Lord David Cecil not only contributed more to the Inklings overall than did some of its other members, he was also the first of the Inklings to achieve fame, though few remember him now.

Though most scholars have focused on C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams as the key Inklings, the other Inklings deserve a much larger audience than history has delivered them. As noted above, Lord David Cecil, Hugo Dyson, Humphrey Havard, Nevill Coghill, and C.L. Wrenn joined the group sometime between its initial meetings and the end of the 1930s. As early as 1936, Walter Hooper has claimed, the Inklings were: Tolkien, both Lewises, Barfield, Dyson, Cecil, Havard, Wrenn, and Coghill.[1] There is no evidence to doubt him, though one might also include, most likely, Colin Hardie and Adam Fox, if not by 1936, then shortly thereafter. In that same year, 1936, Lewis noted that membership to the Inklings demanded only two prerequisites, Christianity and “a tendency to write.”[2]

Indeed, men such as Lord David Cecil probably contributed more to the group overall, and certainly on a week-by-week basis, than did Owen Barfield. Additionally, he was the first of the Inklings to achieve fame, though few remember him now. He was, according Harold Nicolson in 1939, “the best of all modern biographers. He is a scholar and therefore accurate; he is fastidious, and he thus prefers being intelligent to being clever; he is self-assured, and has therefore no desire either to pity or to deride the illustrious dead.”[3] Orville Prescott, the main reviewer for The New York Times, confirmed and affirmed Nicholson’s view a decade later, in 1949. Cecil “is a brilliant biographer, a wonderfully objective critic with no perceptible axe to grind and a superb literary stylist,” noting that he was also “a fastidious scholar and an urbanely civilized man.”[4] Never, Prescott assured his readership, did he lapse “into the turgid, technical jargon of criticism. He does not denounce; he does not sneer; he does not pontificate.”[5] Instead, Cecil equated the art of biography with the dignity of being human. “To be completely satisfactory as a human being you need to be not only good and sensible but also well-mannered and cultivated. For intelligence and refinement add to the pleasantness of life.”[6]

Born on April 9, 1902, Lord David Cecil was one of the younger members of the Inklings, a decade younger than Tolkien and a few years younger than Lewis.[7] He attended Eton College from 1915 to 1919, then attending and matriculating from Christ Church, Oxford, in 1920, earning a first in history and being deeply influenced by the famous historian and biographer, Keith Graham Feiling, his tutor at Christ Church.[8] More than any other figure, Feiling shaped the young Cecil’s mind and soul, Cecil claiming “I owe more to him than to any other teacher I ever had.”[9] Most of all, Cecil appreciated Feiling’s imagination. “For he knew it so intimately and apprehended it with so strong an historical imagination that he was able to act as a sort of time-machine in reverse, carrying the pupil back into the living past. Dead controversies became live controversies.” Feiling, Cecil continued, always inspired him to dig and think as deeply as possible, with history to be understood for its own sake and never for the sake of the historian.[10]

Like many of the Inklings, Cecil hoped to make his way—at least in part—as a poet, publishing “Beauty Unsought” in Oxford Poetry, 1923.[11] Certainly, Cecil was a good enough poet that the New York Times published him from time to time.[12] A year later, 1924, Cecil took a teaching and research position in history with Wadham College, Oxford.[13] In 1930, he won the prestigious Hawthornden Prize for his biography of William Cowper and, desiring to write full time, resigned his position from Wadham.[14] That same year, a banner year for him, Cecil delivered two famous speeches, the first on the meaning of writing and the second on the “art of cursing.” The second, especially, revealed Cecil’s wit and wisdom. The modern world, he feared, had diminished the belief in free will to such an extent that men considered the errors of other men to be the results of mere minor defects in the mechanics of the human being. “He was inclined to attribute it” the loss of effective and meaningful criticism “to the advance of science, which had the effect of making people look upon themselves as mechanisms.” As such, Cecil concluded, “it was clearly unreasonable to blame mechanism.”[15] Prior to the end of the nineteenth-century, good criticism had been a vitally healthy part of English society. Milton, Dryden, Pope, Burke, Johnson, Carlyle, Ruskin, and Newman had all understood the central role of criticism. Recently, though, only A.E. Houseman and Hilaire Belloc maintained the tradition of salubrious vitriol.[16]

To be sure, the Inklings lived out Cecil’s wishes, with criticism defining the very friendships of the group, solidifying it against the horrors of the ideological world creeping in and around them in the 1930s.

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[1] Hooper, editorial note, CSL Collected Letters, Vol. 2, 182.

[2] CSL to Charles Williams, March 11, 1936, in CSL Collected Letters, 2:183.

[3] Herbert W. Horwell, “News and Views of Literary London,” New York Times (March 12, 1939), 97.

[4] Orville Prescott, “Book of the Times,” New York Times (March 9, 1949), 23.

[5] Orville Prescott, “Book of the Times,” New York Times (March 9, 1949), 23.

[6] Cecil quoted in Orville Prescott, “Book of the Times,” New York Times (March 9, 1949), 23.

[7] London Times (January 3, 1986); and Dictionary of National Biography 10:718.

[8] DNB, 10: 718; and London Times (January 3, 1986).

[9] Lord David Cecil, “Foreword,” to Hugh Trevor-Roper, ed., Essays in British History: Presented to Sir Keith Feiling (New York: St. Martin’s, 1965), v.

[10] Cecil, “Foreword,” Essays in British History: Presented to Sir Keith Feiling, vi-vii.

[11] Lord David Cecil, “Beauty Unsought,” in David Cleghorn Thomson and F.W. Bateson, eds., Oxford Poetry, 1923 (Oxford, ENG: Basil Blackwell, 1923), 15.

[12] See, for example, “Poet on London Barge,” New York Times (January 17, 1931), 8.

[13] London Times (December 9, 1924), 16.

[14] New York Times (May 23, 1930), 9; NYT (October 14, 1932), 16; and London Times (May 23, 1930), 21.

[15] “The Art of Cursing,” London Times (December 5, 1930), 11.

[16] “The Art of Cursing,” London Times (December 5, 1930), 11.

The featured image is a photograph of Lord David Cecil from 1954, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The photo has been slightly modified for color.

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