexford in the early 1920s and it was at Monart in 1924 that he became engaged to his first wife. Knos expressed grief at his abandonment of the anglican faith, to which she remained devoutly attached, and at his divorce and remarriage. After her death in December 1966 (following a long period of senile confusion in a Rathmines nursing home) Day Lewis wrote a poem asking why, if the God whom she revered actually existed, He had allowed her to suffer so much. ‘If she was not a saint, I do not know / What saints are ...’ (‘My mother's sister’, in The room, 1965).
Day Lewis was educated at Wilkie's preparatory school, London, at Sherborne School, where he began his long connection with Dorset and grew dissatisfied with anglicanism, and at Wadham College, Oxford, which he entered in 1923. At university he studied classics, later recalling the ‘moodiness and fitful enthusiasm and the rudeness to which his cult of intellectual honesty could lead him’. After graduation he became a schoolmaster, securing a position at Summerfields School, Oxford, with the assistance of the Anglo-Irish writer L. A. G. Strong (qv) – one of several Anglo-Irish friends whom he attracted throughout his life. On 27 December 1928 he married Mary Constance King, with whom he was to have two sons, and was appointed assistant master at Larchfield School, Helensburgh, near Glasgow.
Social poet Day Lewis was a prolific poet from an early age; his first collections were Beechen vigil (1925) and Country courts (1928). His early work was Georgian-style pastoral with classicist influences. At Oxford he fell under the influence of W. H. Auden, and during the 1930s he was regarded as one of the ‘pylon poets’ or ‘social poets’, reacting against the cultural conservatism of Stanley Baldwin's Britain and the elitist modernism of T. S. Eliot. This group, lampooned by the right-wing poet Roy Campbell as ‘MacSpaunday’ – Louis MacNeice (qv), Stephen Spender, Auden, and Day Lewis – combined treatment of working-class and technological subjects with sympathy for communism as offering hope for a better and more just society than Depression-era Britain; from the mid-1930s this was reinforced by a sense that communism offered the only hope of effective resistance to fascism. Day Lewis, who came to be seen as the most politically doctrinaire of the group and provided its manifesto – A hope for poetry (1936) – was influenced by industrial conditions around his father's rectory at Edwinstowe in the Nottinghamshire coalfield and reaction against the stifling Victorian conservatism of his father and stepmother.
Day Lewis's political concerns are reflected in such collections as From feathers to iron (1931), The magnetic mountain (1933), Noah and the waters (a 1936 mystery play in which Noah's decision to sail out upon the waters is allegorically equated with the decision to commit oneself to left-wing politics; Day Lewis later repudiated this work, believing his political commitment had in this instance led him to produce substandard verse), and Overtures to death (1938). These works were praised as offering a new style for a new age and for their vigorous use of language and metrical variety; some critics, however, claimed that they displayed intellectual aplomb and technical virtuosity at the expense of emotional intensity. The critic Geoffrey Grigson, who developed a lifelong hatred for Day Lewis, complained that the modernity of his subject matter disguised his formal conservatism.
The preoccupation with the divided self found in these volumes was a common denominator of radical poetry in the 1930s and reflected not only Day Lewis's own political and personal crises, but also both his yearning for certainty – he later wrote that he might have turned to Rome instead of Moscow had he not been inoculated against catholicism by his Irish protestant background – and a sense that he always kept something in reserve.
Day Lewis's radicalism (which included membership of the Communist Party (1936–9)) was frowned on by the governors of Cheltenham College, where he taught (1930– 35). A lecture to the Friends of the Soviet Union led to his being summoned before the board; one governor commented, in a manner Day Lewis found reminiscent of fascism, that anyone in his regiment who expressed such views would have been savaged by the junior officers, then forced to resign.
