A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Poem of the Day: C. Day Lewis

Almost Human 

The man you know, assured and kind, 
Wearing fame like an old tweed suit --- 
You would not think he has an incurable 
Sickness upon his mind. 

Finely that tongue, for the listening people, 
Articulates love, enlivens clay; 
While under his valued skin there crawls 
An outlaw and a cripple. 

Unenviable the renown he bears 
When all's awry within? But a soul 
Divinely sick may be immunized 
From the scourge of common cares. 

A woman weeps, a friend's betrayed, 
Civilization plays with fire -- 
His grief or guilt is easily purged 
In a rush of words to the head. 

The newly dead, and their waxwork faces 
With the look of things that could never have lived, 
He'll use to prime his cold, strange heart 
And prompt the immortal phrases. 

Before you condemn this eminent freak 
As an outrage upon mankind, 
Reflect: something there is in him 
That must for ever seek 

To share the condition it glorifies, 
To shed the skin that keeps it apart, 
To bury its grace in a human bed -- 
And it walks on knives, on knives. 
--C. Day Lewis 

The poet was 53 when his wife gave birth to a son who would become a famous actor, and father and son were never close. But there's something in this poem that seems to me to link them: the theme of playing with masks, of the mutability of identity. Day Lewis père was a communist who became that most establishmentarian of things, the poet laureate. And Day-Lewis fils (he resumed the hyphen that his father had dropped) is the most chameleon-like of actors.