Cecil Day Lewis

The British poet, essayist, and detective story writer Cecil Day Lewis (1904-1972) regarded himself as a voice of revolution, both poetic and political, taking as a necessary starting point the "certainty of new life."

Born on April 27, 1904, in Ballin togher, Ireland, C. Day Lewis was the only child of the Rev. F. C. Day Lewis. When Cecil was 4, his mother died and the family moved to England. He was educated at Sherborne School on a scholarship and was an exhibitioner at Wadham College, Oxford. Of necessity he taught at various schools until 1935, when he began to give full time to writing, editing, and political activity. During the 1930s he was a friend of W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender, sharing their leftist political views.

Lewis had written poetry seriously since he was 6 and in 1927 had been coeditor of Oxford Poetry. But his financial independence was achieved through his detective stories, which have been highly praised and have been regarded by some critics as achievements on a par with his poetry. He said of them that they release "a spring of cruelty" that is in all men.

During 1941-1946 Lewis was editor of books and pamphlets for the Ministry of Information. In 1946 he was appointed Clark lecturer at Trinity College, Cambridge, and in 1951 professor of poetry at Oxford. He has been said to have mellowed by this time and abandoned the revolutionary direction of his early work, with some loss of force. In 1964-1965 he was the Charles Eliot Norton professor of poetry at Harvard. After 1962 he was a member of the Arts Council; he was a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Society of Arts.

Throughout his career Lewis published poetry, an increasing amount of criticism, and detective stories signed Nicholas Blake. In 1964 he edited the amended edition of one of his spiritual ancestors-The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen. His publications are too numerous to list or to discuss here. The reader may want to explore first what has appeared in standard anthologies and in Lewis's own collections: Collected Poems, 1935; Short Is the Time (poetry from 1936 to 1943), 1945; Poems, 1943-47, 1948; Collected Poems, 1954; The Gate, and Other Poems, 1962; Requiem for the Living, 1964; and The Room, and Other Poems, 1965. For his critical views, one may look at Revolution in Writing, 1935; The Poet's Task, 1951; The Poet's Way of Knowledge, 1957; and The Lyric Impulse, 1965. Louis Untermeyer has said that the essays in Lewis's A Hope for Poetry (1934) are "by far the best analysis of recent poetry that has yet appeared."

In 1968 Lewis was appointed poet laureate. He died in London on May 22, 1972.

Further Reading on Cecil Day Lewis

Lewis's autobiography is The Buried Day (1960). A book-length study is Clifford Dyment, C. Day Lewis (1944; 2d ed. 1963). See also Derek Stanford, Pylon Poets: MacNeice, Spender, Day-Lewis (1969).