Day-Lewis was born on 27th April 1904 in Ballintubbert, Stradbally, in southern Ireland, the son of a member of the clergy. After the death of his mother in 1906, he was brought up in London by his father.
At Oxford University, Day-Lewis became part of a poetry circle gathered around W H Auden. He (along with many in the circle) considered himself a Communist at least from his second year at university, when he was about 20 years old.
Later, when working as a teacher in 1933, Day-Lewis first came to MI5’s attention, when he was one of a number of authors signing an anti-war manifesto. The consequence was that his own mail was intercepted from then on. This escalated after Day Lewis began systematically writing to Harry Pollitt (see separate entry). As general secretary of the British Communist Party, Pollitt’s correspondence was, of course, routinely read by the secret service before delivery.
Although his very early work was apolitical, by 1929 Day-Lewis’ poetry became marked by a strong concern for issues of social equality. His `Transitional Poem’ has an overtly strong left-wing political outlook, whilst `From Feathers to Iron’ (1931), and `The Magnetic Mountain’ (1933) both have a strong flavour of revolutionism to them.
Day Lewis was a contributor to Left Review, published in 1934 by the British section of Writers International. His personal manifesto of that year, `A Hope for Poetry’ had a massive impact in its assertion that poets had a big place in pressing the case for economic change. Even mainstream commentators were moved by Day Lewis’ portrayal of the suffering caused by the slump, even though he wrote that it was not “animated by unsentimental pity and sacred indignation ….to make poetic capital out of the suffering of others.”
He seems to have definitely been permitted a Party card from 1935, it still being then considered important to take care in providing Party membership to anyone from a suspect social background. Day Lewis authorised a £5 cheque for Party funds, perhaps a couple of weeks wages for a well-paid worker, although he asked for the donation to remain anonymous. Perhaps feeling more about to speak out, in 1937, after resigning from Cheltenham college, Day Lewis wrote an article in the Daily Worker comparing George VI’s coronation with the “frantic window-dressing of a shop on the verge of bankruptcy”.
Day-Lewis attendance at a Paris conference of the Society of International Authors, a convenient place for Comintern agents to gather much exercised MI5 but there seems to have been nothing in it. Even so, although Stephen Spender and WH Auden, other members of the Oxford poets circle were also known as Communists at this time, Day Lewis was definitely judged as the most convinced and practical Party member.
He edited a socialist symposium, with contributions from Edward Upward and others, in 1937, which he called `The Mind in Chains: Socialism and the Cultural Revolution’. In the introduction, he supported a popular front against a “Capitalism that has no further use for culture”. He explains that the title refers to Prometheus bound by his chains, quotes Shelley’s preface to Prometheus Unbound and says the contributors believe that “the Promethean fire of enlightenment, which should be given for the benefit of mankind at large, is being used at present to stoke up the furnaces of private profit”. The contributors were: Rex Warner, Edward Upward, Arthur Calder-Marshall, Barbara Nixon, Anthony Blunt, Alan Bush, Charles Madge, Alistair Brown, J D Bernal, TA Jackson and Edgell Rickword.
Written earlier but not published until 1937, his novel, `Starting Point’, was the story of four friends from Oxford in the 1920s in their maturing years; a scientist, a writer, a philanthropist, and a Communist who fights in Spain.
But, after the poor reception of Noah and the Waters (1936), a verse morality play about the class struggle, his poetry became more pastoral and personal. Noah and the Waters contained whole chunks of The 1848 Communist Manifesto. It was a crude attempt to link poetry with wider life but did not attract critics and publishers. He turned to those voices that warned him he risked being marginalised and it was a long time before he appeared in print again. Having now chosen literature over a decade of left-wing adherence, in 1938, he deliberately withdrew from the fray to rural Devon.
MI5 was still watching Day-Lewis, who may have been aware of the attention. His MI5 files show he was awarded two exit permits to travel to Ireland in 1940. By 1943 MI5 cleared Day Lewis’s joining of the film division of the Ministry of Information, with his ten years support for Communism being written of as a hatred of social inequality. After the war he joined the publisher Chatto & Windus as a director and senior editor and also worked in academic roles.
He later sought to diminish the length of his commitment to socialism. He wrote his autobiography, Buried Day, in 1960. There was even a trashy spy novel in the 1960s, which had a strongly anti-Soviet theme. Interestingly, these most outward signs that he had jettisoned any of his old sympathies came shortly before he was appointed the UK’s Poet Laureate.
From the moment he dumped the left, his poetry became intensely personal in tone and intensely metaphysical in character. Those critics who warm to his later work describe his rejection of left politics as the making of him as a poet. Certainly, he spent the rest of his life very much as part of the establishment, until his death on May 22nd 1972 aged 68.