Family donates Day-Lewis papers
Anglo-Irish poet Cecil Day-Lewis deserves greater popularity, Oxford University was told yesterday.
In life, he was self-deprecatory. In death, the world took his natural modesty too seriously, putting him in a lower tier behind his poetic contemporaries of the 1930s.
Yesterday, however, Wadham College in Oxford marked, perhaps, the renaissance of Cecil Day-Lewis, who was born in 1904 in Ballintubbert, Stradbally, Queen’s County, now Co Laois.
The celebration of Day-Lewis’s life was sparked by the donation of 54 boxes of his papers, manuscripts and letters by his son, the noted actor Daniel, and his daughter Tamasin, a documentary-maker and TV chef.
“This is a long-awaited celebration of the of the life of Cecil Day-Lewis,” said Sarah Thomas, who will have custody of his artistically significant papers in the Bodleian Library.
Praising his work, Cork-born Prof Bernard O’Donoghue, now Emeritus Fellow in English at Wadham, said he had been "misunderstood and under-rated for a long time".
Along with WH Auden, Stephen Spender and Louis MacNeice, Day-Lewis held strong communist sympathies during the 1930s, only to turn away following Stalin’s purges in 1938.
His strong political interests perhaps explain his lack of public popularity now, Prof O’Donoghue said. However, his 1943 collection, Word Over All and, particularly, his poem Where are the War Poets? contain lessons for today, Prof O’Donoghue told the event, attended by Lord Grey Gowrie amongst others.
In the poem, Day-Lewis had expressed mixed feelings towards those leading Britain during the second World War. He wrote: “They who in folly or mere greed/Enslaved religion, markets, laws,/Borrow our language now and bid/Us to speak up in freedom’s cause.
"It is the logic of our times,/No subject for immortal verse -/That we who lived by honest dreams/Defend the bad against the worse."
Such poems, said his daughter, Tamasin, will live on: “If you’ve written half a dozen poems that speak to the heart of people, it distils an essence. And ultimately that’s what poets do, they distil truths.”
His American friend and fellow academic, Albert Gelpi, recounted days of friendship in the 1960s when Day-Lewis came to Stanford University, freed of daily duties at publisher Chatto and Windus.
The Anglo-Irish poet had stood "as an avuncular guardian angel" over Gelpi’s romance with his soon-to-be wife, Barbara, displaying "charm and charming beneficence".
Unable to be in the United States for the wedding, Day-Lewis left behind a marriage song which has held pride of place next to the couple’s bed in the near 50 years since.
“I have tried to be true to him and to be true to his work,” said the Stanford academic, whose Living in Time: The Poetry of C Day-Lewis remains the definitive study of the poet’s work.
Incapable of being patronising, Day-Lewis was occasionally in gloom that his work would last after his death: “I would like to hope that its value will come again,” declared Prof O’Donoghue.