Magazine article The Spectator

Fresh Woods and Pastors New

Magazine article The Spectator

Fresh Woods and Pastors New

Article excerpt

C. DAY -LEWIS : A LIFE by Peter Stanford Continuum, £20, pp. 384, ISBN 9780826486035 . £16 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

It is good to be reminded of the leftwing writers of the 1930s who took arms against the injustices of a society in which they were themselves privileged members. Sometimes they were overhectic preachers -- Take off your coat: grow lean: Suffer humiliation: Patrol the passes alone And eat your iron ration.

-- but there was nobility in their cause.

Nevertheless, the question has to be asked: is any biography of a near-contemporary writer anything but an example of the Higher Gossip? Curiosity about the life can masquerade as revived interest in the work.

This careful account of one such life can on the whole be absolved. Peter Stanford is at pains to associate the private life of his subject with the public poems he made out of that life; and in the process of decoding reveals how immediately autobiographical they are. Cecil Day-Lewis was not a 'confessional' poet, in the sense of some of the poets (mostly American) who followed him.

However, when we learn here what particular emotional, temperamental and political millstones he felt himself being ground by, the more easily we appreciate the skill, and sometimes the success, with which he widens them from the personal into the more generally human. He was, in his heyday, a surprisingly 'popular' poet.

The 'political', the 'generally human', are specially significant in his case, but also with other well-known left-wing writers and poets of the period. They were fighting against such great odds that they seemed a sort of gang -- the 'MacSpaunday' composite invented by Roy Campbell, a poet who (almost) belonged to the opposite camp: MacNeice (the least ideological but certainly on the Left), Spender, Auden, and Day-Lewis, the most publicly committed of all, an active member of the Communist party; MI5 kept a file on him.

To regard them as naive, fighting and preaching on behalf of the working class when they had probably never met a member of it on equal terms, is too easy. They were in tune with their times: the Labour landslide of 1945 was a direct result of the inequities and crippling class-distinctions of the pre-war years, Auden's 'low, dishonest decade'. They preached as hard as they could, and it is remarkable how many of them were sons of, or closely related to, Anglican clergymen.

The novelist Rex Warner, an early friend and revolutionary mentor of Day-Lewis, was like him the son of a vicar, MacNeice the son of a bishop; Auden (in the 1930s hot against religion) had clerical grandfathers on both sides. …

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