Cecil Day-Lewis, commonly known as C. Day Lewis CBE, was an Irish-born poet and novelist. He was also a British poet Laureate from 1968, until he died in 1972. During his lifetime he wrote numerous poems, essays and detective stories and considered himself a voice of revolution in the field of poetry and politics. His works also include many mystery stories under the pen name of Nicholas Blake. Although his writings received great praise from critics, in the last years of his life, his image and reputation became a major issue of debate. His first collection of poems called “Beechen Vigil” got published in 1925, while the last one titled “The Whispering Roots” in 1970. Lewis also translated Virgil’s famous works. He was the father of the popular actor Daniel Day-Lewis and documentary filmmaker and television chef Tamasin Day-Lewis.
C. Day Lewis Childhood & Early Life
Lewis was born on 27th April 1904 in Ballintubber, Queen's County (now County Laois), Ireland to Reverend Frank Cecil Day-Lewis and Kathleen Squires. After the death of Lewis’ mother in 1906, he was brought up by his father and an aunt in London. He used to spend his summer holidays with his relatives in Wexford. Lewis always considered himself as an ‘Anglo-Irish’. He initially received education at Sherborne School. In 1923, he got admitted to Wadham College, Oxford and studied classics. During his days in Oxford, he dedicated himself entirely to poetry. In 1925, his first collection titled “Beechen Vigil” was published. Lewis graduated in 1927. Post the declaration of the Republic of Ireland in 1948, he opted British rather than Irish citizenship.
While the Second World War was going on, Lewis worked in the Ministry of Information as a publications editor. This institution was satirized by George Orwell in his dystopian Nineteen Eighty-Four, but was equally set up on Orwell's BBC experience. When the war ended, Lewis was appointed at the publisher “Chatto & Windus” and was given the post of a director and senior editor. In 1946, Lewis became the lecturer at Cambridge University and published his lectures in “The Poetic Image” in 1947. Afterwards he was appointed as a professor of Poetry at Oxford where he taught poetry from 1951 to 1956. Later, Lewis became the Norton Professor at Harvard University from 1962 to 1963. During his lifetime, Lewis served as the chairman of the Arts Council Literature Panel, vice-president of the Royal Society of Literature, an Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Member of the Irish Academy of Letters and a professor of rhetoric at Gresham College, London.
When Lewis was in Oxford, he became a member of the circled accumulated around W. H. Auden. He even helped Auden in the editing of the Oxford Poetry 1927. Unlike before, during the Second World War, Lewis was no more influenced by Auden and he was engaged in the development of a more traditional form of lyricism. According to some critics’ beliefs, Lewis acquired the complete status as a poet with his work “Word Over All”, published in 1943. It was this time only; he completely parted away from Auden. Also, in succession to John Masefield, Lewis was accredited as the “Poet Laureate” in 1968.
Lewis made his mind to add to his income from poetry by writing a detective novel titled “A Question of Proof” in 1935. In the novel, Lewis designed a character of Nigel Strangeways who was a novice investigator and gentleman detective who, as the nephew of an Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard, had the similar approach to, and healthy relations with, official crime investigation bodies as those accessed by other fictional detectives like Ellery Queen, Philo Vance and Lord Peter Wimsey. This publication was followed by nineteen more novels based on crimes. By the mid-1930s, Lewis was able to live entirely on the earnings of his writings. “Minute for Murder” published in 1947 was based against the background Lewis experiences of World War II. Nigel Strangeways was an Oxford graduate, six feet tall, blue-eyed, always at the disposal of Inspector Blount of Scotland Yard, the British Secret Service. In the book, Thou Shell of Death Strangeways met and married explorer Georgia Cavendish, but after WW II he continued as a widower. As time goes by, the character of Nigel Strangeways ages and changes, and sees the world less idealistically. Interestingly, in his later four novels namely “A Tangled Web”, “Penknife In My Heart”, “The Deadly Joker” and “The Private Wound”, Strangeways was absent.
When Lewis was young, he acquired communist views. He served as a member of the Communist party from 1935 to 1938. Also, his initial poetry was largely labeled by didacticism and a preoccupation accompanied with social themes. Lewis, in 1937, also edited “The Mind in Chains: Socialism and the Cultural Revolution” in which in the introduction he showed great support for a famous front against a “Capitalism that has no further use for culture”. By the late 1930s, he slowly alienated with communism.
Lewis marriedMary King in 1928. She was the daughter of a Sherborne master and was a schoolmaster in 3 schools. In 1940s, Lewis had a long and distressed love affair with the novelist Rosamond Lehmann. Lewis married second time with actress Jill Balcon in 1951. He had four children from his two marriages which includes Academy Award-winning actor “Daniel Day-Lewis”, food writer and journalist “Tamasin Day-Lewis”, and TV critic and writer “Sean Day-Lewis”. Sean also wrote a biography of his father “C. Day Lewis: An English Literary Life”.
Day-Lewis died on May 22, 1972 of pancreatic cancer in the Hertfordshire home of Kingsley Amis and Elizabeth Jane Howard. As Lewis was a deep admirer of Thomas Hardy, he had made arrangements to be interred as close as possible to the great author’s grave in Stinsford churchyard. His inscription on the gravestone reads as follows: “Shall I be gone long? / For ever and a day / To whom there belong? / Ask the stone to say / Ask my song”