Cecil Day-Lewis CBE (1904-1972)
Attended Sherborne School (Harper House) September 1917-July 1923
Poet Laureate 1968-1972

Cecil Day Lewis during his first year at Sherborne School, 1917-1918

On 21 November 1917, during his first term at Sherborne School, the 13-year-old Cecil Day-Lewis wandered into the annual Sherborne Chrysanthemum Show held at the Wesleyan School Room (now the Powell Theatre) in Abbey Road.

Thirty years later, Cecil dropped his son Nicholas off at Sherborne School for his first term.  This re-engagement with Sherborne School seems to have put Cecil into a nostalgic frame of mind, reflecting on his own youth and the time he had spent at Sherborne (1917-1923).  Sherborne’s influence on Cecil’s writing at this time can be seen in his children’s story The Otterbury Incident (published by Putnam & Co. in September 1948), which is partly set in Sherborne, and also in a number of the poems that appeared in Poems 1943-1947 (published by Jonathan Cape in 1948).

Cecil’s mother had died when he was 4-years-old and Sherborne seems to have offered him the warmth and security that he felt he had lost following her death.  In his poem ‘Sketches for a Self-Portrait’, which begins with the line ‘Consider the boy that you were…’,  he talks fondly of ‘the mellow South West town/That spoke to him words unheeded but unforgotten…’, and recalls the almost maternal role that Sherborne played in filling a void in his life:

‘So I returned to school, a kaleidoscope
Of shaken images, arguments jangling like glass.
And the wise grey South West town claimed me, calmed me
With the sedatives of routine, the balm of multitude.’

In 1948, Cecil gave a paper at Sherborne in which he again reflected nostalgically on the important role that Sherborne had played in his youthful development:

‘What links me closest with Sherborne is not the friendships I made, nor the education I received, but certain golden, irrelevant gleanings: the mild, wet south-west wind as one walked back through autumn darkness to make toast over a study fire: the leitmotif of the Abbey bells marking out, like a chain of buoys, the channel down a drowsy Sunday afternoon in summer: primrose-picking on Good Friday: an expedition into the country, equipped with jam jars, under orders from an exigent fag-master to bring him back, alive or dead, for dissection in the laboratory, a frog: the Chrysanthemum Show which, many years later, was to form a poem of my own: bicycling out along a dusty-white Dorset road to a manor house where lived a certain Mrs Baskett, and being refreshed on arrival with, of all things, a glass of champagne.  It is surely moments such as these which civilised us, which most helped us to grow up, because they touched our hearts unexpectedly or, sinking into them by benign, gentle repetition, left an impression there deeper than that of the most orthodox process or the larger event.’

The poem about the Chrysanthemum Show also appeared in Poems 1943-1947.  In this poem he discusses the feelings that the vivid and sensual colours of the chrysanthemums evoked in him that grey November day in 1917.

The Sherborne Chrysanthemum Show was held every November as a fund-raising event for the Yeatman Hospital and the Sherborne Nursing Association.  When Cecil visited the Wesleyan School Room (now the Powell Theatre) on 21 November 1917 he saw on display chrysanthemums from the gardens of Major Wingfield Digby and Mr Dingley, and also from the School’s own gardens, submitted by Joseph Perry who was Head Gardener at Sherborne School for 33 years.  Alongside the flowers on display were stalls selling gifts and cakes, with music and entertainments provided by wounded soldiers from the Yeatman Hospital.  Cecil freely admits in the poem that anyone who saw him that day ‘Mooching from stall to stall’ would have felt the display was wasted on him, but the impression created by those firey-coloured autumnal blooms remained with him for over thirty years.

The Chrysanthemum Show by Cecil Day-Lewis
Here’s Abbey Way: here are the rooms
Where they held the chrysanthemum show –
Leaves like talons of greenfire, blooms
Of a barbarous frenzy, red, flame, bronze –
And a schoolboy walked in the furnace once,
Thirty years ago.

You might have thought, had you seen him that day
Mooching from stall to stall,
It was wasted on him – the prize array
Of flowers with their resinous, caustic tang,
Their colours that royally boomed and rang
Like gongs in the pitchpine hall.

Any tongue could scorch him; even hope tease
As if it dissembled a leer:
Like smouldering fuse, anxieties
Blindwormed his breast.  How should one feel,
Consuming in youth’s slow ordeal,
What flashes from flower to flower?

Yet something did touch him then, at the quick,
Like a premature memory prising
Through flesh.  Those blooms with the bonfire reek
And the flaming of ruby, copper, gold –
There boyhood’s sun foretold, retold
A full gamut of setting and rising.

Something touched him.  Always the scene
Was to haunt his memory –
Not haunt – come alive there, as if what had been
But a flowery idea took flesh in the womb
Of his solitude, rayed out a rare, real bloom.
I know, for I was he.

And today, when I see chrysanthemums,
I half envy that boy
For whom they spoke as muffled drums
Darkly messaging, ‘All decays;
But youth’s brief agony can blaze
Into a posthumous joy.

Taken from Poems 1943-1947 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1948)

Rachel Hassall
School Archivist
4 October 2018

See also: Former Pupils of Sherborne School

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