POETS Day! Cecil Day Lewis

[This entry is cross posted at ordinary-times.com]

I’d love to wish you a joyous POETS Day, but I don’t see my wishes making any difference. You’re still encouraged to embrace the POETS Day ethos, Piss Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday, but this time your motivation is not an early happy-hour beer and tolerably spicy chicken wings. It’s not a refreshing walk in the park with that fetching he or she that has caught your eye. It’s not even to declare independence and lay claim to time that should rightfully be yours to waste. It’s Halloween weekend, and though the actual holiday may not be until Monday, do you think those bratty little trick or treaters, hiding behind their oh-so-cute Davey Crocket, Nancy Drew, or misnamed Frankenstein costume, are going to innocently while away the time until the clock green lights their mischief? I’m telling you they won’t. They have a whole weekend, and they know that school ends at three and most homeowners don’t get to leave work until sometimes after five, giving them a free Friday reign of terror through neighborhoods unprotected by adults. Not even the cover of darkness will so embolden them. So lie, cheat, fake, disgrace yourself in front of your co-workers – whatever it takes to get out of work early to protect the homestead lest the Kinderly Ones get there first and egg your house, roll your trees with toilet paper, or sacrifice your cat at one of their Johnson’s Baby black masses.

Today I chose a selection from Cecil Day-Lewis, British Poet Laureate from 1968 – 1972, one time very active but eventually reformed Communist, friend and devotee of Auden, popular mystery writer (under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake) and father of four – among them Academy Award-winner Daniel Day-Lewis. His relation to the actor means he comes with a ghost story, which fits in nicely considering it’s the Halloween weekend.

Evidently Daniel Day-Lewis, who was only fifteen when Cecil Day-Lewis died, claimed to have seen the ghost of his father while playing Hamlet at the National Theatre in London. Readers of celebrity gossip may be familiar with Daniel Day-Lewis’ penchant for extreme method acting, sometimes not breaking character between scenes or even when away from the set. Enough was made of his spectral father story that he felt the need to recant it later, but he left the production mid-performance and has never gone back to the theater (as of the publication of a 2012 The Guardian article). Was he scared off? I’d like to think so, at least I would this close to Halloween.

Little of Day-Lewis’, Cecil’s that is, work is online. Less is available at my local library, none of it is downloadable in ebook form, and Amazon won’t arrive in time, so I don’t claim a familiarity with the body of his work beyond what Google let me read. Biographical information is readily available though, and much of that is peppered with commentary on his development as a poet. Early works were inspired by passion and political vigor, while later he focused on the craft of verse; its intricacies explored and played with. Both were infused with an affinity for nature.

Lectures given by Robert Graves at Oxford in 1964 touch on Graves’ belief that poetry and verse are complimentary but not to be confused with one another. One could be full of poetry and beauty and capable of expression without verse, or one be a fine craftsman of meter and scheme and never rise to the level of poetry. Occasionally, someone manages both. Doubtfully do they do it every time over a course of a career, but those instances where a poet marries verse with true poetic expression should be celebrated.

Today’s poem, “A Hard Frost”, is included in a collection dated 1943-1947, 1948. I’ve no idea what makes ’48 so special that it gets to stand all by its attention-grabbing self, but there it is. The poems themselves aren’t dated but the collection indicates that it was written between his passionate early works and his structured later output. Sometimes free verse is harder to pull off than rigid form. An errant word breaks the wholeness that meter would otherwise provide. I think the words were chosen well and the vision such that together the whole is something Graves would want celebrated1

The poem was written after one of Cecil Day-Lewis’ morning walks. Where he expected a stark wintery landscape he saw a sparkling frost-covered world, changed and made beautiful in a way that reminded him in scale of the changes brought by Spring. He knows it is fleeting; that the winter will reveal itself shortly and in a few lines that show a low but not unkind opinion of country maids acknowledges the cruelty of the tease. Real change he knows is coming, but it is deep and far from its time.

Enjoy.

A Hard Frost

Cecil Day Lewis (1904 – 1972)

A frost came in the night and stole my world
And left this changeling for it – a precocious
Image of spring, too brilliant to be true:
White lilac on the window-pane, each grass-blade
Furred like a catkin, maydrift loading the hedge.
The elms behind the house are elms no longer
But blossomers in crystal, stems of the mist
That hangs yet in the valley below, amorphous
As the blind tissue whence creation formed.

The sun looks out and the fields blaze with diamonds
Mockery spring, to lend this bridal gear
For a few hours to a raw country maid,
Then leave her all disconsolate with old fairings
Of aconite and snowdrop! No, not here
Amid this flounce and filigree of death
Is the real transformation scene in progress,
But deep below where frost
Worrying the stiff clods unclenches their
Grip on the seed and lets
the future breathe.


  1. I say “I think” because Graves can be hard to pin down. For all I know he wrote jeremiads against Cecil Day Lewis and all or some of his works. He may have loved the rest and hated just this poem. I haven’t read anything either way, but Graves finds fault and beauty that so many often miss. That’s what makes reading him so interesting. I think he liked it. As he should have.

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