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English Professor Al Gelpi on British poet C. Day Lewis

A self-described "churchy agnostic," Cecil Day Lewis was the reddest of the Marxist poets who sought to modernize and redefine British poetry in the 1930s.

"Instead of living for an afterlife, for heaven in the Christian sense, Day Lewis tried to ask, 'What about making a good society now?' " says Albert Gelpi, the William Robertson Coe Professor of American Literature. "And I think he gave himself to trying to pursue that goal with everything he could."

Gelpi's recently published study, Living in Time: The Poetry of C. Day Lewis, offers a revisionist look at the Oxford-educated, middle-class, proper Englishman who moved in the circle of poets ­ W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Louis MacNeice ­ that was dubbed "Macspaunday" by detractors on the political right. A one-time country school teacher who went on to hold professorships at Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard, Day Lewis ultimately was named poet laureate of Britain in 1968.

Gelpi, who has produced two volumes about the development of American poetry, The Tenth Muse: The Psyche of the American Poet and A Coherent Splendor: The American Poetic Renaissance 1910-1950, and also authored books about Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens and Adrienne Rich, was an assistant professor at Harvard when Day Lewis lectured on poetry there as the Charles Eliot Norton Professor in the mid-1960s. Day Lewis often sat in on Gelpi's classes to learn about such modern American poets as Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, and the two became good friends, along with Gelpi's fiance and future wife, Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi, Stanford professor of English.

"I think of him as a kind of benevolent presence, beaming on us," Gelpi recalls. "He was warm and immediate and funny, and continually poking fun at himself. And he was far too modest, always describing himself as a minor poet and effacing his achievement more than I felt was appropriate."

By the time Day Lewis' Complete Poems were published in 1992, on the 20th anniversary of his death, Gelpi had spent a number of summers at the British Library reading up on the literary, social and political ambiance of the 1930s and '40s in such journals as New Verse and the Left Review. He also felt he had sufficient personal distance from Day Lewis to take a critical look at his work in the context of his times.

"In the 1920s, when American poetry was dazzling or alarming people by its bold and ambitious experimentation, British poetry seemed to be in a kind of slump," Gelpi says. "There seemed to be little energy and endless echoes of exhausted pastoral romanticism."

Gelpi argues that Day Lewis set out to write poems that were modern in diction, rhythm and imagery and that could respond to the political and economic plight of postwar industrial England.

"Modernism had left British poetry almost untouched, and there was a sense of a need for a new poetry, a poetry of politics, with a 20th-century sensibility of values, problems, issues and crises," Gelpi adds. "Day Lewis tried to give his energy and voice and imagination to trying to create a new political poetry, and my revisionist agenda for the book is to say, 'Hey, stop and look at this body of work because he's one of the most important poets in Britain."

Gelpi's book traces the development of Day Lewis' largely autobiographical work in three lengthy chapters that examine his poetry from the 1930s, '40s and the later years. He shows how the social and political vision of the poet's early years was replaced by a search for personal fulfillment in his middle period, at a time when he was living part time with his wife and two sons in a Devonshire cottage, and also carrying on a long-term relationship with the tempestuous novelist Rosamond Lehmann. When Day Lewis divorced his wife and broke off with Lehmann at age 47 to marry Jill Balcon, a woman many years his junior, Gelpi contends that his poems began to reflect new dimensions of maturity.

One of Gelpi's favorite works from Day Lewis' later period is Elegy Before Death: At Settignano, which the poet dedicated to Lehmann after spending a fortnight with her at a villa in the Florentine suburb. Gelpi describes the 59 stanzas that "celebrate their love in anticipation of its extinction" as "one of Day Lewis' supreme poetic achievements."

"He talked about feeling his divided mind, which is one of the things that identified him as a 20th-century poet, and that sense of division sometimes made him emotionally cautious or reticent," Gelpi says. "But in that poem almost all the stops are pulled out, and emotionally and verbally it's so much richer and more resonant.

"In his late years, the notion of transcendence through an erotic relationship with someone else doesn't suffice," Gelpi adds. "And when that fails, he begins to write poetry that says transcendence is very difficult to achieve and maintain, very chancy and tricky, and he seems to be saying that we've got to learn to live within the limits that are part of the human condition."

As Day Lewis searched for that which would give purpose, direction, depth and resonance to life, Gelpi argues that he was "living in time" ­ which constitutes the title of the book.

The writing of poetry ultimately became Day Lewis' way of living fully, Gelpi says, and he sees in the work that Day Lewis produced toward the end of his life "a kind of sad, stoic recognition of limits, as well as a kind of affirmation of possibilities."

"What I find so moving about the late poems is that they focus on a moment of beauty or release or comprehension that he recognizes as fragile and fleeting and momentary. They have a kind of autumnal glow, as the light fades but is beautiful in its own way."


By Diane Manuel

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