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C. Day Lewis (Cecil Day-Lewis) Biography

(1904–72), (Cecil Day-Lewis), Oxford Poetry, Transitional Poem, From Feathers to Iron, The Magnetic Mountain

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British poet and, as ‘Nicholas Blake’, writer of detective fiction, born in Ballintogher, near Sligo, educated at Sherborne School and Wadham College, Oxford. The son of a clergyman, Day Lewis lived in England from 1905; in 1908 his mother died and he was looked after by the aunt to whom he paid moving tribute in the late poem ‘My Mother's Sister’. At Oxford his literary associates included Stephen Spender and W. H. Auden, with whom he produced the 1927 edition of Oxford Poetry. Following two early volumes, Transitional Poem (1929) and From Feathers to Iron (1931), he published The Magnetic Mountain (1933), which frequently echoes Auden's style and diction and casts him in a heroic light in ‘Look west, Wystan, lone flyers…’ The volume established him as the most outspoken example of the poet as an instrument of revolutionary socialism; he outlined his views in Revolution in Writing (1935). He was a member of the Communist Party from 1935 to 1938 and with Auden, Spender, and MacNeice, contributed to various leftwing journals. He also edited The Mind in Chains (1937), a collection of ideological essays, and The Echoing Green (1937), the first of his several anthologies of poetry. After the mid-1930s the socialist emphasis in his poetry gradually diminished; in 1937 Geoffrey Grigson disparaged his incipient conservatism in becoming a member of the Book Society Committee, and by 1946, when he was appointed Clark Lecturer at Cambridge, he was firmly identified with the literary establishment. From 1951 to 1956 he was Oxford Professor of Poetry, and he succeeded Masefield as Poet Laureate in 1968.

Although political elements are present in Overtures to Death (1938), the poetry has lost the hectoring urgency that was evident in earlier work. The astringent lyricism apparent in Poems in Wartime (1940) owes something to Hardy's example; numerous subsequent collections include An Italian Visit (1953), Pegasus and Other Poems (1957), and The Whispering Roots (1970). A Collected Poems (1954) was supplemented by Ian Parsons's edition of Poems of C. Day Lewis, 1925–1972 (1977); Collected Poems of C. Day Lewis, ed. Jill Balcon, was published in 1982 and The Complete Poems in 1992. His later poetry ranges through a variety of modes and levels of emotional and imaginative intensity: while some have praised his classical and allegorical manner, of which ‘Pegasus’ is a notable example, others have found it dryly formal; similarly, the refined rural lyricism of many poems is both admired and disregarded as inconsequentially Georgian. Among the finest of his poems are those which form moving affirmations of deep personal affection. The Friendly Tree (1936) was the first of several autobiographical novels, and The Buried Day (1960) is a volume of autobiography. As ‘Nicholas Blake’ he published twenty well-constructed and entertaining detective stories between 1935 and 1968, in the majority of which the amateur detective is the Audenesque Nigel Strangeways, who takes his name from the Manchester prison and in his conception owes something to E. C. Bentley's Philip Trent. In the first, A Question of Proof (1935), set in a preparatory school, the author draws on his experiences as a schoolmaster at Summer Fields School, Oxford, and Cheltenham Junior School. Among the best are Thou Shell of Death (1936; US title Shell of Death), The Beast Must Die (1938), The Smiler with the Knife (1938), The Case of the Abominable Snowman (1941; US title The Corpse in the Snowman), Minute for Murder (1947), Head of a Traveller (1949), End of Chapter (1957), and The Worm of Death (1961). As a translator he is noted for his versions of Virgil's Georgics (1940), The Aeneid (1952), and The Eclogues (1963) and for his highly acclaimed rendering of Valéry's Le Cimetière Marin (1946). C. Day-Lewis: An English Literary Life (1980) by his son Sean Day-Lewis reveals the uncertainties and complexities of attitude informing much of his writing.

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