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C(ecil) Day Lewis (1904-1972) - pseudonym Nicholas Blake
Anglo-Irish poet, critic, and educator. Cecil Day-Lewis was appointed Poet Laureate in 1968. He also gained fame as a detective story writer under the name Nicholas Blake. In sixteen of his twenty mystery novels the hero was Nigel Strangeways, an Oxford graduate. It is told that the primary model was the writer W.H. Auden. Lewis was married twice and fathered five children, one of whom is the Academy Award-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis.
"Nigel's six feet sprawled all over the place; his gestures were nervous and little uncouth; a lock of sandy coloured hair dropping over his forehead, and the deceptive naïveté of his face in repose gave him a resemblance to an overgrown prep. schoolboy. His eyes were the same blue as his uncle's, but shortsighted and noncommittal. Yet there was an underlying similarity between the two. A latent, sardonic humor in their conversation, a friendliness and simple generosity in their smiles, and that impression of energy in reserve which is always given by those who possess an abundance of life directed towards consciously-realised aims." (from Thou Shell of Death, 1936)
Cecil Day-Lewis was born at Ballintubber, Queen's County (now county Laois), Ireland, the son of Reverend Frank Cecil Day-Lewis, an ordained priest of the Church of Ireland, and Kathleen Blake Squires. The family moved to England in 1905. After his mother died, he was brought up in London by his father, with the help of an aunt, Agnes; she was unmarried and was known to the young Cecil as Knos.
Day-Lewis went to Wilkie's Prep School in London and to Sherborne School in Dorset. Before leaving Sherbone, he had begun to write poetry. In 1927 he graduated from Wadham College, Oxford. While in Oxford he became part of the circle that gathered around W.H. Auden and helped him to edit Oxford Poetry 1927. Its preface was written by both of them in alternating paragraphs. Day-Lewis's own first collection, Beechen Virgil (1925), was privately printed, but his poems had appeared in the anthology Ten Singers, published in October 1924. However, he did not include any of these pieces, which reveal the influence of Yeats, in the several Selected Poems and Collected Poems he published during his lifetime. In 1928 Day-Lewis married Mary King, the daughter of a master at Sherborne. They had two sons. After graduation, he worked as a schoolmaster. Due to compassionate poems which he had addressed to his wife and collected in Transitional Poems (1929) he nearly lost his job at Cheltenham Junior School.
Tempt me no more, for I
In his youth Day-Lewis adopted communist views. As an act of
rebellion, he also removed the hyphen in his name, but reinstated it
later in life. Some of his early poems have a strong political and
didactic subtex. Along with writers such as W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, and Stephen Spender, Day-Lewis
was under the surveillance of the Security Service (MI5) and other
branches of British intelligence. Following the outbreak of the Spanish
Civil War, Day-Lewis planned to go to Spain and join the International
Brigade, but as he later confessed, he "lacked the courage to do so."
From the late 1930s, he grew increasingly
disillusioned with the Communist Party, which he evetually renounced.
To cut himself off all contacts with the Party, he moved to the village
of Musbury near the Devon border – there was "no Party group within
A new turn in Day-Lewis's career occured in 1935, when he decided to supplement his income from poetry by writing a detective novel. His agent advised him to separate the roles of detective novelist and poet. Thus he created Nigel Strangeways, the hero of sixteen of his twenty books, who was named after the former name of the HM Prison Manchester. The first novel, A Question of Proof, published under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake, was written to pay for the repair of a leaky roof. For Day-Lewis's surprise, it became a selection of the Crime Club and eventually was followed by nineteen more crime novels. From the mid-1930s Day-Lewis was able to earn his living by writing. A liaison with the wife of a local farmer resulted in the birth of a son.
'Well, I've not been in jail yet. I did get fined for sitting in Trafalgar Square. It was one of those Committee of a Hundred picnics.'
By the end of the decade Day-Lewis was living in Devon. He had published several collections of poems under the influence of Auden, among others From Feathers to Iron (1932), Collected Poems (1935), and A Time to Dance and Other Poems (1935). From 1941 he worked at the Ministry of Information as an editor in the publication department. Still regarded as a communist propagandist, he was not allowed to speak on radio, but he provided ad hoc scripts for the BBC and his Nicholas Blake detective radio play Calling James Braithwaite was broadcast in July 1940. At the end of the war Day-Lewis joined the publisher Chatto&Windus as a director and senior editor. In Word Over All (1943) Day-Lewis distanced him from Auden and reached his full stature as a writer. Many of the following works reflected his personal life, extramarital affairs, and the turbulent nine-year relationship with the novelist Rosamond Lehmann.
