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Cecil Day Lewis:
Poetry's Irish Rose

Cecil Day Lewis was an Anglo-Irish poet, novelist, translator, and essayist who lived from 1904 to 1972. He was born on April 27, 1904 in Ballintubbert, Queen’s Country, Ireland. His father was a priest in the Church of Ireland after receiving his divinity degree in 1900. His mother, Kathleen Squires, was the daughter of a civil servant. She died when Lewis was four years old, which forced him into the care of his father and his mother’s sister, Olive Squires. This led to a close relationship with his father and helped to form his emotional character.

In 1912, Cecil Day Lewis started attending a prep school in central London. At thirteen, he moved to Sherborne School in Dorset where he began to experience new ideas. The opportunity to be exposed to classic literature and school sports such as rugby was a positive aspect of his schooling. However, there were many hardships Lewis had to endure during these years.

In his first years of school he was the victim of schoolboy sex and faced the cruel society conventions of a public school on a regular basis. These experiences helped to develop his character and the type of poet he would become.

Lewis published his first book of poetry, Beechen Vigil, in 1925 while a student at Wadham College, Oxford. This is also where Lewis would meet one of the most influential people in his life. W.H. Auden joined with Lewis to edit and coauthor the introduction of the Oxford Poetry anthology of 1927.

In their introduction, Auden and Lewis developed several themes that were to become the ideas of the “Auden Generation” of poets. These ideas included a description of the public as “chaos”, the call to develop new beliefs and ideals in the difficult society, a demand for struggle, effort, courage, and self discipline. This led to the publishing of Transitional Poem in 1929, considered by many to be Lewis’s first mature work. This would begin a concentrated phase of literary work in which he would publish two additional volumes of poetry, From Feathers to Iron (1931) and The Magnetic Mountain (1933).

Cecil Day Lewis also published A Hope For Poetry (1934), which was seen as a “manifesto for the 1930s generation.” In his work as a novelist, he published Dick Willoughby (1933) and, under the pen name Nicholas Blake, published A Question of Proof (1935), the first of 20 detective novels.

After this turn, and his establishing himself as a notable writer, Cecil Day Lewis quit his teaching job and joined the Communist Party of Britain. Being active in politics inspired him to writepoetic works designed to offer encouragement to others. These works included A Time To Dance (1935), Noah and the Waters (1936), We’re Not Going To Do Nothing (1936), and Left Review (1936).

The end of the 1930s marked a change in the type of poetry Lewis would write. His topics changed from political themes to ones pertaining to the Spanish Civil War.

Near the beginning of World War II, Lewis married Mary King and had several children. Though married, he still continued to have affairs and liaisons. He soon became known as a major literary figure with ten volumes of poetry. Despite his many relationships, divorces, and remarriage, he managed to continue publishing volumes of poetry and novels. In 1965, he became a “companion of literature” in the Royal Society of Literature and was named poet laureate of Britain in 1968. He continued writing and published his last volume of poetry in 1970, The Whispering Roots. He remained active despite an illness due to pancreatic cancer and filmed a series of poetry up until his death on May 22, 1972 at age 68. Cecil Day Lewis is best known as the father of actor Daniel Day Lewis.

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