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Cecil Day-Lewis letters donated to Oxford library by his children


Tamasin and Daniel Day-Lewis hand over poet laureate's archive including manuscripts and letter from WH Auden

WH Auden did not want to appear condescending but his criticism of Cecil Day-Lewis's poem would certainly appear to be crushing: "You are not taking enough trouble about your medium, your technique of expression," he wrote, adding that one line sounded as if Day-Lewis was waiting for his tea.

The letter, from around 1928 or 1929 when both poets were still in their 20s, is one of many to appear in an extensive literary archive that has been donated to Oxford University's Bodleian Library by Day-Lewis's children, the actor Daniel Day-Lewis and the food writer Tamasin Day-Lewis.

The library will on Tuesday host a symposium celebrating the life and work of the former poet laureate and marking what Chris Fletcher, keeper of special collections, said was an extremely generous gift.

"It is a wonderful archive – a great archive in its own right but it makes particular sense for us because of the local context," said Fletcher. By that he means the Bodleian's archival holdings of other Oxford poets – the Thirties Poets as they became known – including Auden, Stephen Spender and Louis MacNeice.

At Tuesday's Day-Lewis symposium a number of items will be displayed for the first time including Auden's letter with his detailed and constructive criticism of a poem Day-Lewis had sent him in which his dislike is pretty comprehensive – he goes on to write: "The lines 'For there's no wonder … When any echo waits', sound as if you were waiting for your tea."

Also being displayed is a limited edition with the final stanza of The Newborn, the poem Day-Lewis wrote to mark the birth of Daniel: "We time-worn folk renew/Ourselves at your enchanted spring."

The archive will enable researchers to not just get fascinating insights into the life and works of Day-Lewis, but also into the notable names writing to him, people such as Auden, Kingsley Amis, Peggy Ashcroft, Robert Graves, Alec Guinness, Philip Larkin and the man who succeeded him as poet laureate on his death in 1972, John Betjeman.

The 54 densely packed archival boxes also contain letters from people to his wife, the actor Jill Balcon, papers regarding his appointment as poet laureate in 1968, working drafts of poems, essays and scripts and drafts of the later detective novels that Day-Lewis wrote under the pseudonym of Nicholas Blake.

Fletcher admitted the competition to look after literary archives was strong, with US institutions having much more money at their disposal.

In a statement Tamasin and Daniel Day-Lewis said they were thrilled the manuscripts were going to the Bodleian. "Oxford played an important part in our father's life. If the manuscripts had ended up outside the country it would have saddened us all as a family as the poets who became papa's lifelong friends and peers all met up at Oxford as undergraduates."

David Whiting, the co-literary executor of the Day-Lewis and Balcon estate, said the papers encompassed not just the work of Day-Lewis as poet, "but as novelist, critic, academic and public servant".

Fletcher said the family had been both gracious and generous. "Larkin said that literary manuscripts had two qualities, a magic and a meaning and in this homogenised digital world I think that's ever more the case – that somehow the handwritten letter or the struggling draft become more pertinent and important."

In some ways the hard work for the Bodleian starts now as they look to find the money to make it available to readers. "We will now have to find the resources to catalogue the collection, to get it ready for use," said Fletcher. "It involves a professional archivist who will have to make some decisions about the intellectual structure of the collection; how it all fits together, like a jigsaw puzzle."

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