Cecil Day-Lewis

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Cecil Day-Lewis
File:Cecil Day-Lewis.jpg
Born 27 April 1904
Ballintubbert, Queen's County, Ireland
Died 22 May 1972 (aged 68)
Hadley Wood, Hertfordshire, England
Pen name Nicholas Blake
Occupation Poet, novelist
Nationality British
Spouse Constance Mary King (1928–1951)
Jill Balcon (1951–1972)
Children Sean Day-Lewis (b. 1931)
Nicholas Day-Lewis (b. 1934) Tamasin Day-Lewis (b. 1953)
Daniel Day-Lewis (b. 1957)

Cecil Day-Lewis (or Day Lewis), CBE (27 April 1904 – 22 May 1972) was a British poet and the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1968 until his death in 1972. He also wrote mystery stories under the pseudonym of Nicholas Blake. He was the father of actor Daniel Day-Lewis and documentary filmmaker and television chef Tamasin Day-Lewis.

In his autobiography The Buried Day (1960), he wrote "As a writer I do not use the hyphen in my surname – a piece of inverted snobbery which has produced rather mixed results".[1]

Life and work

Day-Lewis was born in Ballintubbert, Athy/Stradbally border, Queen's County (now known as County Laois), Ireland.[2] He was the son of the Reverend Frank Cecil Day-Lewis (died 29 July 1937)[3][4] and Kathleen Blake (née Squires; died 1906).[5] Some of his family was from England (Hertfordshire and Canterbury). His father took on the surname "Day-Lewis" as a combination of his own birth father's ("Day") and adoptive father's ("Lewis") surnames.[6] After the death of his mother in 1906, Cecil was brought up in London by his father, with the help of an aunt, spending summer holidays with relatives in County Wexford. He was educated at Sherborne School and at Wadham College, Oxford. In Oxford, Day-Lewis became part of the circle gathered around W. H. Auden and helped him to edit Oxford Poetry 1927. His first collection of poems, Beechen Vigil, appeared in 1925.[7]

In 1928 he married Constance Mary King, the daughter of a Sherborne master (i.e. teacher), and worked as a schoolmaster in three schools, including Larchfield School, Helensburgh, Scotland (now Lomond School).[7][8] During the 1940s he had a long and troubled love affair with the novelist Rosamond Lehmann. His first marriage was dissolved in 1951, and he married actress Jill Balcon, daughter of Michael Balcon.

During the Second World War he worked as a publications editor in the Ministry of Information, an institution satirised by George Orwell in his dystopian Nineteen Eighty-Four, but equally based on Orwell's experience of the BBC. During the Second World War his work was now no longer so influenced by Auden and he was developing a more traditional style of lyricism. Some critics believe that he reached his full stature as a poet in Word Over All (1943), when he finally distanced himself from Auden.[9] After the war he joined the publisher Chatto & Windus as a director and senior editor.

In 1946, Day-Lewis was a lecturer at Cambridge University, publishing his lectures in The Poetic Image (1947). He later taught poetry at Oxford, where he was Professor of Poetry from 1951 to 1956.[7] During 1962–1963, he was the Norton Professor at Harvard University. He was appointed Poet Laureate in 1968, in succession to John Masefield.

Day-Lewis was 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.

Headstone of Cecil Day-Lewis in the Stinsford churchyard.

Cecil Day-Lewis died from pancreatic cancer on 22 May 1972, aged 68, at Lemmons, the Hertfordshire home of Kingsley Amis and Elizabeth Jane Howard, where he and his family were staying. He was a great admirer of Thomas Hardy, and had arranged to be buried as close as possible to the author's grave in Stinsford churchyard, Dorset, south west England.[7]

Day-Lewis's epitaph, taken from his poem Is it Far to Go?, reads:

Shall I be gone long?
     For ever and a day.
To whom there belong?
     Ask the stone to say.
     Ask my song.

Day-Lewis's two marriages yielded four children,[10] including Academy Award-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis, food writer and journalist Tamasin Day-Lewis, and TV critic and writer Sean Day-Lewis, who wrote a biography of his father, C. Day Lewis: An English Literary Life (1980).

Nicholas Blake

In 1935, Day-Lewis decided to supplement his income from poetry by writing a detective novel, A Question of Proof, in which he created Nigel Strangeways, an amateur investigator and gentleman detective who, as the nephew of an Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard, has the same access to, and good relations with, official crime investigation bodies as those enjoyed by other fictional sleuths such as Ellery Queen, Philo Vance and Lord Peter Wimsey.[11] This was followed by nineteen more crime novels. (In the first Nigel Strangeways novel, the detective is modelled on W. H. Auden, but Strangeways becomes a far less extravagant and more serious figure in later novels.) From the mid-1930s Day-Lewis was able to earn his living by writing.[7] Four of the Blake novels – A Tangled Web, Penknife in My Heart, The Deadly Joker, The Private Wound – do not feature Strangeways.