The Blake novels The governors were further irritated in 1935 when Lewis published, under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake, A question of proof, a murder mystery set in a public school in which the detective, Nigel Strangeways, is based on Auden, an adulterous romance involving the wife of a headmaster is depicted with great sympathy (Day Lewis had to assure the governors that this aspect of the plot was not autobiographical; fortunately he received the support of the headmaster), and the murderer suffers from sexually driven religious mania. This excursion into genre fiction was inspired by the thought that, since he had read many detective stories – he wrote a regular column on new titles for the Spectator – he might be able to write one. Day Lewis published nineteen further Nicholas Blake novels at intervals throughout his life, sixteen featuring Strangeways; their success, with the assistance of a contract committing him to publish three literary novels in three years, allowed him to leave the teaching profession and become a full-time professional writer. Of these works, Child of misfortune (1939), in which Day Lewis's experiences are divided between two brothers from an Anglo-Irish background, has the strongest Irish content; his friend Elizabeth Bowen (qv) thought it started well but fell to pieces about half-way through. It shows noticeable ambivalence towards Irishness – ‘an incompleteness, a melancholy, a conflict never to be resolved, the cruelty beneath that sharpness, the softness slurring over a quality of indecision ... a brilliant paradox concealing an abysmal falsehood’, and includes a scene in which a character based on Rev. William Squires is killed by the IRA under circumstances resembling the death in 1921 of the loyalist Mrs Lindsay.
Day Lewis always made it clear that he did not regard the Nicholas Blake novels as serious works of art, but that they should not be dismissed as purely commercial. He used them to explore certain morbid psychological states, such as paranoia and the sadistic desire to dominate and control, and to continue his central project of self-analysis. Although he knew the detective story was deeply shaped by the conservative expectations of its middle-class audience, some early Blake titles contain subversive undercurrents. There's trouble brewing (1937) features an exploitative provincial businessman whose entire life is described as a series of legalised crimes, while The smiler with the knife (1939) depicts a nationwide fascist conspiracy combining the aristocratic nostalgia of the ruralist ‘English Mistery’ with the ruthlessness, organisational skills, and financial resources of the French cagoulards. Orson Welles bought an option on this novel before filming Citizen Kane, thinking of adapting it to an American setting and turning the fascist leader into a portrait of Howard Hughes. Another early Blake novel, The beast must die (1938 – his best-seller; it sold 300,000 copies in America and 130,000 in Britain), was filmed by Claude Chabrol in 1969; it was transferred to a contemporary French setting but retained its jaundiced portrayal of bourgeois domesticity. The Blake novels’ explorations of paranoid egotism often contain implicit or explicit references to the fascist dictators. These works are also of interest for their occasional use of Irish subject matter at a time when this rarely featured in Day Lewis's poetry (the second Blake novel, Thou shell of death (1936), features a character based on T. E. Lawrence with an admixture of Michael Collins) and, in later titles, for their concealed exploration of some of the author's own experiences. Day Lewis also published two children's novels under his own name, Dick Willoughby (1933) and The Otterbury incident (1948).
Politics While the decision in 1936 of the Irish Academy of Letters not to admit Day Lewis (reversed in 1968) was influenced by his political views, and although MI5 opened a file on him, his radicalism was short-lived; he was ambivalent about submitting to the authority of the Communist Party and felt increasing disquiet at the activities of the Russian Stalinist regime. In August 1938 he moved his family to Musbury, a remote village in Devon near the Dorset boundary. This led him to drop out of his party activities; his disquiet was crystallised by the Hitler–Stalin pact, and the Russian invasion of Finland in winter 1939 led to his final defection. Day Lewis came to believe Marxism was fatally flawed by the view that any action could be justified if it advanced the cause of revolution – a view which in his opinion made human relations impossible by leading the true believer to treat other human beings as means rather than ends. In later years he maintained an ambivalent attitude towards his former activities, declaring that most of the causes involved had been righteous but that he was not the right person to engage in such political action. It has been suggested that he retained his political faith longer than his associates precisely because he lived a relatively sheltered life: while Auden and Spender revelled in Weimar Berlin, Day Lewis spent his first weekend outside Britain or Ireland when he visited Paris in 1938 and did not undertake a lengthy foreign visit until 1947.
It has also been remarked that he and the other pylon poets were considerably assisted in their careers by the social and intellectual formations which they denounced so vigorously, and that Day Lewis maintained a certain detachment from his proletarian comrades even as he romanticised them. It should be noted, however, that he continued to regard himself as a left-liberal (he was a consistent Labour voter after breaking with communism), that in the early 1950s he was prepared to join communist-linked peace movements, and that he was nearly refused a US visa because he thought it unnecessary to make an explicit public renunciation of his former commitments. His mood hardened after the Soviet suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, bitterly recalled in the Nicholas Blake novel The sad variety (1964). Day Lewis also retained for the rest of his life a concern for the social role and function of poetry and a concern to explain its significance.
