What did you say?
Georgi Dimitrov

“Communists who do nothing to enlighten the masses on the past of their people… voluntarily hand over to the fascist falsifiers all that is valuable in the historical past of the nation.” — 1935

- Georgi Dimitrov

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Cecil Day-Lewis (1904-1972) was one of the most famous British poets of 20th century. Alongside W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Louis MacNeice, he made a name for himself as a firebrand leftist poet. He, like them, was classically educated—first in public school and then at Oxford. Unlike them, he was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) from 1935-1938, and even rose to be the head of the Cheltenham division. In the late 30s what could be characterised as Day-Lewis’s latent political ambivalence won out, and at the outbreak of WW2 he withdrew to classical translation and the poetry of rural seclusion.

Day Lewis was a regular contributor to the Left Review. He wrote – in an article entitled ‘An Expensive Education’ – that ‘just as capitalism in its earlier phases was a progressive force… necessary for the higher development of the means of production, so was the classical education… necessary for the development of the human mind.’ Now, he explained, both forces had become reactionary, and the teaching of the Latin language, in particular, ‘with its emphasis on syntax, its constant appeal to the past, its abstraction from contemporary issues, its combination of intellectual snobbery and imagination-deadening drudgery – may well be the most effective ‘mental discipline’,’ but only when by ‘mental discipline’ was meant: ‘the maintenance of the capitalist system’.[1]

Day-Lewis’s lifelong engagement with the Greek and Roman classics, and the Augustan poet Virgil in particular, bridges the apparent dichotomy between his early so-called revolutionary writing and the more conventional ‘yesteryear’ poetry of the man who would be crowned poet laureate (1968). Day Lewis’s explicit self-identification with Virgil, and his subsequent creative engagement with his poetry, was a crucial feature of the poet’s perceived conversion from class-conscious radical to conservative liberalism. His critically acclaimed and hugely popular translations of Virgil—published between 1940 and 1963—which constitute his greatest contribution to literature, revolutionised the way that Roman poet was read. They opened up the ancient poet’s three masterworks to generations of English readers, irrespective of their educational and class background.

In Virgil’s first-century-CE Latin verse, Day-Lewis intriguingly recognised his own historical and ideological position. Furthermore, he found political refuge and an opportunity to turn a corner in his literary career.

[1] Left Review 3.3.43

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