Minute for Murder is set against the background of Day-Lewis's Second World War experiences in the Ministry of Information. Head of a Traveller features as a principal character a well-known poet, currently frustrated and blocked from writing, whose best poetic days are long behind him; the reader is free to speculate whether the author is describing himself, one of his colleagues, or has entirely invented the character.

Political views

In his youth, Day-Lewis adopted communist views, becoming a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain from 1935 to 1938, and his early poetry was marked by didacticism and a preoccupation with social themes.[12] In 1937 he edited The Mind in Chains: Socialism and the Cultural Revolution. In the introduction, he supported a popular front against a "Capitalism that has no further use for culture". He explains that the title refers to Prometheus bound by his chains, quotes Shelley's preface to Prometheus Unbound and says the contributors believe that "the Promethean fire of enlightenment, which should be given for the benefit of mankind at large, is being used at present to stoke up the furnaces of private profit". The contributors were: Rex Warner, Edward Upward, Arthur Calder-Marshall, Barbara Nixon, Anthony Blunt, Alan Bush, Charles Madge, Alistair Brown, J. D. Bernal, T. A. Jackson and Edgell Rickword.

After the late 1930s, he gradually became disillusioned with communism.[7] Among his works is his autobiography, Buried Day (1960), in which he renounces his communist views,[13] while his detective story, The Sad Variety (1964), contains a scathing portrayal of doctrinaire communists, the repression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, and the ruthless tactics of Soviet intelligence agents.[citation needed]

Selected works

Poetry collections

English Heritage blue plaque of Cecil Day-Lewis in Greenwich, London
  • Transitional Poem (1929)
  • From Feathers to Iron (1931)
  • Collected Poems 1929–1933 (1935)
  • A Time to Dance and Other Poems (1935)
  • Overtures to Death (1938)
  • Short Is the Time (1945)
  • Collected Poems (1954)
  • Pegasus and Other Poems (1957)
  • The Gate, and Other Poems (1962)
  • The Whispering Roots and Other Poems (1970)[12]
  • The Complete Poems of C.Day-Lewis (1992)[9]
  • Editor: A New Anthology of Modern Verse 1920–1940 (1941) edited with L. A. G. Strong.
  • Editor: The Chatto Book of Modern Poetry 1915–1955 (1956 edited with John Lehmann.

Essay collections

  • A Hope for Poetry (1934)[12]
  • Poetry for You (1944)
  • The Poetic Image (1947)


Novels written under his own name

  • The Friendly Tree (1936)
  • Starting Point (1937)
  • Child of Misfortune (1939)

Novels written as Nicholas Blake

  • A Question of Proof (1935)
  • Thou Shell of Death (1936) (also published as Shell of Death)
  • There's Trouble Brewing (1937)
  • The Beast Must Die (1938)
  • The Smiler with the Knife (1939)
  • Malice in Wonderland (1940) (U.S. title: The Summer Camp Mystery)
  • The Case of the Abominable Snowman (1941) (also published as The Corpse in the Snowman)
  • Minute for Murder (1947)
  • Head of a Traveller (1949)
  • The Dreadful Hollow (1953)
  • The Whisper in the Gloom (1954) (also published as Catch and Kill)
  • A Tangled Web (1956) (also published as Death and Daisy Bland)
  • End of Chapter (1957)
  • A Penknife in My Heart (1958)
  • The Widow's Cruise (1959)
  • The Worm of Death (1961)
  • The Deadly Joker (1963)
  • The Sad Variety (1964)
  • The Morning after Death (1966)
  • The Private Wound (1968)

Children's novels


  • The Buried Day (1960)


  • Sean Day-Lewis, Cecil Day-Lewis: An English Literary Life (1980)

See also


  1. Cecil Day-Lewis (1960). The Buried Day. p. 17.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "The Garden at Ballintubbert: Stradbally, County Laois". Retrieved 23 January 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. The Principal Probate Registry, Calendar of the Grants of Probate and Letters of Administration made in the Probate Registries of the High Court of Justice in England (London) (1937), p. 105.
  4. Southwell Registration District in the third quarter of 1937; see General Register Office, England and Wales Civil Registration Indexes (London) (Third Quarter, 1937), names Lev-Lew, p. 28.
  5. The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis – C. S. Lewis – Google Books. Books.google.ca. Retrieved 22 April 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. [1]
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 Cecil Day-Lewis
  8. http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2008/aug/31/helensburgh.heroes
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 BBC
  10. "Cecil Day-Lewis, poet laureate, dies", The Montreal Gazette, 22 May 1972, retrieved 15 March 2010<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Neglected British Crime Writers
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 Day Lewis, C
  13. Arte Historia Personajes
  14. An extract from this, Orpheus and Eurydice, appeared in The Queen's Book of the Red Cross.


  • Alfred Gelpi, Living in Time: The Poetry of C. Day-Lewis (1998)
  • Peter Stanford, "C Day-Lewis: a Life" (2007)

External links

Academic offices
Preceded by
John Masefield
British Poet Laureate
Succeeded by
John Betjeman