Love and war After the outbreak of the war, Day Lewis took a leading role in the local home guard; during the summer of 1940 he lived in hourly expectation of having to fight a delaying action against German invasion forces. This experience led him to produce a best-selling translation of Virgil's Georgics as a tribute to the spirit of rural rootedness which he saw as embodied in his men, reflecting also the emergence of Hardy and Wordsworth as his major poetic models. Some years later, when he had to choose whether to obtain an Irish or a British passport, he decided to opt for British citizenship because he saw his experiences in 1940 as showing where his deepest roots lay. In the spring of 1941, however, he moved to London to undertake war duties in the Ministry of Information, thus beginning his drift away from Dorset and reintegration into metropolitan literary circles. Although his exemption from the armed forces provoked some jeering from enemies, Day Lewis in fact faced considerable risks by his presence in London during the Blitz. He remained at the ministry until 30 September 1946, when he became chief reader at the publishing firm of Chatto and Windus; this was his principal employment in later life, and he eventually served on the firm's board. In 1941 he also began to broadcast on BBC radio, which provided a significant source of revenue in the 1940s and 1950s.
There was another source of this distancing from Dorset. Shortly after moving to the West Country, Day Lewis embarked on a fiercely carnal affair with Edna ‘Billie’ Currell, the wife of a neighbouring farmer. This produced a son, William Currell (b. 1940), who was brought up as the child of his mother's husband. (Billie and Day Lewis retained sporadic contact thereafter, and it is possible that one of her younger children, John (b. 1947), was also his son.) Day Lewis believed that this affair marked his breakthrough to full maturity which, together with the experience of wartime solidarity, opened a powerful new vein of poetic creativity. He remembered it as the time when he had felt most intensely alive, and as late as 1968 he memorialised it in the Irish-set Nicholas Blake novel The private wound. At the same time the affair began the final breakdown of his marriage, and he remained aware of the pain it imposed on both families. (Two Blake novels contain apprehensive imaginings of a neglected illegitimate child turned vengeful psychopath.)
Day Lewis's reintegration into London literary life amid the dangers and intensities of the Blitz was accompanied from May 1941 by an intense affair with the novelist Rosamond Lehmann (1901–90), who helped significantly to broaden his aesthetic horizons; she introduced him to European travel after the war, and he responded with enthusiasm. The poetry collection An Italian visit (1953) was inspired by Lehmann, who delayed its publication by initially refusing permission to publish it after their break-up. Always catholic in his literary tastes, during this period Day Lewis explored new poetic models and experimented with many poetic modes. His poetry moved away from political preoccupations to become more personal and was expressed in sharper detail. Such collections as World over all (1943) and Poems 1943–47 (1957) deal with conflicts between sexual and parental love, personal destiny, and responses to physical experience. The affair with Lehmann brought considerable unhappiness both to his wife and to Lehmann, who saw him as the love of her life and obtained a divorce in the hope of marrying him; he spent considerable time at her mansion house in the Thames Valley and her daughter regarded him as a father figure. Day Lewis vacillated between the two women, telling Lehmann that he would divorce Mary when the children were grown up, while Mary still hoped he could be persuaded to return. In 1949, displaying a mixture of guilt and ruthlessness, he left both women for the actress Jill Balcon, whom he married on 27 April 1951. With her he had a daughter (the television producer Tamsin Day Lewis (b. 1953)) and a son (the actor Daniel Day Lewis (b. 1957), named after Daniel O'Connell (qv) in tribute to his father's Irish roots and after the Old Testament prophet in honour of his mother's Jewish descent).
In later years Day Lewis had a succession of intimate friendships with younger women, not always sexual; while he spoke of them as having been his ‘mistresses’, the term may have been used metaphorically, and some of them later explicitly denied having had sexual relations with him. Some family members believed that he tended to portray former mistresses as murder victims in the Blake novels. In several the murderer reflects aspects of the author's personality; two of them feature writers who are inadvertently stimulated to their highest peaks of creativity by participating in murders.
