By Cecil Day Lewis
BBC Radio 4 played Jill Balcon’s reading this morning, 30 Oct 2012.
Day Lewis had an interesting love life. In 1941, while married to his first wife Mary King, he started a fairly public affair with the novelist Rosamond Lehmann. For a few years he kept the triangle going, living with Lehmann but returning home regularly to his wife and two sons. But when he started another affair in 1948, with the actress Jill Balcon, three women proved too much for even Day Lewis.* After a couple of years he left both King and Lehmann for Balcon, who he married in 1951.
Balcon bore his two most celebrated children, Tamsin the cook and Daniel the actor, but this poem, published in 1961, was dedicated to Sean, his first son by Mary.
Knowing about his love life adds spice to the poem’s title, and to the line “I have known worse partings”, but it is the final two lines that really hit the spot.
It is eighteen years ago, almost to the day –
A sunny day with leaves just turning,
The touch-lines new-ruled – since I watched you play
Your first game of football, then, like a satellite
Wrenched from its orbit, go drifting away
Behind a scatter of boys. I can see
You walking away from me towards the school
With the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free
Into a wilderness, the gait of one
Who finds no path where the path should be.
That hesitant figure, eddying away
Like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem,
Has something I never quite grasp to convey
About nature’s give-and-take – the small, the scorching
Ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay.
I have had worse partings, but none that so
Gnaws at my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly
Saying what God alone could perfectly show –
How selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.
*Footnote. My wife has just commented that perhaps the women had something to do with it. Maybe one of them put her foot down.