In 1951 Day-Lewis married actress Jill Balcon, the daughter of the film mogul Sir Michael Balcon. She was 21 years his junior; he was the greatest love of her life. They had two children, Tamasin and Daniel. The couple settled in a large Georgian house in Greenwich. A few years after the marriage, when he was working for Chatto&Windus, he had a brief affair with Elizabeth Jane Howard, a young writer, who left him. A poem from this period, entitled 'Moods of Love', expressed his anger and frustration: "Better a brutal twitching of the reins And off, than this devouring pious whore Who in soft regret will twine you fast Where thigh-bones mope along the tainted shore And crazed beachcombers pick over their past. ..." Howard married the novelist Kingsley Amis in 1965.
Day-Lewis was professor of poetry at Oxford in 1951-56, and a
lecturer in the 1950s and 1960s at several universities. During a
fruitful time at Harvard in 1964-5, where he held the Charles Eliot
Norton Chair, he wrote On Not Saying
Anything (1964). In succession to John Masefield he was
appointed Poet Laureate in 1968. Day-Lewis was chairman of the Arts
Council Literature Panel, vice-president of the Royal Society of
Literature, Honorary Member of the American Academy, Member of the
Irish Academy of Letters.
Day-Lewis died from cancer, on May 22, 1972, in the Hertfordshire home of Kingsley Amis and Elisabeth Jane Howard, where he and his wife were staying. A great admirer of Thomas Hardy, he had arranged that he should be buried as close as possible to the author's grave in Stinsford churchyard. The Whispering Roots (1970) was the last volume published in his lifetime. 'The Expulsion' (1972), which appeared in a Festschrift for W.H. Auden's 68th birthday in a limited edition, was inspired by Masaccio's frescoes in Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence. Day-Lewis saw them for the first time on a convalescence holiday in 1970. "Masaccio paints us both A childish tragedy – hunched back, bawling mouth, And the hour when the animal knew that it must die And with that stroke put on humanity." Upon reading the typescrift, the sculptor Henry Moore told that he had learned something new about the fresco.
Day-Lewis's early mystery novels are full of literary references, from Shakespeare to Blake, Keats, Arthur Hugh Clough and A.E. Housman. A Question of Proof was set in similar preparatory school milieu, where he was teaching at the time. Head of a Traveller (1949) was dedicated to Rosamond Lehmann's children. Among Day-Lewis's best mysteries are The Beast Must Die (1938), a story of a father seeking revenge on the hit and run driver who killed his child, The Case of the Abominable Snowman (1941), A Tangled Web (1956), based on a real murder case, and End of Chapter (1957).
Nigel Strangeways, the series detective, is an Oxford graduate, six feet tall, blue eyed, always at the disposal of Inspector Blount of Scotland Yard, the British Secret Service, and his many friends. In Thou Shell of Death Stangeways meets and marries explorer Georgia Cavendish, but after WW II he continues as a widower. During the years, Nigel Strangeways ages and changes, and sees the world less idealistically.
The critic and award-winning mystery writer H.R.F. Keating included in 1987 The Beast Must Die among the 100 best crime and mystery books ever published. Day Lewis's own son was almost run over in a circumstance similar to that which the story describes. It begins with the promise: "I am going to kill a man... I have no idea what he looks like. But I am going to find him and kill him." The title of the story was taken from the text of Brahm's Four Serious Songs, a paraphrase of the Book of Ecclesiastes: "The beast must die, the man dieth also, yea both must die."
The Private Wound (1968) concerns the problems that divide Ireland, and was considered the most autobiographical of the author's works in the mystery genre. Thou Shell of Death (1936) was a contemporary version of Cyril Tourneur's gory 1607 play, The Revenger's Tragedy. Day-Lewis's best-known children's book is The Otterbury Incident (1948), a story of a group of kids, who outwit criminals. In Dick Willoughby (1933) Day-Lewis depicted the life of a young Elizabethan, adding into his adventures secret tunnels, sword-play, an evil Catholic kinsman, and an innocent romance.
For further reading: C. Day Lewis by Clifford Dyment (1955);The Buried Day by C. Day Lewis (1960); C. Day Lewis, The Poet Laureate: A Bibliography by Geoffrey Handley-Taylor and Timothy d'Arch Smith (1968); C. Day Lewis by Joseph N. Riddel (1971); C. Day Lewis: An English Literary Life by Sean Day-Lewis (1980); Crime & Mystery: the 100 Best Books by H.R.F. Keatring (1987); St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers, ed. by Jay P. Pederson (1996); C Day-Lewis: a Life, by Peter Stanford (2007); British Writers and MI5 Surveillance 1930-1960 by James Smith (2013) - Other university professors who have published mystery novels: Michael Innes, Edmund Crispin.
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