Awards and appointments Day Lewis's poetic output, though its sheer quantity often led to unevenness and repetition, and the success of critical works aimed at making the craft of poetry accessible to a wider audience (notably The poetic image, 1947) brought increasing acceptance and recognition, and he developed into an elder statesman of literature. He was Clark lecturer at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1946 and professor of poetry at Oxford (1951–6); in this he narrowly defeated C. S. Lewis (qv), whom he privately described as ‘Slogger C. Screwtape Lewis’ (Sean Day-Lewis, 203), as the result of a campaign reflecting tensions between Christian and unbelieving academics which was possibly decided by confusion between two similarly named candidates. Later he was Charles Eliot Norton professor of poetry at Harvard (1964–5), and Compton lecturer at Hull University (1968). He received a CBE (June 1950), was chairman of the Arts Council literature panel, and became a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (1944 – a council member from 1954, vice-president from 1959, Companion of Literature, 1965). In 1960 he was a defence witness in the Lady Chatterley's lover trial. He translated the work of Virgil during the Festival of Britain and gave many literary broadcasts and poetry readings. In 1966 he was appointed an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters; he was an honorary fellow of Wadham College and received honorary degrees (D.Litt.) from the universities of Exeter and Hull as well as from TCD. In 1967 Day Lewis was appointed poet laureate of England (he already acted as a stand-in for his predecessor, John Masefield (1878–1967)). He hoped to use the post to popularise poetry, but these hopes were restricted by age and increasing ill health.
Later work In 1960 Day Lewis published a memoir of his childhood and youth, The buried day; in 1962 he produced The gate and other poems, followed by the poetry collections The room (1965) and The whispering roots (1970). His last decade was marked by an increasing emphasis on his Irish roots and a corresponding intensification of his Irish accent. Motives for this turn of events included curiosity about his formative experiences as his elder relatives died off and witnessing the childhood of his second family (whom he took on annual holidays in the west of Ireland from 1964) as well as a desire to preserve some degree of outsider status amid his increasing official acceptance. Younger poets, such as those associated with the ‘Movement’ in the 1950s, increasingly tended to see him as an establishment figure; Eavan Boland – quoted by Collini – spoke of him writing regretfully in rosewater. Many late poems deal with his parents, relatives, and upbringing and with the 1916 rising (the 1966 commemoration of which he attended). A sympathetic poem on the history and undying faith of Ballintubber Abbey was issued in a limited edition to raise funds for its maintenance; his Irish-set novel The private wound (1968), which combines a shaky grasp of 1930s Irish politics and society with a portrayal of a blackthorn-wielding priest whose sincere belief that the fate of immortal souls justifies extreme punishment of the body, is treated by this self-confessedly churchy agnostic with surprising respect. On 7 March 1972 the mortally ill Day Lewis was one of twenty-seven signatories of a letter to the London Times calling for an end to internment in Northern Ireland.
Death and reputation In 1971 Day Lewis was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and he died 22 May 1972 at the Hertfordshire home of the writers Kingsley Amis and Elizabeth Jane Howard (a former lover of his). He was buried near the grave of Thomas Hardy in Stinsford churchyard, Dorset. His Collected poems were published by his widow in 1992.
Day Lewis's reputation suffered greater eclipse than any of his 1930s associates. He himself believed that he had fallen just short of greatness – a B+ brain with a B++ literary talent – and would be remembered if at all by a few poems from the late 1940s and early 1950s. He was widely accused of being a pasticheur, though he maintained that he extended his literary models rather than merely imitating them. While his later verse has some critical defenders (notably his eldest son and biographer Sean Day-Lewis) most critics favour his work of the 1940s, though his popular image is as a poet of the 1930s. The social and cultural historian Stefan Collini has presented him as aspiring to become the ‘Virgil of the Third Programme’; in his fluid identity, genuine though easily overlooked political commitments, lyric wistfulness, contemporary cachet, and unease about the value of poetry – his own included – he might also be compared to Thomas Moore, whose songs he loved from childhood.