C DAY-LEWIS by PETER STANFORD (Continuum £25)
‘There were no decent Poets Laureate between Tennyson and Ted Hughes’ is a proposition that has appeared on several recent university exam papers. It is one with which Peter Stanford begs to differ. In his first literary biography, Stanford, an acclaimed religious commentator and historian, sets out to rehabilitate Cecil Day-Lewis, Poet Laureate from 1968 to his death in 1972, and now better known as an Oscar winner’s father than a significant figure in his own right.
Day-Lewis was born in 1904 of Anglo-Irish stock and, although his parents brought him to live in England at the age of three, partly to escape the slow decline of the Ascendancy and partly for the sake of his mother’s health, he always thought of himself as Irish. His mother died the following year and, despite his own disclaimer, he was left with deep emotional scars, manifest in a chronic inability to commit himself in love.
After a conventional English education at Sherborne, which was still reeling from the scandal of old boy Alec Waugh’s Loom of Youth, he won a scholarship to Wadham College, Oxford, which his tutor Maurice Bowra insisted was at least in part due to his prowess on the rugby field. University life was dominated by Harold Acton whom Day-Lewis contemptuously described as ‘that hairless eunuch’. While many of his contemporaries were experimenting with same-sex relationships, Day-Lewis was already involved with Mary King, the daughter of his former schoolmaster.
His relative lack of academic success freed Day-Lewis to concentrate on poetry which, despite all his other interests, remained his first love for the rest of his life. At Oxford he became increasingly radicalised, writing a letter of protest after a fellow student, a Jewish communist, was beaten up. He also began a long and sometimes tortuous amatory career after his seduction by a young psychiatrist, Margaret Marshall, who was later to marry W H Auden’s elder brother.
Day-Lewis met Auden while at Oxford and fell deeply under his spell. Over the following decade Day-Lewis was closely associated with Auden and his friends, Louis MacNeice and Stephen Spender. Although Auden proved to be the group’s dominant talent, it was Day-Lewis who in the 1929 Transitional Poem blazed the trail, introducing many of the themes that his fellow poets went on to tackle, including the relationship between loyalty and belief, the cult of the hero, and the poet’s conflicting allegiance to the bourgeois world and left-wing radicalism.
His 1933 collection, The Magnetic Mountain, was hailed in New York’s Partisan Review as ‘perhaps the most revolutionary poem as yet written by an Englishman.’ Despite the critical acclaim, the publisher Leonard Woolf had so many remaindered copies that he covered them with chintz to use as seating, until the news of TE Lawrence’s admiration led to a run on the book. The following year Day-Lewis brought out his poetic manifesto, A Hope For Poetry, which called for intelligent, engaged poetry based on ‘a perpetual interplay of private and public meaning’, a formula he himself was to adopt for the rest of his life.
In 1935 Day-Lewis, then a teacher at Cheltenham college, published his first detective novel under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake. His fictional investigator Nigel Strangeways displayed many of Auden’s characteristics although, as Day-Lewis later acknowledged, he increasingly came to resemble the author himself. The novel was not admired by the school governors who feared that the plot in which a young teacher had an affair with the headmaster’s wife might have a real-life parallel. Elsewhere it became hugely popular, sparking off a series which many consider to be Day-Lewis’ most enduring legacy.
Day-Lewis’ personal life was never simple. In 1928 he married Mary King, despite her growing awareness of her attraction to women. The couple had two sons, Sean and Nicholas, but early in the marriage Day-Lewis had an affair with Alison Morris, the wife of his father’s former curate. He later embarked on what he described as a ‘shameless, half-savage, inordinate affair’ with Billie Currall, the wife of a local farmer, who bore him one illegitimate son, William, and possibly another, John, when they resumed their relationship several years later.
The poet’s most sustained liaison was with the novelist, Rosamund Lehmann who, having described Day-Lewis as a ‘writer with a profound and happy experience of love’ in a review of his 1941 Poems in Wartime, discovered the truth of that description when they enjoyed a nine year romance. For the first time Day-Lewis had a mistress who was his social, intellectual and literary equal but, although he genuinely loved Lehmann, he refused to abandon his wife and sons in order to marry her. She was both the inspiration for and dedicatee of his 1943 collection, Word Over All, regarded by many critics as his crowning work.
The tensions of the romantic triangle were resolved when Day-Lewis chose to leave both wife and mistress for the actress Jill Balcon whom he had met on a BBC poetry programme. Lehmann, who learnt of her lover’s defection by letter, was bitterly hurt, claiming that he was mentally ill and complaining publicly of his treatment for the next two decades.
Day-Lewis found a new sense of peace with Balcon and their children Tamasin and Daniel. Even so, he entered into an affair with the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, one of his wife’s closest friends and his daughter’s godmother, which she later described as ‘one of the worst things I ever did’. More controversially, he enjoyed intimate relationships with the Indian writer, Attia Hosain, and the novelist, AS Byatt. Although Byatt denies that their affair was ever consummated, Balcon was deeply distressed to discover a letter speaking of their romantic afternoons in Bloomsbury.
A 1951 Sunday Times article described it as unfair that ‘accomplishments enough to satisfy the pride of six men should be united in Mr Day-Lewis.’ It is Stanford’s huge accomplishment in this excellent biography that he gives due weight to all the aspects of this multifarious man. He fully succeeds in his aim of returning a neglected figure to public attention and, in so doing, sheds new light on many of the key literary, social and political issues of his age.