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Updated July 2012

T. E. Lawrence to C. Day Lewis

Ozone Hotel


It's an impertinence to write to a writer; but I cannot help it. Your book on poetry is only half an argument. So long as you wrote poems I was content with reading them. Over Dick Willoughby I laughed. This, as I say, is different. Probably you are hardened against letters from unknowns.

Why does your period stress so much those few thought-ridden poets, Donne, Vaughan, Crashaw - not Herbert, I think? I suspect a little fashion in it, started perhaps by T.S. Eliot with his cranky passion for the knuckle-end of the Church of England: and that's a consequence, probably, of his being an American. A parvenu longing for roots.

When you talk of poetry being as hard to read as to write you must be thinking of the metaphysical poets. They are much harder to read than in the writing, for they weren't very good philosophers, or clear logicians or subtle metaphysicians. They were afraid of plain statement, and feared that their real minds were foolish. Poets of today feel often that their real feelings are foolish. So they splash something about shirt-sleeves or oysters quickly into every sentimental sentence, to prevent us laughing at them before they have laughed at themselves. But you must qualify that saying about poetry being difficult, either to write or to read. Some poetry! Kubla Khan took no writing, nor any of W. Morris' early verse, nor Chaucer's tales, nor most of Shakespeare's speeches. Paradise Lost is as easy to read as the Aeneid or Don Juan - yet these must have been hard to write. Dandyism in style revived with l'Isle Adam.

I hesitate also to attach great weight to the war. My age made me just ripe for it, and I went through it with as major consequence a great faculty for wasting time uncomplainingly: perhaps a sense that time and myself and you and things done or to do were not very significant. As a historian by training I shouldn't like to think that accidental participation in this one war of the infinite series past and to come had made me put it bigly in the foreground of any but its victims. Sassoon wasn't tough enough. It broke in him a good lyric writer. I was glad to see your sensible regard for D.H.L. and Owen. As for Hopkins, he would repay a closer study on the pathological side: the Jesuit at war with the sensualist. I think fear of giving himself away led to those inversions and syntactical quirks. A very fine poet!

I'm glad you concentrated on Auden, Spender and yourself. Auden makes me fear that he will not write much more. Spender might, on the other hand, write too much. You have given numbers of us the greatest pleasure - though for me The Magnetic Mountain was a qualified pleasure. In this book your suggestion that it may represent an approach to politics rejoiced me. It was not merely explanation but recantation, I thought. Poets are always (and have been always) savagely political: and the real politician, the politician-by-trade, always carts them properly. Poets hope too much, and their politics, like their sciences, usually stink after twenty years. I call our time very rich in poets, quantitatively and qualitatively.

To make your book invaluable you need to give us an exposure-meter by which we could pick out the one lighted window in the houses they build. Your quotations, - from yourself and the
others - aren't those I (or anyone) would choose. Do you believe in a yardstick, or any solvent to divide even the very good from the very bad? We imagine such degrees between contemporaries, while we know in our hearts that the Saintsbury of the future will see the affinities between you and Noyes and Doughty and Housman and Herbert Trench and Drinkwater and Humbert Wolfe and Hodgson and Blunden and William Watson, and will wisely explain the common impulse that led to all these similar blooms.

Thank you for an exciting and quite unsatisfying book: but if you want to make us really happy, you will expose yourself to the risk of writing some more poems: and for the ear, not the eye. These cheap typewriters do poets much harm.

T E Shaw


C. Day Lewis, A Hope for Poetry (Oxford, Blackwell, 1934)

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Source: DG 824-6
Checked: jw/
Last revised: 18 January 2006


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